The Tipperary man who lied his way to Winston Churchill’s side
Brendan Bracken gave fictitious accounts of his background and became part of the British establishment
Brendan Bracken, minister of information in the Churchill administration. Photograph: Corbis
Many Irish emigrants throughout history have promoted or even exploited their Irishness. Not so Brendan Bracken, who distanced himself from his nationality to become Winston Churchill’s right-hand man.
He was born in 1901 in Templemore, Co Tipperary. After his father’s death, his mother took the family to live in Glasnevin. In 1915 he was sent to Mungret College, a Jesuit boarding school near Limerick. He ran away on several occasions, staying in local hotels under a false name.
At the end of 1915, Bracken went to Australia with £14 in his pocket. He sought admission to Riverview, a fashionable Jesuit school in Sydney, claiming that he had been educated in Clongowes in Dublin, only to be exposed by a priest who had just come out from Clongowes.
Bracken moved to Liverpool in 1919 and found employment as a teacher, claiming he had been to the University of Sydney. With his savings he was able to gain admission to Sedbergh, a public school in Yorkshire, stating that his parents had perished in a bush fire in Australia.
In 1922 he moved to London and took charge of the Illustrated Review. Covering political and social events, it gave Bracken the opportunity to meet prominent people. In 1923 the editor of the Observer introduced him to Winston Churchill, who had decided to contest Leicester West in the general election. Bracken offered to be his campaign manager. Their friendship was soon so close that Bracken was rumoured to be Churchill’s natural son. Churchill’s wife Clementine disliked Bracken and discouraged the friendship.
Meanwhile, Bracken built up his career in publishing. He became a director of Eyre and Spottiswoode (1926), starting The Banker, a monthly magazine, and acquiring the Financial News and a half-share in the Economist. He acquired a home near the Houses of Parliament.
In 1929 Bracken ran as conservative candidate for North Paddington, winning the seat by 528 votes. His background was a subject of speculation, and he gave different fictitious versions of it. Ireland figured in none of them, though he did remain in constant touch with his mother.
In parliament Bracken was an enthusiastic imperialist. During the 1930s, when Churchill disagreed with the party leadership on Indian self-government and on what he saw as a policy of appeasement to Hitler’s Germany, Bracken was his sole political ally. In 1939 Churchill joined Neville Chamberlain’s war cabinet; Bracken became his private secretary, continuing as such when Churchill became prime minister. He moved to the prime minister’s residence for the duration of the war.
He often acted as a go-between with other politicians and journalists. In July 1941 Bracken became minister for information. He won over most of the media by giving them more news, often on a confidential basis, and censorship was kept to a minimum.
At the end of the second World War he joined the cabinet as first lord of the admiralty. But he was accused of provoking Churchill to take extreme positions, and blamed when the conservatives were defeated in the general election. Later he resigned his seat in the House of Commons and was created a peer, but never took his seat in the House of Lords. He remained close to political events and was deeply involved in concealing the severe stroke that Churchill suffered in 1953, so that he could carry on as prime minister.
After the war, the Financial News group acquired the Financial Times and Bracken was returned as chairman. From 1950, he was chairman of the board of governors of Sedbergh, where he financed the restoration of an 18th-century building, complete with inscription, “Remember Winston Churchill”.
In January 1958, Bracken, a heavy smoker, was diagnosed with throat cancer. He died on August 8th, and his ashes were scattered on Romney Marsh in Kent. We will never know the full extent of his influence on events in the second World War; on his instruction, his papers were burnt by his chauffeur.
Based on Charles Lysaght’s biography of Brendan Bracken (edited for this article by Clare McCarthy) in the Royal Irish Academy’s Dictionary of Irish Biography