Brennan, Joseph (1887–1976), civil servant and banker, was born 18 November 1887 at Hill Terrace, Bandon, Co. Cork, eldest son among seven children of Joseph Brennan (d. 1948), businessman, and his wife Mary (née Hickey). He was educated at the local national school, Clongowes Wood College (1899–1905), UCD, and at Christ's College, Cambridge (1909–11) where he took a first in the classical tripos. Using the pseudonym ‘Corcaig’ he contributed an article to Christ's College Magazine (Lent term, 1910) on the need to reform the constitutional fabric of the British empire along federal lines.
Joining the first division of the British civil service in London (1911), he served briefly with the board of customs and excise and the Port of London before returning to Ireland to join the chief secretary's office (June 1912). Having commenced his studies for the bar at the Inner Temple, a process he never completed, he was temporarily assigned early in 1913 to the convict office, where he was involved in the custody of suffragettes. Towards the end of 1914 he was appointed secretary to a viceregal committee of inquiry into the pay and conditions of the police, and in 1915 he was appointed secretary of an Irish war savings committee under the chairmanship of the O'Conor Don. In mid October 1915 he became private secretary to Sir Matthew Nathan (qv), the under-secretary. After the 1916 rising, Brennan, who had the most unusually cordial relations with Nathan, continued in his post under Nathan's replacement, Sir Robert Chalmers (qv), working in conjunction with the prime minister's secretary in processing replies to the many questions raised inside and outside of parliament. In mid July 1916 Chalmers offered to help Brennan's advancement in the civil service if he would leave ‘this boghole of a place’ and transfer to London. Brennan's preference to remain in Ireland was met with the promise that under a home rule government Chalmers would recommend him for the post of official private secretary to the prime minister of Ireland. On Chalmers's return to London, Brennan worked for a short time as private secretary to H. E. Duke (qv), the new chief secretary, but returned to the under-secretary's office in late October 1916 to be private secretary to Sir William Byrne (qv). Before Christmas 1916 Brennan rejoined the finance division in an office reshuffle; he was promoted to the upper section of the administrative class early in January 1917 and appointed deputy clerk of the privy council later that month. In mid May 1917 he personally brought the government's offer of immediate home rule minus the six counties to John Dillon (qv) and Joe Devlin (qv), seeing John Redmond (qv) at Aughavanagh a few days later. A home ruler, Brennan was a friend and schoolmate of Redmond's son, Willie (qv), and did not abandon the Redmondite position after 1916.
In 1918 Brennan was to be appointed private secretary to Edward Shortt (qv), the new chief secretary, but unknown to him a captured document, which read that ‘so long as Joe is in the Castle everything will be all right’, cast doubt on his loyalty and thus denied him the post. Shortt claimed that Brennan's position as acting superintending clerk (head of the finance division) deprived him of the private secretaryship. Brennan's failure to succeed A. P. Magill (qv) as private secretary to the chief secretary in June 1919 saw him reconsidering his position within Dublin Castle and within the civil service. In May 1920, however, he was one of only two members of the chief secretary's office to impress favourably the team of Sir Warren Fisher, who reported on the Castle administration. In June 1920 he became a principal clerk, and acted for a time as private secretary to Sir John Anderson (qv), the joint under-secretary. For most of 1921 he had charge of the finance division of the chief secretary's office, and in September sought certification as an ‘Irish officer’ under the terms of the Government of Ireland Act, 1920. In October 1921 he was approached by Patrick McGilligan (qv) (with whom he had been at Clongowes), and later Michael Collins (qv), to assist the Irish treaty delegation in drawing up the financial clauses of the Anglo–Irish treaty. Brennan produced eight explanatory papers outlining Ireland's position in relation to such matters as the national revenue and the Irish liability for the imperial national debt, although he refused to offer an opinion in any of these documents, believing that to do so would be in contravention of his position as a British civil servant. His memoranda enabled the Irish delegates to counter the British delegation's financial claims, thus suspending the settlement of financial matters till after the establishment of the Irish Free State.
On 1 February 1922 Collins approached Alfred Cope (qv), a senior British official in Dublin Castle, to enquire whether there were any suitable Irishmen working in the Castle who might help him establish a department of finance and (in particular) set up an exchequer. Brennan was recommended and given a free hand in establishing an exchequer, working off the British model. Appointed comptroller and auditor general on 31 March 1922, he was the de facto head of the Irish civil service, despite his title. He became secretary of the Department of Finance and head of the Irish civil service on 22 February 1923 and remained in the post till 20 September 1927.
It was very important that the new state should proceed prudently in its budgetary and financial affairs. The fact that it soon established a reputation for being a well-run country where British and other businessmen and investors could do business was largely the result of the policy advice of Brennan and his colleague and successor as secretary of the Department of Finance, J. J. McElligott (qv). These two men were responsible for setting up the Irish exchequer, devising a financial system of parliamentary control and establishing the office of comptroller and auditor general. A very successful national loan was raised in 1923, a difficult job in the middle of a civil war, and new institutions including a currency commission, which later became the Central Bank, were established. The Irish pound was firmly linked to the pound sterling, which was then the major currency in which world trade was carried out. This gave stability and inspired confidence in foreign and, indeed, Irish investors.
