Brendan Bracken: The Irishman who served Churchill
Emerging from a troubled childhood in Ireland, Brendan Bracken made his way up the British power ladder, becoming Churchill’s right-hand man and closest confidant. Despite his high acclaim, Bracken forever tried to turn his back on his Irish heritage.
Brendan Bracken was Winston Churchill’s closest friend and political confidant as well as the minister of information in Churchill’s wartime government. He was the only Irish Catholic to ever reach such a position of political power in the 20th century British government. He was also the founder of the immensely successful British newspapers, the Financial Times and the Economist.
However, despite his sterling reputation in London, Bracken remained ever elusive when questioned about his personal history. In his quest to climb the social ladder in Britain, Bracken renounced the Catholic faith of his ancestors, and played down, sometimes even outright denying, his Irish background. In Ireland he became an unmentionable. An acquaintance Bracken had snubbed said that he was like a Jew in Hitler’s government. He clearly wasn’t a popular man in his home country, but the analogy also highlighted the very peculiar contradiction within the man.
Bracken was most unusual in that he not only denied his background and heritage but he actively strove to become a part of the establishment of its enemy. Added to this, Bracken’s father, JK Bracken, a prosperous Templemore builder, was a Fenian and a founder member of the GAA. His father died in 1904 when Brendan was only three and his mother moved Brendan, along with his three siblings and two stepsisters, to Dublin’s northside. These formative years undoubtedly had a major influence on one of Ireland’s most enigmatic historic figures.
Bracken’s years growing up in Dublin were troubled from the beginning. Intellectually he showed great promise, but he was unruly and always found himself in trouble. He spent four years with the Christian Brothers at O’Connell School. He constantly mitched, and he organised a gang that vandalised neighbours’ gardens. One story tells of him throwing a boy into the Royal Canal. When he was then packed off to join a Jesuit boarding school in Limerick, he absconded.
In early 1916 Brendan’s widowed mother, unable to cope with him any longer, gave him £14 to go to Australia to join a cousin of his who was a priest. In Australia Bracken led a nomadic existence, constantly being moved between Catholic religious communities. He did some teaching, but his main preoccupation was reading. More than anything, we wanted to educate himself.
When Bracken returned home in 1919 he found himself in a much different Ireland. On top of this he discovered that his mother had remarried. He decided to move away again, this time going to Liverpool, posing as an Australian four years older than he was so that he could get a teaching post.
The first sign that Bracken had set his sight on higher things came following his teaching position. With the money he had earned he immediately sought admission to Sedbergh, a public school in Yorkshire. But it wasn’t an education he was after, he already had that, what he was looking for was status. He polished up his name to “Bredon Rendall Bracken” and said that he was 15, when at this stage he was 19. He was admitted, but he only stayed at the school for a single term. But that’s all he needed. He now had the one thing that was essential to success in British politics, the important label of “public school boy”.
Following this, Bracken returned once again to teaching. He was a man of immense physical stature, standing at over six foot tall. He had a commanding, sometimes intimidating, presence. For many he was an imposing and overbearing figure. “My first impression,” recalled one colleague, “was that I was looking at a Polynesian with dyed hair, for he had a large mop of red hair that stood out as a kind of halo; his features almost Negroid were like those of a Papuan”. But whatever was said of his appearance, it was clear to anyone who met him that he was a very knowledgeable man.
Bracken’s rise was quick. Telling various fairy tales about his origins, he set out to become part of the British establishment. He volunteered to organise an election campaign for Churchill, and the two men were soon so close that it was rumoured they were father and son. It got the point where even Churchill’s wife questioned him on the rumours.
Bracken also established himself in publishing. He built a group of quality newspapers, including the Financial News (which later merged with the Financial Times) and the Economist, for whom he devised a model charter of editorial independence.
Bracken was the prototypical social climber. So much so that Evelyn Waugh modelled his character Rex Mottram on the name-dropping Bracken. An acquaintance said to Bracken: “Everything about you is phony, Brendan; even your hair, which looks like a wig, isn’t.” Still, he lived a highly comfortable life in his newfound wealth. He established himself in a townhouse in Westminster with a faithful butler and cook and was driven about by a chauffeur. He even began acquiring works of art, including a portrait of Edmund Burke, whom he hinted was a relative. Yet, Bracken remained an unattached bachelor and his private life, to this day, remains something of a mystery.
In 1929 Bracken was elected MP for North Paddington. However, his opponents saw that there was something false about the background that the press presented for him, and so they spread the rumour that he was actually a Polish Jew. For the first time since arriving in England Bracken was forced to exhibit is Templemore birth certificate. However, unsurprisingly, Bracken sent out the circular that tried to circumvent the revelation of his Irishness: “Mr Bracken is British by birth and comes of a long succession of generations of British stock without any intermixture of foreign blood”.
