Brooke, Henry (1703–83), literary and political writer, was born in Ratavan, near Virginia, Co. Cavan, son of the Rev. William B. Brooke, wealthy rector of Killinkere and Mullagh, and Letrice Digby. His mother, possibly the second daughter of Dr Simon Digby (qv), bishop of Elphin, was a favourite of Jonathan Swift (qv), an occasional visitor to Ratavan House. Brooke was educated by a succession of schoolmasters – Felix Comerford, Dr Thomas Sheridan (qv), and a Dr Jones – and Swift foretold great success. He entered TCD as a pensioner (1720/21) and, after completing his studies, proceeded to London to study law at the Temple (1724). Immediately on his return, Brooke was summoned to the deathbed of a favoured aunt at Meares Court, Co. Westmeath, who requested he take guardianship of a 12-year-old cousin, Catherine Meares. Within two years of Catherine being placed in a Dublin boarding school, the two were married, first clandestinely, then (being discovered) publicly.
While studying in England, Brooke became acquainted with writers Alexander Pope and George Lyttelton. Shortly after the birth of his third child in Ireland – there were twenty-two, of whom only two survived to adulthood – he briefly returned to London (1728), before beginning a period of eight years as chamber counsel in Dublin. During this time, Brooke began the long poem Universal beauty (1735?). The work, natural theology in verse, was revised by Pope and was the first evidence of Brooke's continuing religious interest. Having given up the law, Brooke returned again to London (1736/7) to pursue a literary career. He was active in political circles and befriended William Pitt (later Lord Chatham) and Frederick, prince of Wales. His play ‘Gustavus Vasa’ (1739), loosely based on events in Swedish history, parodied Sir Robert Walpole, then whig ‘prime minister’. While production was under way at Drury Lane it became the first work to be banned under the licensing act of 1737. Lord Chesterfield (qv), who had opposed the act, rose to Brooke's defence, as did Samuel Johnson. The prohibition did not, however, extend to publication. The printed play and a subsequent revised production in Dublin as ‘The patriot’ (Aungier St., 1741), out of the reach of the act, were both successful.
Seemingly established, Brooke bought a home near Pope's in Twickenham but, after a serious illness, returned to Ireland on doctor's orders. Although his recovery was immediate, he remained in Ireland because of his wife's fears about his political activities. Brooke continued to write, largely for the stage, throughout his life. His ‘Earl of Westmoreland’ (1745), another historical-political drama, was first performed at Aungier St. (1741/2) with a prologue and epilogue performed by the great English actor David Garrick. It was again successful, as was its revival as ‘Injured honour’ (1754). This marked Brooke's first professional association with Garrick, who eventually offered to pay Brooke to compose exclusively for him, an offer the Irishman refused. His Irish productions did not remain free from controversy. His operatic satire ‘Jack the giant-queller’ (Smock Alley, 1749) was prohibited after a single performance. Its songs, incorporating native airs, were separately and successfully published, though a subsequent revived production of the play failed. Another tragedy, the ‘Earl of Essex’ (1749), was produced in both Dublin (Smock Alley, 1750) and London (1761). On this occasion, Dr Johnson famously parodied the play. The Brooke family later suggested that some quarrel between the two led to Johnson's animosity and the exclusion of Brooke from his Lives of the poets. Additional dramatic works, largely unacted, included numerous tragedies, comedies, melodrama, and an oratorio, but were, in sum, derivative and moralising. Only ‘Gustavus Vasa’ survived into the next century.
Whatever Mrs Brooke's hopes, her husband seemed unable to avoid controversy. In the early 1740s Brooke published proposals for an Irish history and Ogygian tales, a collection of Irish fables and stories. Both projects were abandoned, however, as Brooke became involved in a dispute with the historian Charles O'Conor (qv), after he had attempted to use material provided by O'Conor for a collective project for one of his own.
