Wexford man was a giant of his time

Wexford man Robert Brennan, who played a key role in the 1916 Rising.
Wexford man Robert Brennan, who played a key role in the 1916 Rising.

Robert Brennan was born (1881) in John's Gate Street, but his parents Robert and Bridget Brennan, (neé Kearney, of Selskar) moved, and he and his three sisters, Nan, Chrissy and Theresa were reared in the unique little house on the north corner of Upper George Street and Abbey Street.

The Brennan's business had failed and their mother took up dressmaking to support the family. When Bob, a star pupil of the CBS, won a national prize of £20 on the Intermediate Examinations, she opened a small shop in the house with the money. The late Michael Nolan remembered children buying home-made penny toffees there on their way to school further up the street.

In an era of giants like Hyde, Griffith, Pearse, Connolly, Redmond, Collins and de Valera, Bob Brennan holds his own for achievement. He was Commanding Officer in Enniscorthy during the Rising and held responsibility for publicity and propaganda during the Anglo-Irish War as he was an excellent journalist. He was also a playwright, and novelist. His most public role was as ambassador in Washington during World War Two. A patriotic man of the highest integrity, he was insightful, innovative, and resourceful. Widely read, in his youth he was into drama, light opera, dancing and socialising and very popular with the local girls.

In 1898, Bob became a clerk in the County Surveyor's office. To better himself he attended the Technical School at night to matriculate for the Royal University where he qualified and returned as Assistant County Surveyor in 1906 at 25 years of age.

The '98 commemorations changed the course of his life when he sang his own Irish translation of 'Who Fears to Speak of '98' at a concert. It was the talk of the town. No one had heard a song in Irish in 50 years, and Nicky Cosgrave, a baker at 53 Nth. Main Street promptly roped him into the Gaelic League. Douglas Hyde made him a teacher soon after.

Irish language studies led him to see that Ireland was a distinct nation. He read Arthur Griffith's paper 'The United Irishman' about the principles of nationality and self-reliance. When Griffith founded Sinn Fein [We Ourselves] in 1905 Bob and his friends flung themselves into developing the organisation in the county and he became its County Secretary.

The stagnating IRB was also invigorated and Bob and friends were soon sworn into 'the organisation' by Sean T. O'Kelly in Barker's of South Main Street possibly in 1908. Ability showed, and he was appointed County Secretary of the IRB as well.

At heart Bob was a born journalist and creative writer and produced countless articles, editorials, and pamphlets, as well as several plays and novels. His 'Bystander' played in the Abbey and 'Goodnight Mr O'Donnell', played at the Olympia and Peacock. In his later years he wrote two autobiographical works - 'Allegiance', an informative and witty insider account of the revolutionary period in Wexford town and, 'Ireland Standing Firm', which deals with his time as Ambassador in Washington.

He resigned as surveyor in principled protest at the dismissal of his superior and was immediately head-hunted by William Sears, Sinn Féiner and owner-editor of the Echo, as their reporter from Wexford.

To earn extra money, he wrote a hugely successful series for Ireland's Own featuring a detective named 'Crubeen Patch' under the pseudonym Selskar Kearney.

It reputedly pushed circulation of the thriving young weekly from 30,000 to 80,000.

Ireland's Own was founded in 1902. Its name is a call for cultural self-respect and comes from the same Irish Ireland stable as Griffith's 'We Ourselves' or in Irish, Sinn Féin.

John Walshe, the magazine's owner, made it clear Ireland's Own would 'not be by any means run on narrow lines, but will be broad and instructive - a journal that may be taken and perused with advantage by all persons in Ireland.'

His stated aim of being of benefit to all persons - men and women - was in tune with the various groups to which Bob Brennan's generation was turning.

Gaelic League classes were already co-educational and the developing cultural revolution was already peopled with significant numbers of determined women, one of whom was Úna Bolger who grew up in the rural cradle of the Irish Countrywomen's Association

Úna's father was John Bolger, of Coolnaboy, Oylegate, a formidable Land League leader. She was a politically advanced young lady when she left Enniscorthy Loreto.

She persuaded William Sears to give her a column in the Echo. It was a huge step for a woman and speaks volumes about Sears. She was a nationalist and feminist. Her monthly column began in July 1908 and she joined Maud Gonne's Iníní na hÉireann that same month becoming Secretary.

Women's rights in the home and in public life were her main concern. She was 19. She and Bob married that June.

The legendary world-class Wexford horse-trainer and breeder Jim Bolger is her nephew.

The Irish Volunteers emerged in 1913 in response to the formation of the UVF in Ulster a year before. How to respond to the Great War split the Volunteers a year later. The great majority supported John Redmond and left.

In March 1916, Pearse met the county's Irish Volunteer leadership in Enniscorthy to advise that the Rising was close. He promoted Bob to Brigade Quartermaster of the Wexford Brigade.

When the time came, the leadership held a Council of War and appointed him their Commanding Officer. Una, in Cumann na mBan, was on duty all during the Rising. She was one of three women who raised the Tricolour on the Athenaeum.

The Volunteers held Enniscorthy and Ferns for three days. When Pearse's surrender order arrived on Saturday April 29, Brennan insisted it be verified. When this was done, he surrendered to Col. French of Newbay. As leader he was cool, cautious and collegiate.

He and five others signed the surrender on Monday May 1. All six were sentenced to death but it was later commuted and all were sent to Dartmoor. They were released from Pentonville Prison in the General Amnesty of June 1917.

Returning to Wexford, Bob resumed his job as reporter and set to work reorganising the Volunteers.

But his abilities had been spotted by others, including de Valera, during his term in prison. They had struck up a friendship in Dartmoor.

January 1918 saw Bob appointed as Sinn Féin's National Director of Publicity and three months later he was called on to act as Sinn Féin Director of Elections for the crucial General Election of 1918. It was a momentous appointment.

The whole country sensed it was critical. Wexford Corporation voted him their congratulations. No one really knew how it would all turn out. Since the previous election in 1910 the voting age for men had been reduced from 30 to 21. Women of 30 years or over could now vote. The electorate had trebled from about 700,000 to around two million. Una had just qualified to vote by three months.

Parliament was dissolved the day after the war ended.

The election followed on December 14. Bob was arrested and despatched untried to Gloucester Jail. But it was too late. His work was done. He had drawn up the Sinn Féin Manifesto and it had been posted up from Cape Clear to the Mizen promising a Republic, a withdrawal of representation from Westminster and a National Assembly.

The result was a landslide for Sinn Féin and Dáil Éireann was convened in the Mansion House, on January 21 1919. Frank Gallagher captured the implication: Ireland had declared herself free!

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