Bracken, Brendan (1901–58), politician, was born 15 February 1901 in Church St., Templemore, Co. Tipperary, third child and second of three sons of Joseph Kevin (J. K.) Bracken (qv) and Hannah (née Ryan) Bracken. The family moved to Kilmallock in 1903, the year before J. K.'s death. After several years in Tipperary town his widow took her family to live in Glasnevin, a new suburb in north Dublin, and subsequently off the North Circular Rd. Brendan was educated in St Patrick's National School, Drumcondra, and (1910–14) at the Christian Brothers' O'Connell School in North Richmond St. He was a mischievous, delinquent child: on one occasion he threw a schoolfellow into the Royal Canal. In February 1915 he was sent to Mungret College, a Jesuit boarding school near Limerick. He was not amenable to the regime and ran away on several occasions, finding accommodation in local hotels under a false name.
At the end of 1915 he went to Australia with £14 in his pocket. He was first based in Echuca, Victoria, where he was put up in a convent. Later he moved to other houses run by religious orders. A voracious reader, he claimed that he was doing research for a life of Cardinal Moran (Patrick Francis Moran (qv)), and signed himself ‘Brendan Newman Bracken’. He sought admission as a pupil to Riverview, the fashionable Jesuit school in Sydney, claiming that he had been educated in Clongowes. Unfortunately for him, a priest who had just come out from Clongowes exposed him. Opinionated and argumentative, he did not conceal his scepticism about the catholic religion. For a time he taught in a protestant school in Orange, NSW. He returned to Ireland some time in 1919. By this time his mother had remarried and was living with her new husband Patrick Laffan on a farm in Beauparc, Co. Meath. After a short stay there, Bracken moved to Liverpool and found employment as a teacher at the Liverpool Collegiate School; he claimed that he had been to the University of Sydney. He taught at the school for two terms (1920), earning extra money as tutor to a young boy. With his savings he was able to gain admission to Sedbergh, a public school in north-west Yorkshire, giving his name as Brendan Rendall Bracken, born 1904, and stating that his parents had perished in a bush fire in Australia, leaving him money to complete his education. He remained only a term but distinguished himself by winning a prize for history. After Sedbergh Bracken taught at Rottingdean preparatory school and then at Bishops Stortford School. He cut a flamboyant figure and dropped the name of famous acquaintances with gay abandon. He stood over 6 ft and had a powerful presence and a domineering personality; his mop of red hair and pale freckled skin combined with black teeth to give him a bizarre appearance.
In 1922 he moved to London. He took charge of the Illustrated Review (published by Eyre and Spottiswode, the king's printers) when its editor Hilaire Belloc resigned. Renamed English Life and covering political and social events, it afforded Bracken an opportunity to meet prominent people, including J. L. Garvin, editor of the Observer. In autumn 1923 Garvin introduced him to Winston Churchill, who had lost his parliamentary seat in 1922 and decided to contact Leicester West in the general election of December 1923. Bracken offered his services as campaign manager. The friendship between Churchill and Bracken was soon so close that Bracken was rumoured to be Churchill's natural son. Churchill's wife Clementine disliked Bracken and discouraged the friendship.
Meanwhile Bracken enjoyed the life of a ubiquitous socialite and built up his career in publishing. He became a director of Eyre and Spottiswoode (1926), starting the Banker, a monthly magazine, for them, and acquiring (1928) the Financial News and a half-share in the Economist. To these were added in due course the Investors Chronicle and the Practitioner. His success in business enabled him to acquire (1928) a home in North St. (which he later had renamed Lord North St.) near the houses of parliament. He was driven about in a chauffeured Hispano-Suiza car.
In 1929 Bracken had himself adopted as conservative candidate for North Paddington, a marginal seat. After a hard-fought campaign characterised by minor violence provoked by Bracken's intemperate language, he won the seat by 528 votes. At one point a rumour was put about that Bracken was in reality a Polish Jew, which he had to disprove by exhibiting a copy of his birth certificate. Bracken's background was a subject of speculation among acquaintances, and in throwaway remarks he gave different fictitious versions of it. Ireland figured in none of them. He did however remain in constant touch with his mother, to whom he seems to have been deeply devoted, until her death (1928). But he had as little contact as possible with his brother and sisters, although he did give assistance to some of them and their families at various times.