Bracken’s relationship to Churchill was solidified when he sided with Churchill during his break with the Tory leadership over the debate of India’s self-governance. Bracken like Churchill was a devout imperialist. Likewise, Bracken stood with Churchill when his advocated rearmament and opposed the appeasement of Hitler. As Bracken later remarked, they were, “a party of two”.
Bracken played a major role in Churchill’s rise to the position of prime minister in 1940. During Churchill’s time in political wilderness, Bracken was a consistent source of good humour and conversation, which lifted Churchill out of the depression that assailed him. To Churchill he was always lovingly referred to as “Dear Brendan”; For Bracken, Churchill may have been the father figure he didn’t have during his turbulent years in Ireland.
During the war, Bracken was constantly at his master’s side, briefing the press, and promoting Churchill’s interests. He even moved into a bunker annexed to 10 Downing Street. There he acted as Churchill’s midnight confidant, wielding a tremendous amount of influence over the cantankerous Churchill. As an insider, Bracken had newfound respect from those who initially had distrusted him. Bracken, as others observed, had the ability to restrain the erratic and headstrong Churchill and quell any arising confrontations. It was through Bracken’s friendship with influential Americans that the wheels of Anglo-American co-operation began to move.
It was through his role in the ministry of information that Bracken won the full acclaim of the British establishment. Bracken was a master spin doctor and knew exactly how to use the press for his advantage, while at the same time standing up to Churchill to ensure that the press had access to information and relative freedom to print what they wanted.
At the end of the war, Bracken was briefly first lord of the admiralty. He was a leading Tory spokesman at the post-war general election and was among those most blamed for their crushing defeat. On the opposition front bench after 1945, he was a relentless critic of nationalisation and high taxation. He opposed the leftward drift of the Conservative Party. Anticipating Thatcherism, he was a champion of laissez-faire and enterprising businessmen.
When Bracken was offered the position of colonial secretary in Churchill’s last government he refused the position, due to ill health, and retired from politics. He was made Viscount Bracken but refused to take his seat in the House of Lords, which he dubbed “the morgue”. Bracken remained close to Churchill and masterminded the press cover-up of his stroke in 1953.
For all the trouble of his youth, Bracken was a man of high integrity and ingenuity. Even today his legacy can still be seen in the high standard to which the Financial Times is held, which he presided over for years. Bracken himself was a gifted writer; a talent that can be seen from the many letters he left behind.
Despite turning his back on his home country, Bracken remained devoted to his mother until the very end. His affection for her can be read in his letters to her that she never failed to receive from him. They showed a side to the shrewd redhead that no one in Britain had ever been privy too. When his mother died in 1928 he cut his ties with Ireland and never returned again. However, he continued to support the needier members of his family, despite never seeing them.
Bracken’s politics never much reflected his Irish heritage either. Like Churchill, he admired Kevin O’Higgins, but he wasn’t a fan of later Irish political leaders. In 1928 he opposed the surrender of the ports retained by the British, claiming, “it would alienate our good friends in the North”. He also condemned de Valera and “those lousy neutrals” during the second World War, claiming that Irish overseas were ashamed of the attitude at home.
On his deathbed he ordered his nurses not to admit Irish priests (including his own nephew), who longed to reconcile him to his childhood faith. “The blackshirts of God are after me,” he exclaimed. There was no turning back.
Despite the heights he reached, in his 50s Bracken had become melancholic, fearful and reclusive. It was as if, in the end, what he had achieved meant very little to him. “I shall die young and be forgotten,” he proclaimed. In 1958, at the age of 57, all his years of heavy smoking finally caught up with him and he was claimed by cancer.
It is ironic that Brendan is now less remembered in England than in Ireland. But while as he played his role in British public life admirably, the tale that will stick is the tale of the Irishman who wanted to make himself British. However, despite this, he will be as remembered here for his achievements as much as his denial of his own nationality. We have never been known in Ireland to turn our backs completely on anyone who has accomplished anything abroad. And there is particular glee in idea that one of our own might have fooled the British into thinking he was one of theirs.
The first recognition of Bracken’s achievements was signalled by Christy Cooney, the president of the GAA, in 2011 at that great pilgrimage of reconciliation when Queen Elizabeth was welcomed at Croke Park, once the high citadel of Irish Anglophobia. As evidence of the entanglement of our two peoples that transcended past divisions, he mentioned the strange fact that the son of a founder of their association had served as a minister when Elizabeth’s father was king in the heroic years of the second World War. This would have struck a chord with Her Majesty, as she had dined with Bracken as Churchill’s guest at 10 Downing Street in the first year of her long reign.
Brendan Bracken will always remain an obscure figure at the margins of Irish history. However, his achievements as both a politician and a publisher, despite his own prediction that he would be forgotten, will likely live on, encased in the story of the Irishman who served Churchill.
Editor’s Update: Following the publication of this story we were happy to learn here at the Garda Post that Brendan Bracken’s elder brother, Peter Bracken, remained in Ireland and served in An Garda Síochána as Chief Superintendent in the 1920’s and early 1930’s.