Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Brennan, Thomas Cornelius (1866–1944)

by Kevin Ryan

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 7, (MUP), 1979

Thomas Cornelius Brennan is a minor entry in this article

Francis Brennan (1873-1950), lawyer and politician, was born at Upper Emu Creek (Sedgwick) near Bendigo, Victoria, eleventh of the thirteen children of Michael Brennan and his wife Mary, née Maher. Michael (1828-1902), born at Mount Charles, Donegal, Ireland, spent some years in Glasgow, Scotland, during and after the famine, and in 1852 migrated to Victoria, keeping a shorthand diary of the voyage. He mined at Bendigo, worked on the roads and as a carrier, and in 1857 bought a property at Upper Emu Creek, which he named Mary Vale, and worked as a mixed farm. Mary (1838-1920) was born at Thurles, Tipperary, and had a convent education to the age of 15. She migrated with her widowed mother in 1853, settled in Melbourne, and married Michael there on 14 April 1856.

Farming at Mary Vale was, at best, moderately successful and, after three terms as president of Strathfieldsaye Shire, Michael became shire secretary and engineer in 1882. All the boys except the eldest, Joseph (1857-1946), were forced to make their careers elsewhere. Michael Austin (1861-1913), blazed the trail for the family in Melbourne; he completed his B.A. in 1891 and LL.M. in 1898 and worked in the Crown Law Department. Thomas, William and Henry (1869-1936) became journalists; Richard (1868-1950) joined his father at Strathfieldsaye Shire and succeeded him as secretary in 1898. None of the girls married. Ellen (1858-1947) kept house for her brothers in Melbourne; she enjoyed some reputation as a scholar. Mary Catherine (May) (1874-1963) also kept house for the unmarried members of the family, notably Anna.

Frank Brennan stayed on the farm, continuing his education part time under the tuition of a remarkable primary teacher Henry Beetson, until his failure in some of his first year law subjects in 1897 forced him to Melbourne to sit for supplementary exams and thereafter to attend the university full time. The security and richness of his early years developed in him an intense loyalty to his family and the Catholic religion. His family's breadth of ideas opinions and personalities provided a stimulation and a rapport that were not matched elsewhere for him. His Church's certainties supplied a stable framework for his morality and gave purpose to his existence.

Brennan graduated LL.B. in 1901 and quickly established a modestly successful legal practice which specialized in union business, particularly after the foundation of the Commonwealth Court of Conciliation and Arbitration in Melbourne in 1905. He gained prominence as a Catholic layman through his gifted speaking and his activities in the Catholic Young Men's Society, of which he was president in 1906. He developed no serious legal ambitions to counterbalance an almost inevitable move towards a political career. He joined the Australian Labor Party in 1907 and first stood for pre-selection in 1908. After failing to gain pre-selection for the Federal seat of Batman in 1910, he contested Bendigo against the redoubtable Sir John Quick. He lost narrowly, but entered the Federal parliament in 1911 by winning a by-election in Batman.

In many ways Brennan was not a typical Labor politician of his day. He was better educated and better spoken; nor did he make any effort to develop a 'common touch'. As the first Victorian lawyer to enter the ranks of the Federal Parliamentary Labor Party he belonged to a suspect profession to which he remained loyal—and even exceptional in his deep respect for the law's ramifications. From this, and his rural background, stemmed some of the conservative elements in his political conduct and views. He remained an individualist whose modesty and warmth often nestled behind his volatility, his biting wit, and his acid powers of sarcasm.

Brennan's good fortune in securing what became a safe seat, his being on the 'right' side in the 1916 Labor split, his later association with Scullin and the moderates in the party, plus his undoubted ability, all helped to provide an unchallenged place within the Labor Party. He had little reason to become involved in the internal workings of the party, and he showed a remarkable lack of inclination to do so. He was without intense personal ambition: he served the Labor cause as one who loved that cause—not as one who loved the life that had to be led in order to serve it. He regarded himself as a socialist, by which he meant he stood for the democratic reorganization of the Australian economy to serve the needs of the people in an egalitarian manner. His Catholicism shaped his perception of his public role in a broad philosophical way, but not specifically or consciously. He did not join the Catholic Federation, refused to become involved in Catholic education claims, and spoke only once in parliament about Catholics—on a minor matter concerning allegations of preference for them in the public service. Yet he remained prominent as a public figure in his Church's activities, and was a friend of Archbishop Mannix. He always opposed any form of bloc activity within the Labor Party, Catholic or otherwise. He was a Labor politician who was a Catholic, not a Catholic acting as a Labor politician.