On his father's death (1745), Brooke returned as landowner and landlord of Ratavan. This change, and the financial difficulties which were to become endemic, also marked his entry into Dublin's pamphlet wars. A series of Farmer's letters spanning fifteen years (1745–60) show a remarkable evolution of Brooke's Patriot politics. Modelled on Swift, the first series were written in 1745, coinciding with the Jacobite rising in Scotland. These were shrilly anti-catholic, written to prepare fellow protestants for the spread of Jacobitism. Their influence was not limited to Ireland: Garrick, then still on good terms, paid tribute in verse in London. Not for the last time, O'Conor answered the letters, suggesting that the ‘Farmer’ was creating, rather than quelling, sectarian divisions. Perhaps as a reward for this work, Chesterfield, then viceroy of Ireland, gave Brooke the post of barrack-master of Mullingar (1745), and its annual salary was to prove increasingly important.
By 1749 Brooke's political profile was such that the electors of Dublin attempted unsuccessfully to recruit him. He declined in favour of Charles Lucas (qv), the Dublin apothecary and political demagogue. Brooke lent his support to Lucas in another series of Farmer's letters (1749), to which, with other similar pieces, O'Conor again responded. After parliament's denunciation of Lucas and his subsequent flight (October 1749), Brooke waited some years before publishing additional Farmer's letters (1753–4) to account for how the Patriots had been led astray. Brooke then withdrew from politics for five years and with his brother Robert, a painter, and his equally large family, attempted to modernise management of his Cavan estate. He was unsuccessful and was forced to mortgage the estate. Both families decamped to Daisy Park, near Sallins, Co. Kildare (1758). The new estate was rented from a cousin, Simon Digby of Landenstown, who also arranged for Robert to be made paymaster to the Grand Canal. This may have encouraged Brooke's return to writing. His Interests of Ireland (1759) was written in aid of parliamentary grants for promoting inland navigation. Another piece, the curious Liberty and common-sense (1759), sought to dispel rumours of political union of Britain and Ireland.
Perhaps as a result of his experiences as a landlord, in which his charity has been suggested as the cause of his failure, Brooke's politics became increasingly liberal. He drafted a proposal (1760?) suggesting catholic reforms in return for a loan from their properties. Surprisingly, it was with the assistance of O'Conor and the Catholic Committee that Brooke published his final series of ‘Farmer’ letters. Prefaced by an essay defending Irish history and culture, and citing O'Conor's works, these new letters (1760) argued that the penal laws were against the protestant interest. The same end was sought in his allegorical Tryal of the Roman Catholics (1761). Brooke even proposed to O'Conor a joint history, though perhaps with their earlier dispute in mind, the historian silently declined. Brooke's works failed to sell and he made increasing, and increasingly tactless, demands for payments before the arrangement was finally ended. Brooke subsequently became the first editor (1763–4) of the Freeman's Journal and wrote sixty-five ‘Watchman’ pieces before quitting for financial reasons.
This same period saw the genesis of Brooke's most famous work, The fool of quality (5 vols, 1765–70). In a sprawling, sentimental style similar to Henry Fielding and contemporaries Lawrence Sterne (qv) and George MacKenzie, the novel was, in the vocabulary of the day, both ‘pathetic’ and humorous. Following the varying fortunes of the title character from childhood to adulthood, it also drew comparisons with Jean-Jacques Rousseau's Emile (1762). Its loose framework provided for a wide variety of discourses on politics and education, debtors' prisons and women's rights, as well as the penal laws. It reflected, too, Brooke's own deepening religious interest. He and his extended family were both strongly affected by methodism, then still within the established church, and he approved an abridged single-volume edition (1781), edited by John Wesley (qv). In a frequently told anecdote, Brooke was requested to speak extempore by his local congregation. Consenting, he brought them, as he had with his novel, to tears.
Brooke's fortunes in the 1770s were again mixed. A remittance from nephew Col. Robert Brooke (qv), a successful soldier in India, allowed the writer to return to an estate near Ratavan House (1770). Here again he attempted to effect numerous improvements, on which he contributed tracts for the Dublin Society. He met, however, with no more success than before. The death of his wife after a long illness (c.1772–3), and the loss of so many of his children, left Brooke's physical and mental health increasingly unstable. His decline is evident in the last volume of The fool of quality and his final three-volume novel Juliet Grenville (1774). Brooke finally died in Dublin on 10 October 1783 and was buried in his father's churchyard in Mullagh. After his death, his daughter Charlotte Brooke (qv) compiled the definitive four-volume collection (1792) of his literary work. If neither his poetic nor political writings rank Brooke among Ireland's great writers, together they constitute a fascinating and important record of the complexity of eighteenth-century Irish thought.