Brenan, Joseph (1828–57), Young Ireland revolutionary, poet, and journalist, was born 17 November 1828 in Cork city; nothing is known of his parents. He spent some of his early childhood in Skibbereen and was educated at St Vincent's seminary, Cork. He joined the Cork Historical Society aged about 17 and took a leading part in its debates, earning a reputation as a passionate and eloquent speaker. While editing the society's Cork Magazine (1847–8) he met and became engaged to the poet Ellen Mary Patrick Downing (qv); however, they agreed to end the engagement and she joined a convent in 1849. From about 1847 Brenan contributed occasional articles and verse to the Nation and later to the United Irishman, John Mitchel's (qv) revolutionary newspaper, over the signatures ‘J. B. Cork’ and ‘J. B-n’. He joined the Irish Confederation and played an important role in the Cork Desmond Confederate club, urging its members to arm themselves. In January 1848 he met Mitchel in Cork and, impressed by his militancy, became one of his followers. After Mitchel's transportation on 27 May 1848, he went to Dublin and joined the militant Swift Confederate club. He contributed to the Irish Felon (June–July 1848), founded to continue the work of Mitchel's United Irishman, a series of fiery articles calling on the Confederate clubs to mount an immediate insurrection: ‘The hour is come. Now or never – now and for ever’ (22 July 1848). He identified with the calls of James Fintan Lalor (qv) for the abolition of landlordism; and his own writings on the primacy of the land question, and his belief that the Confederation should rely on working men rather than the middle classes, infused a radical egalitarian note into Confederate propaganda.
When the Confederates decided to rise in late July, he went west to sound out support but was arrested and imprisoned in Crumlin Road jail, Belfast (August–December 1848), and Kilmainham jail, Dublin (December 1848–March 1849). After his release on the reinstatement of habeas corpus, he edited the militantly nationalist Irishman. He was a close friend of James Clarence Mangan (qv), who addressed a poem to him as ‘Brother and yet more than brother’. Brenan was one of only five mourners who attended Mangan's funeral, and he wrote the only substantial obituary of Mangan to appear in any Dublin newspaper, describing him as ‘the greatest of our modern Irish poets’ (Irishman, 23 June 1849).
In April 1849 Brenan and several other former Confederate militants, including Thomas Clarke Luby (qv) and Lalor, met at Rathmines and joined the revolutionary secret society founded by Philip Gray (qv). Brenan was a member of the society's ‘working committee’, and he and his militant Dublin supporters pressed for another insurrection. He drew up plans to seize Queen Victoria on her visit to Dublin in August 1849, which would signal a nationwide rising; more than 100 men assembled for the purpose but they were quickly dispersed by the police. There were strong tensions between Brenan and Lalor: Lalor thought Brenan's plans rash and desperate, while Brenan regarded Lalor's intentions to bring out a new radical newspaper as a threat to the Irishman. In the Irishman (8 September 1849), Brenan published ‘The only road, or hints for the reorganisation of a national party in Ireland’ (also published as a pamphlet), which dismissed the Irish Confederation as ‘more a reunion of literati than an assembly of revolutionists’; it argued that the new national organisation should be based on tenant leagues and that it should form links with English and Scottish democrats.
As militants became increasingly impatient, the revolutionary society began to split and held a convention in Clonmel on 5 September to restore unity. It decided that a rising should begin with attacks on the garrison towns of Tipperary and Waterford on 16 September. The authorities got wind of this and most of the risings were prevented by drafting in extra troops. Brenan, though, was determined to strike and assembled 200 men armed with pikes and a few firearms near Cappoquin, Co. Waterford, on 16 September 1849. Before beginning, he called at the abbey of Mount Melleray to seek the blessing of the prior and to demand a loan of his gun, both of which were refused. Brenan then led an unsuccessful attack on Cappoquin police barracks, which was defended by five constables; one attacker was shot dead and a constable on patrol was piked to death. Several of the participants were later arrested and eleven were transported, but Brenan hid in the Comeragh mountains, escaped in October on a coal vessel to Wales, and travelled on to New York. His friend John Savage (qv) helped him find work as a journalist, and he contributed to Horace Greeley's Tribune, the People, run by Thomas Devin Reilly (qv), and the Enquirer of Newark. In spring 1850 he became ill and lodged with Savage in 13th St., where he fell in love with Savage's sister, Mary; they were married in New York 27 August 1851. In October 1851 he went to New Orleans and worked for the New Orleans Delta. He continued to write verse, often under the names ‘Gondalez’ or ‘Ben Fox’; his best known poems are ‘Come to me, dearest’ and ‘The exile to his wife’. He became a leading Irish figure in New Orleans and addressed meetings celebrating the escapes from Tasmania of Thomas Francis Meagher (qv) (June 1852) and John Mitchel (December 1853). In summer 1853 he was struck down by yellow fever and was partially blinded by unsuccessful medical treatment. The following summer he went to New York to recuperate and contributed some articles and poems to Mitchel's Citizen and to the United States Review, but returned to New Orleans after a few months. An enthusiastic supporter of the southern cause, he wrote Ballads of the young South (1857), and in early 1857 founded and edited the New Orleans Daily Times to assert the concept of states’ rights. He died in New Orleans 28 May 1857 , and was buried in the old French cemetery. His marriage produced seven children, only one of whom, Florence, survived her parents; she joined the Sisters of Mercy in Nebraska.