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Dublin: 18°C Monday 18 October 2021

This Irishman was at Churchill's right hand during WW2... so why is he only being celebrated now?

An exhibition celebrating the life of Brendan Bracken is on show at Dublin’s Little Museum.

IMG_0244 Brendan Bracken Source: TheJournal.ie/Michael Sheils Mcnamee

“A SHOWMAN, CHARISMATIC, completely unreliable and untrustworthy”.

Sitting down with TheJournal.ie in the middle of the Little Museum’s new exhibition on Irish politician Brendan Bracken, former British minister Jonathan Aitken is reflecting – but not on the politician whose life is being celebrated on the walls.

Rather he is talking about a figure currently hitting headlines on both sides of the Irish sea.

He is, of course, referring to Boris Johnson.

“Boris has one or two things in common with Bracken in that he is a bit of a buccaneer,” Aitken says.

I think he would have buccaneered his way through the negotiations with Europe, rather than Theresa May who may be more cautious and careful.

So who was Brendan Bracken?

Born in Tipperary in 1901, the redhaired diplomat lived out a tumultuous youth and was sent to Australia as a teenager right around the time of the 1916 Rising.

Returning to the United Kingdom a few years later, he cut a course that would see him become one of Winston Churchill’s closest confidants, serve as an MP for more than 20 years and act as Minister of Information at the height of the Second World War from 1941 to 1945.

Oh – and he also founded the modern version of the Financial Times.

IMG_0253 The paper that Bracken founded marking his death on its front page in 1958 Source: TheJournal.ie/Michael Sheils Mcnamee

Also speaking to TheJournal.ie about his life is his nephew Brendan Bracken, named after his uncle.

While he may now have a big enough legacy to warrant a retrospective of his life’s work – it wasn’t always the case.

“When I was growing up in the 1950s, the early 60s in Ireland,” his nephew says, “It was interesting.

“Brendan Bracken was seen as above all as a man who lost his faith.

It was a very Catholic country here and I remember my mother talking about him, and that she prayed for Brendan.

Although born here, throughout his life Bracken kept his Irish identity at arms length, preferring to spend his time in the upper echelons of British society.

“In the 50s – it’s changed now thankfully – but he was sort of a non-figure in Ireland… he was seen as a turncoat, he was seen as a man who lost his faith, he wasn’t really mentioned very much,” his nephew says.

Brendan Bracken jr Brendan Bracken (nephew of Brendan Bracken Source: TheJournal.ie/Michael Sheils McNamee

Jonathan Aitken, who is speaking this evening at the Little Museum about Bracken, has quite the CV himself.

Like Bracken, he was a Conservative MP for more than 20 years and served as part of John Major’s cabinet in the early 1990s.

Born in Dublin, Aitken’s baptism was attended by the then Taoiseach Éamon de Valera, an acquaintance of his grandfather Lord Rugby – the first British representative in Ireland after the formation of the State.

As a child, he spent three years on a ward in Cappagh Hospital after contracting TB – and to this day still works with the hospital. 

jonathan aitkin - 1 Jonathan Aitken at the exhibition Source: TheJournal.ie/Jonathan Aitken

“I’ve been fascinated by Brendan Bracken for much of my life,” he says, explaining that he lived in Lord North Street in London in a house where Bracken once resided.

For Aitken, the importance of Bracken’s role in Churchill’s own legacy cannot be overstated.

“During the thirties, Bracken and Churchill became very close friends,” he explains.

It was a friendship between an older man, Churchill, and a much younger man, Bracken. He gave Churchill something that he badly needed, which was youthful conviction, and loyalty, and fun, and gaiety and brilliance of conversation.

“And that was very important, because Churchill in the thirties was about as down as any politician can be down.

“His reputation was on the floor, he didn’t seem to have any political future, he had very little money, and for that reason be pretty much became Bracken’s lodger in Lord North Street and stayed there for years.”

IMG_0251 An example of the style of propaganda Bracken would have overseen during his time as Minister for Information Source: TheJournal.ie/Michael Sheils Mcnamee

IMG_0250 Much of the propaganda would have promoted frugality Source: TheJournal.ie/Michael Sheils Mcnamee

Bracken’s politics were of a different age, but Aitken – a long-time campaigner for Britain to leave the EU – is willing to punt that he would have been in favour of last week’s Brexit vote.

“I’ve noticed after a few hours in Dublin that there seems to be a mood of rather anxious handwringing about the British decision to go,” he says.

Bracken would have had no truck with such attitudes. Why? Because he was adventurer, he was an entrepreneur – and he would have been full of the advantages.

And as far as Britain and Ireland’s relationship goes – Aitken doesn’t see any problems on the horizon.

“We’ve been getting along, up and down relationship… for quite a long time now. We’ve had free movement of people between our two countries. Even during the worst of the Troubles English people came and went. Irish people came and went.

I have no doubt that the British-Irish relationship won’t be damaged at all. It may even be enhanced and see us doing more business together.

IMG_0247 Bracken didn't have very high hopes for his legacy during his lifetime Source: TheJournal.ie/Michael Sheils Mcnamee

Interestingly, while it was the British government that Bracken’s loyalty was tied to – the way his nephew sees it, a simple twist of fate could have seen things transpiring very differently.

Bracken’s father, Joseph Bracken, had been a founder of the GAA, and was once arrested for membership of the IRB.

He died in 1904, too soon to pass his Republican beliefs onto his son.

“If his father had lived,” Brendan speculates, “he could have been out in 1916 in the GPO rather than ending up a Tory! It’s just a little twist of history. You don’t know.”

Another twist of fate is that now – in this centenary year – his memory is being examined once again, something Brendan reckons fits the overall picture of his uncle’s legacy.

It just shows you we’ve all grown up in Ireland. The Ireland I grew up in he was a turncoat and all the rest of it. Now he’s celebrated with this exhibition so as an Irishman who made a wonderful career outside the country.

Anyone interested in finding out can head along to the Little Museum tomorrow at 11.30am to hear Brendan Bracken explain a bit more about his uncle. More details can be found on their website. The exhibition will continue to run throughout the summer. 

Read: A Dublin museum has saved the belongings of one of Ireland’s best writers

Also: Famous Irish movie costumes saved from “dying in an attic” or being dumped

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