The Irish spoofer who was Churchill’s right-hand man
Bracken, who was brought up in Ireland before turning up in Australia and Britain, spun fairy tales about his origins and rose to become part of the British establishment
Brendan Bracken, Winston Churchill’s closest friend in politics and minister of information in his wartime government, is unique as the only person brought up as an Irish Catholic to have served in a 20th-century British government. As such, and as the founding father of a newspaper empire that includes the Financial Times and the Economist, the only London papers that boast worldwide readership, he wielded immense influence.
However, he renounced the Catholic faith of his ancestors and played down, sometimes to the point of denial, his Irish background. The reaction that this evoked in the Ireland of his day was well expressed by a snubbed acquaintance, who remarked sourly that he was like a Jew in Hitler’s government. He was, in short, an unmentionable.
What made Bracken’s metamorphosis even stranger was that his father, JK Bracken, a prosperous Templemore builder, was a Fenian and a founder member of the GAA. Brendan was only three when his father died in 1904 and his mother moved the family of four children and two stepdaughters to Dublin’s northside.
The young delinquent
Young Brendan spent four years with the Christian Brothers at O’Connell School. He was a delinquent if engaging child. He mitched from school and organised a gang that vandalised neighbours’ gardens. He once threw another boy into the Royal Canal. When packed off to Mungret, a Jesuit boarding school in Limerick, he absconded.
In despair, early in 1916 his widowed mother gave him £14 to go to Australia, where a cousin was a priest. For three years the adolescent Brendan led a peripatetic existence there, moving between Catholic religious communities, doing some teaching and reading incessantly to educate himself.
After a brief visit home in 1919, when he discovered that his mother had remarried, he settled in Liverpool. Posing as an Australian four years older than he was, he got a teaching post.
With the money he earned he turned up at Sedbergh, a public school in Yorkshire, seeking admission. He varnished up his name to “Brendon Rendall Bracken” and gave his age as 15 when he was in fact 19. He claimed that his parents had died in a bush fire in Australia and had left him money to complete his education. He was admitted but remained for only one term. It was enough to give him the important label “a public school boy”.
Next followed further teaching jobs. “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”. Standing over 6ft tall, Bracken had a commanding presence and an intimidating manner, alternatively ingratiating and overbearing, which enabled him to impose himself on people. He was immensely knowledgeable.
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. When questioned by his wife, Churchill offered teasingly to check the dates.
Bracken established himself in publishing, founding the Banker for his firm, and then built up a group of quality newspapers, including the Financial News (later to merge with the Financial Times) and the Economist, for whom he devised a model charter of editorial independence.
He established himself in a townhouse in Westminster with a faithful butler and cook and was driven about by a chauffeur. There was an outsize knocker on the door that betokened the style of life within. He acquired works of art, including a portrait of Edmund Burke, whom he hinted was a relative.
Evelyn Waugh found in the name-dropping Bracken material for Rex Mottram, a social-climbing colonial in his novel Brideshead Revisited. Noting a chameleon-like quality, an acquaintance said: “Everything about you is phony, Brendan; even your hair, which looks like a wig, isn’t.” Once a suitor of a great society lady, he remained an unattached bachelor; his private life remains something of a mystery.
In 1929 Bracken was elected MP for North Paddington, helped in a fierce contest by the votes of local ladies of “easy virtue” whom he described “as the remnant of our once powerful Tory party”. Sensing something bogus in press accounts of his background, opponents spread the rumour that he was a Polish Jew. He was forced to exhibit his Templemore birth certificate on a circular stating that “Mr Bracken is British by birth and comes of a long succession of generations of British stock without any intermixture of foreign blood”.
A party of two
In politics the imperialist Bracken attached himself to Churchill, who had broken with the Tory leadership when he opposed self-government for India and was then isolated advocating rearmament and opposing the appeasement of Hitler. “We were,” Bracken boasted later, “a party of two.”
“Dear Brendan,” as Churchill always called him, with his immense vitality and raucous conversation, was uniquely able to lift Churchill out of the depressions that assailed him during his years in the political wilderness.
When, at the outbreak of war, Churchill joined the government, Bracken was at his side briefing the press and others in his master’s interest. He had a crucial role in the manoeuvres that led to Churchill becoming prime minister in May 1940.
Bracken moved in to live in the bunker annexed to 10 Downing Street. As Churchill’s midnight confidant, he wielded immense influence. Now an insider, he earned the gratitude of many who had distrusted him, including Churchill’s wife, restraining the erratic and headstrong Churchill and heading off confrontations. Through his friendship with influential Americans, Bracken lubricated the wheels of Anglo-American co-operation.
