Brenan, John (c.1625–1693), catholic archbishop of Cashel, was born in Kilkenny city and educated in the famous Jesuit School, formerly Peter White's Academy, the alma mater of Richard Stanihurst (qv), Peter Lombard (qv), and Patrick Comerford (qv). Nothing is known of his parents. In 1647 he embarked from Waterford for the Continent with Fr Scarampi (qv), the papal envoy to the confederation of Kilkenny, to study for the priesthood with two other young men who would make an indelible mark on the catholic church in seventeenth-century Ireland: the Franciscan Peter Walsh (qv) and Oliver Plunkett (qv), later archbishop of Armagh. After escaping capture by both parliamentary navy and pirates and being robbed in Flanders, he reached Rome in May 1649 and immediately enrolled as convittore in the Ludovisian College, where Scarampi paid his fees and maintained him for one year. Brenan and Plunkett were ordained together in the basilica of St John Lateran. The Irish College in Rome still retains a copy of the oath which he took on the feast of SS Peter and Paul (29 June 1650). Appointed to the subdiaconate in the Lateran basilica (December 1653), he became deacon on St Stephen's day 1653 and was ordained on New Year's day 1654. Brenan remained in Rome for a further seventeen years. Appointed as a lecturer in philosophy in Propaganda College, he later succeeded Plunkett in the chair of theology and as agent of the Irish bishops in Rome on Plunkett's appointment to Armagh. Much of Plunkett's voluminous correspondence passed through Brenan's hands in the period before he embarked for the Irish mission.
Appointed bishop of Waterford in May 1672, he travelled to his diocese via Cologne, Brussels, Rotterdam, and London, where he presented letters of introduction to the queen, to Ormond (qv), and to Arlington, principal secretary of state. In Dublin he met his old friend Archbishop Plunkett and the lord lieutenant, Berkeley (qv). On reaching Waterford, a place which he found to be ‘full of fanatics and mad presbyterians’, he lodged in High St.
Aside from his pastoral duties, Brenan was asked by his superiors in Rome to settle numerous controversies within the Irish mission. He had the unenviable task of investigating his own metropolitan, William Burgat, archbishop of Cashel (1669–75), whom he met and about whom he sent a report to Rome. He was called in to investigate and settle the controversy that had arisen over the deposition of Dr Fitzsymons, vicar-general of Kilmore. He also adjudicated in the dispute between the archbishops of Dublin and Armagh over the primacy of their sees. Although he threw his weight on the side of his friend Plunkett, he censured both combatants in his letter to the cardinal protector of Ireland, asserting that these ‘extraordinary differences’ had ‘degenerated into a clamorous and scandalous discord to the prejudice of our profession and the lowering of the dignity which these prelates bear’ (Power, 16).
In 1676 Brenan was appointed archbishop of Cashel. Unwilling to accept, he finally assented on condition that he could retain his Waterford see, which had a greater annual revenue than Cashel, and where he enjoyed the hospitality of various skeins of the Butler family. As archbishop of Cashel he organised in 1676–7 synods at Carrick-on-Suir and Cloncully, at which great emphasis was placed on the maintenance of a well-organised and upright clergy, detailed guidelines were put in place for their private and public conduct, and an attempt was made to root out superstition and enforce Tridentine reforms. With the onset of the popish plot and the arrest of Archbishops Peter Talbot (qv) and Plunkett, Brenan managed to stay one step ahead of his pursuers. These included the notorious informers John Macnamara and Eustace Comyn, who had linked the fugitive archbishop to a planned French invasion of Ireland and England in both print and depositions. After Plunkett's execution, Brenan collected all available accounts of his martyrdom, which he sent to Rome.
On the accession of James II (qv) Brenan was again particularly active, organising two provincial synods at Cashel (1685, 1686) and advising Rome on successors to the archdiocese of Dublin and Armagh. He endured the trauma of the removal of James II and a religious war against the protestant William of Orange (qv). Sir Toby Butler (qv) most likely sought his advice in negotiating the religious articles of the treaty of Limerick, articles which he would live to see rejected and the church reduced to a pitiful state. On his death in 1693 (according to a manuscript entry of the poet Tadhg Ó Neachtain (qv) in 1704) he was buried in the grave of Geoffrey Keating (Seathrún Céitinn) (qv), author of Foras feasa ar Éirinn, and the Franciscan Eugene O'Duhy, who wrote a bitter satire on Miler Magrath (qv), the notorious sixteenth-century archbishop of Cashel.
Contemporaries thought highly of Brenan. In Oliver Plunkett's view, ‘the bishop of Waterford, considering the combination of prudence, gravity and learning he possesses, has no equal in this country’ (Breathnach, 151), while the secretary of Propaganda considered him to ‘have no equal in piety, prudence or theological law’ (Power, 8). Although no known portrait of the archbishop exists, two volumes of his letters (many of which were reproduced by Cardinal Patrick Francis Moran (qv) in his Memoirs of Oliver Plunkett) have survived in St Isidore's in Rome. His correspondence to Propaganda helps to fill the void left by the arrest and execution of Plunkett. A bronze seal bearing his name can be seen in the NMI.