The politicians who came into office on the establishment of the new state were members of the Cumann na nGaedheal party. They were remarkable men in many ways but were inexperienced in public administration. They were content to rely on the advice of civil servants whose administrative experience far exceeded their own, particularly Joseph Brennan. In 1932, J. J. McElligott, secretary of the Department of Finance and head of the civil service, had the task of guiding both politicians and civil servants through the first change of government when Fianna Fáil came into office.
Being conservative in outlook, both Brennan and McElligott adhered strictly to the principle of curbing public expenditure and taxation. Their strong emphasis on austerity was a useful corrective to the unreasonable expectations of the young and inexperienced politicians who took office in 1922 and those who succeeded them in 1932. Brennan made an enormous contribution in the 1920s to the continuity of public administration and the establishment of the financial standing of the new state.
His resignation as secretary of the Department of Finance arose out of his difficulties with Ernest Blythe (qv) as minister for finance. Both tended to be men of strong and unyielding views. Deeply distrustful of politicians, he saw Blythe ‘as a dead loss as a finance minister, a man devoted to a number of non-Finance matters which he pursued to the detriment of the Finance position’ (quoted in Fanning, p. 189). It was Blythe's apparent disregard for Finance's position with regard to the Shannon scheme that brought matters to a head. Brennan retired from the civil service under article 10 of the treaty in September 1927, and was appointed chairman of the currency commission (1927–43).
Quickly acquiring premises at Foster Place, Dublin, he recruited staff and drafted regulations for the working of the commission. Relations with the banking community were at first decidedly antagonistic, but this in time abated as the banks adjusted to the new circumstances of independence. In 1929 he twice visited London with Blythe to discuss currency matters with two successive chancellors of the exchequer, Winston Churchill and Philip Snowden. During the sterling crisis of 1931 he consulted the newly established Bank for International Settlements on the establishment of an Irish central bank, an institution he had envisaged as early as 1923. In 1932 he was appointed chairman of the commission of inquiry into the civil service (also called the Brennan commission, 1932–4). Much of the discussion at this commission revolved around the central role of the Department of Finance in controlling the expenditure of other departments. This role was confirmed by the majority report of the commission and has largely continued unchanged since then as a key principle of Irish administration. From July to October 1932 he accompanied the Irish delegation to the imperial economic conference at Ottawa, and in October attended an inter-governmental meeting in London that tried unsuccessfully to secure a comprehensive financial settlement.
Appointed chairman of the investment advisory committee, he attended the World Monetary and Economic Conference (1933) in London and was appointed chairman of the commission of inquiry into banking, currency, and credit (1934–8). Having made the first analysis of the public debt in 1935, he adopted the same conservative approach in his authorship of the commission's majority report, the only innovation of which was the recommendation finally to establish a central bank. The report became one of the classic sources of Irish economic history. As governor of the Central Bank (1943–53) he seemed to T. K. Whitaker by the 1940s ‘to have retreated into an impregnable conservatism bounded by pre-Keynesian economics and abnormal distrust of the profligate propensities of governments’. His opposition to borrowing for economic development (he opposed Ireland taking a loan under Marshall aid, on the grounds that in the long run the American dollar would appreciate against the Irish pound), and to the investment of Central Bank funds in idle and depreciating sterling investments, raised protests from Seán MacBride (qv), James Dillon (qv), and John A. Costello (qv), among others. In 1947 he was the author of a memorandum recommending Ireland's membership of the IMF and the International Bank for Reconstruction and Development. After years of hostile criticism (particularly between 1948 and 1951) and the disregard by government of his warnings about budgetary and monetary policy, he resigned 31 March 1953. To Patrick Lynch (qv), Brennan was always against change, believing that change at any time, at any place, and for any purpose was always for the worse. Such an economic policy could only ever return 50 per cent of what he regarded as desirable.
An active member of the Clongowes Social Service Club and the Society of St Vincent de Paul, Brennan served on the committee of management of the Catholic Truth Society and worked in the Clongowes Boys Club as well as visiting the poor in their homes. A regular theatre-goer, he subscribed to the Gate Theatre's renovation fund. Active in the Statistical and Social Enquiry Society, he was its president (1934–8) and was also president of the Institute of Banking in Ireland (1946). In March 1938 he was awarded an honorary LLD by the NUI. A high-minded, shy, but arrogant and caustic man, he lived an austere, frugal life plagued by ill health. He did, however, enjoy travel and the winter sports at Grindelwald, Adelboden, Wengen, St Moritz, and Scheidegg.
He married (September 1918) Evelyn Simcox, a vivacious university graduate from Douglas, Co. Cork. They lived in Dublin at Crinken House, Shankill, and later Clancool, Shrewsbury Road. They had one son and two daughters. Their son Peter (b. 1920) died in 1927. Brennan died quietly at Clancool on 3 March 1976. His papers are deposited in the NLI.