Conscripted by Churchill to a languishing ministry of information, Bracken won universal acclaim. A master spin doctor decades before the term was invented, he wooed the press privately and in conference with titbits of inside information. He stood up to Churchill to ensure that the press and the BBC had access to news and reasonable freedom.
At the end of the war, Bracken was briefly first lord of the admiralty. He was a leading Tory spokesmen at the postwar 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.
In 1951, pleading ill-health, Bracken refused office as colonial secretary in Churchill’s last government and retired from politics. He was created Viscount Bracken but never took his seat in the House of Lords, which in his irreverent way he called the Morgue. He remained close to Churchill and masterminded the press cover-up of his stroke in 1953.
Despite the pointless lying of his young life, Bracken was a man of probity. Insistence on high standards was his acknowledged legacy to the Financial Times, over which he continued to preside. A gifted phrasemaker himself, he loved good writing, and his letters make good reading.
If, in his heyday, Bracken was well described as a fantasist whose fantasies came true. In his 50s he became melancholic, fearful and reclusive. He had achieved his ambition of being an honoured member of the British establishment, but it was as if it had turned to sand in his hands.
“I shall die young and be forgotten,” he refrained. He paid the penalty for heavy smoking when cancer claimed him in 1958 at the age of 57.
Despite his abrasive manner, Bracken inspired immense affection and was remembered for many kindly actions, helping the obscure as well as his friends. The sum of £42,000 was raised from those who knew him to fund a reading room commemorating him in the new Churchill College in Cambridge.
Although he turned his back on his homeland, Bracken remained totally devoted to his mother. His moving, affectionate letters to her up to her premature death in 1928, recently purchased by the Little Museum, are a highlight of its exhibition on Bracken and reveal a side of him unknown to his British contemporaries. After her death in 1928, he ceased to visit Ireland. He continued to support needy members of his family while avoiding personal contact with them.
Like Churchill, Bracken admired Kevin O’Higgins, but he had no time for later Irish political leaders. He opposed the surrender in 1938 of the ports retained by the British, saying “it would alienate our good friends in the North”. He condemned de Valera and “those lousy neutrals” during the second World War, claiming that people of Irish stock overseas were heartily ashamed of Eire’s attitude.
In 1958 he pleaded with his fellow trustees of the National Gallery not to agree to the return of the Lane pictures to Dublin.
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.
It is ironic that Brendan is now less remembered in the England he idealised than in Ireland, where his life story commands interest as the prototype of the Irish person who wants to make himself British. That this no longer makes him unmentionable or prevents recognition of his 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.
The exhibition at the Little Museum, with its intriguing memorabilia of Bracken’s strange odyssey, sends out the same message that old insecurities need no longer imprison us.
- Churchill and the Irishman is at the Little Museum of Dublin until September 25th
WHO WAS BRENDAN BRACKEN? ‘IMAGINE WALTER MITTY IN THE WHITE HOUSE’
Brendan Bracken talked his way into the heart of the British establishment. He was one of the most mysterious and influential Irishmen of the 20th century. Over the next three months, Winston Churchill’s right-hand man will be introduced to a new generation of global adventurers, in Dublin, the city where he grew up.
Everyone knows something about Brendan Bracken, and it’s usually wrong. The man himself is partly to blame. Bracken was a champion spoofer. When his fibs were exposed, he would cheerfully dismiss them as the product of a fabulous imagination.
However, he was also a man of substance, rising from modest roots – he was born in Tipperary and grew up in Dublin – to become a successful newspaper publisher and Conservative MP before the age of 30.
During the second World War, Bracken was minister of information in Churchill’s government. (Imagine Walter Mitty in the White House.) He also published both the Financial Times and the Economist. And along the way, Bracken wrote letters to his mother in Ireland. Never seen in public before, the letters reveal the inner thoughts of a loving young man in a hurry.
In producing this exhibition we are not trying to reclaim Bracken for Ireland. It would be convenient if he had reconciled himself to the country of his birth. But he didn’t.
The closest confidant of Britain’s greatest wartime leader was an introverted showman, neither English nor Australian, as he often claimed, and the twists and turns of his acrobatic life are an affront to anyone with a narrow view of what it means to be Irish. Ultimately this amazing story enhances our understanding of the complex shared history of these islands. Trevor White, director of the Little Museum of Dublin