In parliament Bracken voiced right-wing views on economic issues and was an enthusiastic imperialist. After Churchill resigned from the conservative front bench (1930) because they would not oppose the labour government's proposal for Indian self-government, he was supported by Bracken. During the 1930s, when Churchill was in the wilderness, disagreeing with the party leadership on India and on what he saw as a policy of appeasement towards Hitler's Germany, Bracken was his sole political ally; Stanley Baldwin called him Churchill's ‘faithful chela’.
In September 1939 Churchill joined Neville Chamberlain's war cabinet as first lord of the admiralty; Bracken was appointed his parliamentary private secretary, continuing in that role when Churchill became prime minister. Despite the king's opposition, Churchill insisted that Bracken should be appointed a privy councillor (June 1940). Bracken shut up his house and moved to the prime minister's residence for the duration of the war. As a confidant of the prime minister he often acted as a go-between with other politicians and newspapermen; he was allowed to oversee patronage, and took a special interest in ecclesiastical appointments. In July 1941 Bracken was persuaded by Lord Beaverbrook and Churchill to become minister for information. He won over most of the proprietors by giving them more news, often on a confidential basis, and censorship was kept to a minimum. The BBC was also allowed a fair measure of freedom as long as it behaved responsibly; under the leadership of Cyril Radcliffe, the civil service head of the ministry, it operated more smoothly. Bracken was generally acclaimed for that success.
After the resignation of the labour ministers from the government at the end of the war in Europe (May 1945), Bracken joined the cabinet as first lord of the admiralty. He was prominent in the general election campaign that followed and was the only conservative minister apart from Churchill to give more than one radio broadcast. He was accused, probably unjustly, of provoking Churchill to take extreme positions, and blamed when the conservatives were heavily defeated at the polls. Bracken himself lost North Paddington to Lt.-gen. Sir F. N. Mason-MacFarlane. However, he was soon back in parliament representing Bournemouth, and as front-bench spokesman was an uncompromising opponent of the nationalisation measures of the Labour government (1945–51). He was out of sympathy with the leftward drift of the conservative party associated with R. A. Butler and Harold Macmillan.
In December 1951, when Churchill was again prime minister, Bracken declined an invitation to serve as colonial secretary, pleading that his recurring sinusitis made it impossible. He resigned his seat in the commons and was created a peer, Viscount Bracken of Christchurch in Hampshire, but never took his seat in the lords. Although he retired from politics he remained close to political events through his friendship with Churchill. He was deeply involved in concealing the severe stroke that Churchill suffered in 1953, so that he could carrry on as prime minister.
In the postwar period Bracken had important business interests. The Financial News group acquired the Financial Times (1945) and Bracken was returned as chairman of the expanded company; he wrote a weekly FT column until 1954. He oversaw the building near St Paul's of a new head office (designed by Sir Albert Richardson), named ‘Bracken House’ after his death. He was also chairman of the Union Corporation mining house, with interests in South Africa, which he frequently visited. From 1950 he was chairman of the board of governors of Sedbergh School, where he went frequently and often walked for miles across the fells. He organised and financed the restoration of the eighteenth-century school building as a library, with a commemoratory inscription, ‘Remember Winston Churchill’.
From 1955 he was a trustee of the National Gallery. He was an unrelenting opponent of the proposal to return to Ireland the impressionist paintings bequeathed to it by Hugh Lane (qv), because a codicil willing them to Dublin had not been witnessed. Throughout the postwar period Bracken carried on a prolific correspondence with friends such as Lord Beaverbrook, the American ambassador Lewis Douglas, and the Australian entrepreneur W. S. Robinson. These are a valuable and entertaining source on the political history of the time.
In January 1958 Bracken, who had always been a heavy smoker, was diagnosed as having cancer of the throat. He lingered on until 8 August 1958 when he died at the flat of his friend Sir Patrick Hennessy in Park Lane. He resisted efforts made to reconcile him to the church of Rome. By his own wish he was cremated and his ashes were scattered on Romney Marsh, Kent. On his instructions his papers were burnt by his chauffeur. His estate came to £145,032.