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Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Brenan, John O’Neill (1856–1940)

by Jennifer Harrison

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Supplementary Volume, (MUP), 2005

John O’Neill Brenan (1856-1940), public servant, was born on 27 March 1856 at Garryowen, Balmain, Sydney, eldest son of nine children of John O'Neill Brenan, an Irish-born barrister, and his second wife Mary Elizabeth, née Fitzgerald, and grandson of John Ryan Brenan. Educated under Professor W. J. Stephens at Sydney Grammar School until his father's death in 1869 young John entered the Queensland Public Service on 17 June 1872 as a junior clerk in the Government Savings Bank.

On 22 April 1879 at St Thomas's Church of England, Toowong, Brisbane, he married Gertrude Georgina (Ina), daughter of William Leworthy Drew; they were to have six children. Brenan worked for the Stamp Office, in Treasury and with the curator of intestate estates before his appointment as chief clerk in the immigration office in December 1884. Given additional responsibility as Pacific Islanders inspector in 1890, after he learned pidgin he heard many tragic recruitment stories. By August 1893 Brenan was immigration agent and in charge of the government labour bureau and relief, as well as the Pacific Island labour branch. Three years later he was for several months the first inspector under the Factories and Shops Act of 1896. Courteous, compassionate and wary of red-tape inflexibility, he handled difficult situations diplomatically, making lifelong friends from among the thousands he assisted on their arrival.

In 1906 Prime Minister Alfred Deakin took charge of the Pacific Island Labour Department and promised Brenan a free hand to conduct the deportation of over 6000 islanders, and direct access through the permanent secretary of the Department of External Affairs Atlee Hunt. Although doubts were harboured whether 'Jack o' the Islands' was sufficiently tough for the acrimonious job, later he was glowingly commended for the trouble-free evictions. With an understanding of the Islanders and trust in his own officers, he urged empathetic exemptions and efficiently achieved the desired result. By 1908 the deportations were completed and he returned to the State civil service.

As Brenan had charge of admissions to Dunwich Benevolent Society, he also administered the indigents' allowance and later supervised the introduction of old age pensions. Despite seeking promotion in other branches, he continued as immigration agent and at the labour bureau until his retirement in March 1923, by which time the Commonwealth had assumed the main responsibilities for immigration. He then was appointed on a yearly basis as a temporary clerk in his old department until seconded as secretary of the New Settlers' League on 22 April 1929. He retired on 31 December 1929.

As a young man Brenan had excelled at amateur athletics, long-distance running and football. He was a lifelong naturalist and accurate observer, writing many newspaper articles on Queensland birds. Brenan died on 12 March 1940 in Brisbane and was cremated. His wife, three sons and two daughters survived him.

Select Bibliography

  • Queensland Naturalist, Nov 1922, p 120
  • Courier-Mail (Brisbane), 13 Mar 1923, 29 Mar 1923, p 6, 13 Mar 1940, p 6
  • Immigration Dept, register of officers, IMM/258 and Public Service Board file, A/53979, file 75 (Queensland State Archives)
  • private information.

Citation details

Jennifer Harrison, 'Brenan, John O’Neill (1856–1940)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 2005, accessed online 19 September 2020.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Supplementary Volume, (MUP), 2005

View the front pages for the Supplementary Volume

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