At a ceremony performed by Mannix on 30 December 1913, Brennan married Cecilia Mary (Sheila) (1885-1941), daughter of Dr Nicholas O'Donnell, leader of Melbourne's Irish community. They had two children: Mary, who suffered from Down's syndrome and whose care came to dominate her father's existence; and Niall, biographer of Mannix and John Wren.

Brennan first gained political prominence through his early opposition to Australia's involvement in World War I. In July 1915 he was involved in a much-publicized clash with W. A. Watt, who accused him of being 'pigeon-livered'. When he challenged Watt to enlist with him, Watt failed to appear. The coupling of the Irish uprising and the anti-conscription issue in 1916 ignited Brennan's emotions, consumed all his energies, undermined his health, tarred him with an anti-British brush, and increased his natural scepticism of political realists, especially W. M. Hughes. The Labor Party that survived after 1916 savoured a righteous idealism embodied by men like Brennan. He became a major figure, often brilliant and effective in his oratory and criticism, during the long years Labor spent in Opposition to 1929.

When the Scullin government was elected in 1929 Brennan became attorney-general. He was as ill-prepared as most of his colleagues to cope with the complexities of office during the Depression. Under pressure he was ensnared by his conservative legalism, became impatient with the problems at first, and was later resigned to political impotence. He proved incapable of providing any definite lead, was unable to reach accord with the union movement, and saw his one major legislative initiative, the conciliation and arbitration bill (1930), savagely amended by the hostile Senate. He gave his close friend Scullin unqualified support in his determination to ensure that the party survived as viable and democratic. In this he was shackled to support the implementation of economic policies which he abhorred. Partly as a consequence he was dumped by the electors of Batman in December 1931 after having retained the seat by a record majority in 1929.

Brennan resumed his law practice, but won Batman again in 1934 and was untroubled to hold it until his retirement in 1949. He retained a strong voice in the Parliamentary Labor Party, particularly on foreign policy until 1940. Throughout the 1920s he had kept the issues of peace, defence and military training before parliament. He was proud to be involved in the Scullin government's suspension of compulsory military service. In his one opportunity on the world stage he delivered a ringing plea for peace in an address to the League of Nations in 1930. He went on to attend the Imperial Conference in London soon after. During the 1930s he supported the various peace movements and was prepared to be accused of being a dupe or fellow-traveller for his support of Communist-front peace organizations. His brother Harry broadly shared his views. His pacifism was based on an idealistic belief in the 'practicality' of men being able to live in peace through their innate good will. He abhorred physical violence. He believed intensely in a policy of isolationism for Australia to enable it to get its own house in order, to set an example of anti-militarism. The outbreak of World War II led to general disillusionment for him, particularly because of the attitude of John Curtin and his supporters to the war effort. His earlier outspoken pacifism as the war approached led to a firm identification with Labor's left wing. His political influence waned and he was dropped from the party's parliamentary executive in 1940. He was one of the few Labor members to oppose the Curtin government's introduction of limited conscription for overseas service, but he eventually buckled under the pressures of party loyalty and supported the bill in the House.

In 1941 Brennan's wife died and he struggled to maintain an interest in life. Mary, at a stage when she was difficult to manage and help, became the keystone of his life. He was being progressively robbed of his finest possession as a public man—his power of oratory. By 1943 his speech was often infuriatingly halting, seeming stilted and mannered as he struggled to control it: he became an embarrassment to listen to.

Frank Brennan could be regarded as having failed in his political career, to have achieved little for a man of his ability. He failed in what he made his one great cause—pacifism—but he did so on his own terms. He retired in 1949 and died, aged 77, of hypertensive vascular disease on 6 November 1950. He was buried in Melbourne general cemetery after a state funeral.

