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Keith Gabriel Brennan (1915–1985)

by P. G. F. Henderson

This article was published:

Keith Gabriel Brennan (1915-1985), lawyer, public servant and diplomat, was born on 25 March 1915 at Hawthorn, Melbourne, youngest of five children of Victorian-born parents Henry Philip Brennan, journalist, and his wife Mary Teresa Cecilia, née Mackintosh. Keith, a nephew of Anna Teresa, Francis, Thomas and William Brennan, was educated at St Patrick’s College, East Melbourne, and at the University of Melbourne (LL B, 1943). While studying law part time he worked in 1934-38 as a clerk in the taxation branch, Victorian Department of the Treasurer, and in 1938-40 as associate to Bert Evatt, then a justice of the High Court of Australia. He joined the Department of the Army in 1940. On 3 April 1945 at St Patrick’s Cathedral, Melbourne, he married with Catholic rites Suzanne White, a stenographer. She and her parents had left the Soviet Union as Jewish refugees in 1920; arriving in Australia in 1922, they had later changed their family name from Vainshelbaum to White.

In 1947 Brennan transferred to the Department of External Affairs. His early assignments overseas were to New York, where he worked both at the consulate-general and at the Australian Mission to the United Nations (1950-54). After four years back in Australia, he was posted (1958-61) to Japan. In Canberra he is best remembered by his colleagues for his term (1963-70) as assistant-secretary, running the administration and personnel division of the department. He gave powerful support to two successive secretaries, Sir Arthur Tange and Sir James Plimsoll. He also displayed innate pastoral gifts in handling the workforce of the department and in dealing with the many, often delicate, personnel problems which are unavoidable in running a foreign service. The department benefited greatly from his time in the administrative division. Those who worked closely with him there remember him for his patience, kindliness and sense of humour.

Appointed ambassador to Ireland by the McMahon government, Brennan entered enthusiastically into his new duties in February 1972. He secured a chair of Australian history in the Australian Studies Centre, University College, Dublin, and took particular pride in mounting a successful exhibition of (Sir) Sidney Nolan’s paintings in Dublin. His term was cut short when in April 1974 the Labor prime minister, E. G. Whitlam, decided for domestic political reasons to use Dublin as a post for Senator Vince Gair. Brennan was moved at inconsiderately short notice to Berne, Switzerland. His wife, who was already suffering from cancer, died there in 1977. Yet Brennan still felt that Labor best embodied his hopes and ideals.

During his seven years in Berne, Brennan represented Australia at many international law conferences, most importantly the Third United Nations Conference on the Law of the Sea, which led to the conclusion of the Law of the Sea Convention in 1982. From 1977 he was leader of the Australian delegation. His work on this, and on Antarctica, earned him a formidable international reputation. The chairman of the Rio de Janeiro international conference on Antarctica in 1985, Christopher Beeby of New Zealand, said that Brennan had been `the dominant figure’ of the law of the sea negotiations and `one of the most distinguished individuals ever to participate in Antarctic negotiations’. He noted in particular his contribution to reaching international agreement on the 1980 Convention on the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources. Brennan was later described as a pillar of the law of the sea conference. According to William Wertenbaker, writing in the New Yorker, he had `worked informally and without credit on solutions to some of the most intractable of the seabed problems’ and was `trusted by everyone’. His work on international legal issues sprang from a sense of vocation, and from a belief that this work was of benefit to mankind.

In 1979 Brennan was appointed AO. He retired from the diplomatic service in 1981 and moved to Adelaide, but continued as Australia’s chief negotiator for the Law of the Sea Convention. A devout Catholic, he was portrayed by Sir Walter Crocker as `a splendid example of the convinced and unshakeable Christian—a man of solid Catholic values’. At the suggestion of a friend who was a priest, and encouraged by Archbishop James Gleeson, in February 1983 he entered St Francis Xavier Seminary, Rostrevor, to begin the requisite four years of training for the priesthood. Brennan was quoted in the press as saying that his new career came as an extension of his lifelong, unfaltering faith in Catholicism. He also said: `As my daughter put it … it’s not everyone who can claim their father’s a Catholic priest’. Before completing his studies he died of cancer on 16 January 1985 in North Adelaide and was buried in Centennial Park cemetery. His three sons and two daughters survived him.

Select Bibliography

  • M. Tsamenyi et al (eds), United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (1996)
  • Australian Law Journal, vol 59, 1986, p 357
  • Sunday Mail (Adelaide), 30 Jan 1983, p 3
  • Age (Melbourne), 9 Feb 1983, p 11
  • New Yorker, 1 Aug 1983, p 38
  • personal information.

Citation details

P. G. F. Henderson, 'Brennan, Keith Gabriel (1915–1985)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 2007, accessed online 20 April 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 17, (Melbourne University Press), 2007

View the front pages for Volume 17

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Life Summary [details]


25 March, 1915
Hawthorn, Melbourne, Victoria, Australia


16 January, 1985 (aged 69)
North Adelaide, Adelaide, South Australia, Australia

Religious Influence

Includes the religion in which subjects were raised, have chosen themselves, attendance at religious schools and/or religious funeral rites; Atheism and Agnosticism have been included.