Brenan, John (1768–1830), physician and satirist, was born March 1768, eldest of six children of a minor landed catholic family from Ballaghide, Co. Carlow. The details of his early life are unknown. In 1793 he wrote epigrams and short verse for Dublin magazines. Claiming to have graduated MD from Glasgow University (which has no record of this), he practised medicine in Dublin from about 1801. From 1812 he appears to have held the honorary position of assistant physician to Maynooth College. He claimed to be the first person to use turpentine against puerperal fever, having first observed its benefits in 1812 when he saw a farrier use it to cure a horse of colic. When he used this treatment without permission in Dublin's Rotunda Hospital during an epidemic of puerperal fever in 1813 he was dismissed by the master, Francis Hopkins (qv). Brenan, however, continued to insist in the effectiveness of the treatment, for general intestinal and infantile diseases as well as puerperal fever, and expounded his ideas in a number of pamphlets: Essay on child-bed fever (1813), Thoughts on puerperal fever and its cure by spirits of turpentine (1814), and Reflections upon oil of turpentine, and upon the present condition of the medical profession in Ireland (1817). In these he denounced the Dublin medical establishment as a venal cartel more concerned with protecting its privileges than with the advancement of medicine. He claimed that its members had denied him credit for his discovery, publicly decrying his methods while secretly using them, and he compared his fate to those of other pioneers such as Jenner, Harvey, and Galileo. He also attacked the RCPI for its insistence on subjecting the graduates of Scottish universities to examination and a fifty-guinea (£52.50) fee to license their practice.
During this time he continued to write for periodicals, notably the Irish Magazine of Walter Cox (qv). However, he quarrelled with Cox in January 1812, and began (April 1812) his own Milesian Magazine or Irish Monthly Gleaner, which was published erratically till July 1825 with intervals of months, or even years, between its numbers. Scurrilous, unreliable, and highly entertaining, it was largely devoted to extolling the benefits of turpentine and vilifying Brenan's enemies, especially Cox and the Dublin medical establishment. Even by the abrasive standards of Dublin journalism, it was particularly vituperative: his comment on the Rotunda Hospital, for example, was that ‘this pest house should . . . be levelled to the earth’ (Milesian Magazine, xvi (1825). The first number dredged up Cox's association with the Union Star, which had advocated the assassination of named loyalists in 1797–8, and the second contained an illustration of Cox killing his wife. Cox's magazine responded in kind, mocking Brenan's poverty, his medical practice, and his readiness to engage in bouts of wrestling – particularly his habit of breaking opponents' shins and then offering to fix them. Brenan was indeed an enthusiastic and skilled wrestler, regularly organising and engaging in bouts on Dublin's North Strand. Cox also ridiculed Brenan's family problems. It seems that after Brenan's father, who owned land worth £200 a year in Castle Hill, Co. Carlow, died intestate, Brenan took a prolonged suit against his mother in the court of chancery. In the end the entire value of the property went to the attorneys (thereafter another profession often savaged by Brenan) and Brenan's mother died in Dublin's Channel Row poorhouse in February 1812, an event mercilessly pillioried by Cox.
Among other figures attacked by Brenan were catholic leaders such as Lords Fingal (qv), Gormanston (qv), and Kenmare (qv), and John Keogh (qv). He supported catholic emancipation, and denounced those prepared to accept a government veto on episcopal appointments as ‘lurking, smuggling, trafficking, veto, deistical, upstart foes of the catholic religion’ (Milesian Magazine (May 1812), 49). However, the anti-veto Daniel O'Connell (qv) was also included in his wide-ranging attacks and he lampooned the catholic leaders about to bring a petition for emancipation to London with a verse beginning: ‘Barney, Barney, buck or doe / Who shall with the petition go’. For this he allegedly received a pension of £200 a year from Dublin Castle.
Many of his satires were verse adaptations from Latin classics. Apparently Brenan possessed ‘classical attainments of a high order, and very considerable talents, which were most sadly misused by him’ (Madden, 290). He was known in Dublin as ‘the wrestling doctor’ or ‘the turpentine doctor’, and his eccentricity was such that many contemporaries believed him to be mentally unbalanced. On his deathbed he continually repeated the couplet: ‘Barney, Barney, buck or doe / Has kept me out of Channel Row’. He died in Britain St., Dublin, July 1830, leaving a son and a daughter.