Thomas Cornelius (1866-1944) was the seventh child in the family. After leaving the local school he was apprenticed as a typesetter with the Bendigo Independent. Upon completing his time he went to Melbourne to work as a printer with the Argus, transferred to the reading staff, became a junior reporter, and eventually a cable sub-editor. He had continued his education part time, matriculated on his fourth attempt in 1892 and completed a law degree in 1900. Aged 35, he married Florence Margaret Slattery on 15 April 1902 at St Patrick's Cathedral. He resigned from the Argus when admitted to the Bar in 1907. In succeeding years he received many briefs through Frank's law firm and established a leading reputation in the Criminal Court through such cases as the trial of Colin Campbell Ross, on which he published The Gun Alley Tragedy (Melbourne, 1922). He was largely responsible for a reform in the practice laid down by the High Court for the hearing of criminal appeals. He became a K.C. in 1928 and was awarded a doctorate of laws in 1932 for his thesis, published in 1935 as Interpreting the Constitution.

A notable Catholic layman, Tom Brennan was particularly prominent in the period 1910-20, being one of the founders of the Catholic Federation and its first president in 1911; editor of the Catholic Advocate in 1915-17 until he clashed with Mannix during the conscription controversy; a committee-member of the Australian Catholic Truth Society; and the first president of the Newman Society at the university. He was a strong advocate of state aid to Catholic schools, but was one of the few Victorian Catholics of Irish descent strongly to support conscription in 1916-17.

Politically conservative, Brennan stood unsuccessfully as a Liberal and later as a Nationalist for the Legislative Assembly seats of Melbourne (1911), Warrenheip (by-election 1913), Richmond (1914) and Bendigo East (1921). Eventually he was appointed to the Senate by the Victorian parliament in May 1931 to fill a casual vacancy. He was re-elected in December and served as minister without portfolio assisting the ministers for commerce in the United Australia Party governments of 1932-37, being acting attorney-general and acting minister for industry during parts of 1935-36. He was defeated at the 1937 election.

Brennan was quiet, reserved and unassuming in manner, his obvious determination and strong character giving many an impression of flintiness. Privately he was a man of gentlemanly charm, kindness and simplicity, who delighted in referring to himself as the 'last of the Tories' as a contrast to his radical brother Frank. Survived by his wife and two daughters, he died aged 76 on 3 January 1944.

William Adrian (1871-1956) was born on 29 April 1871. He left Mary Vale in 1887 and worked in the railways and the Victorian Civil Service, before joining Thomas on the Argus. He was a member of the Federal parliamentary press gallery continuously in 1901-27. Deeply conservative politically, he nevertheless remained very close to his brother Frank throughout their lives. As 'Ariel' he wrote with an easy grace and liberal lacings of the Brennan irony. Bill Brennan was small in stature and of a quiet disposition, though very witty. He served as one of the early presidents of the Catholic Young Men's Society and in 1906 was the first secretary of the Melbourne Press Bond, the Australian Journalists' Association's most significant predecessor. However in 1917 he presented the Melbourne newspaper proprietors' case against the A.J.A. before the Arbitration Court. From 1927 until his retirement in 1939 Brennan was chief leader-writer for the Argus. He was a member of the Savage, Yorick and Wallaby clubs. He remained unmarried, was appointed O.B.E. in 1952 and died on 9 November 1956.

Select Bibliography

  • N. Brennan, A Hoax Called Jones (Lond, 1962)
  • N. Brennan, Dr. Mannix (Adel, 1964)
  • N. Brennan, John Wren (Melb, 1971)
  • K. Ryan, Frank Brennan: A Political Biography (M.A. thesis, La Trobe University, 1978)
  • family papers (privately held).

Citation details

Kevin Ryan, 'Brennan, Thomas Cornelius (1866–1944)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/brennan-thomas-cornelius-5634/text9041, published first in hardcopy 1979, accessed online 26 November 2014.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 7, (MUP), 1979

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2014

Life Summary [details]

Birth

1866

Death

3 January 1944