Brennan, Robert (1881–1964), republican, journalist, writer, and diplomat, was born in Co. Wexford on 22 July 1881, second child and eldest son among four children of Robert Brennan (d. 1919), cattle dealer, and Bridget Brennan (née Kearney; d. 1938), dressmaker. He was educated at the CBS in Wexford and subsequently studied for an RUI qualification. An employee of Wexford county council as assistant county surveyor, he left in 1909 to join the staff of the Enniscorthy Echo as a reporter. Brennan was also Wexford correspondent of the Irish Times. Brennan was a founder member of the Wexford branch of the Gaelic League, teaching the Irish language to local League members. He became county secretary of Sinn Féin and organised the IRB in Wexford. As one of the leaders of the 1916 rising in the county, he narrowly escaped execution, his death sentence being commuted to penal servitude. Brennan spent much of 1916 and 1917 interned in English prisons including Dartmoor, Lewes (where he wrote two full-length mystery novels), and Parkhurst. On release in June 1917 he returned to the staff of the Enniscorthy Echo and was involved with the reorganisation of the Irish Volunteers. Arrested again, he was sent to Cork prison, where he went on hunger strike. He was released in November 1917. By January 1918 he was in charge of the Sinn Féin publicity bureau. After the May 1918 ‘German plot’ Brennan was appointed director of elections for Sinn Féin for the 1918 general election, but was arrested before the election in November and imprisoned at Gloucester until March 1919. Later in 1919, on his return to Dublin, Brennan briefed the American delegates selected at the Irish race convention in Philadelphia, to attempt to secure a hearing for Ireland at the Paris peace conference.
Brennan produced the Irish Bulletin during the Anglo–Irish war. From February 1921 to January 1922 Brennan served as the first secretary of the Dáil Éireann Department of Foreign Affairs, with the title ‘under-secretary for foreign affairs’. He was appointed by Éamon de Valera (qv) to the post in an attempt by de Valera to gain control over the ministry from its nominal and ineffectual head, Count Plunkett (qv). Far from being a political appointee, Brennan began to organise and professionalise what had from January 1919 been a diplomatic service without routine procedures. He travelled to London with the Irish delegation to the treaty negotiations in October 1921 and then began a tour of various European capital cities, meeting Irish envoys stationed on the Continent. Brennan was in Berlin when he heard of the conclusion of the London negotiations. He did not support the 1921 Anglo–Irish treaty and resigned in early 1922, being succeeded by Joseph Walshe (qv). He spent early 1922 in Paris, involved in the organisation of the Irish Race Conference; he resigned when it became clear that Desmond FitzGerald (qv) was to manage the conference. In July 1922 Brennan became director of publicity for the anti-treaty forces.
In 1921 his first novel, The false fingertip, was published under the pen name ‘R. Selskar Kearney’. Through his life Brennan was a prolific writer of stories for magazines, including Ireland's Own, and various newspapers. In 1926 his second novel, The Toledo dagger, was published. In the 1930s his play about the life of convicts in an English prison, ‘The bystander’, was performed in the Abbey, and later in the decade his comedy on the disappearance of the Irish crown jewels, ‘Goodnight Mr O'Donnell’, was performed at the Olympia theatre in Dublin. It was later translated into Irish as ‘Oidhche Mhaith agat, a Mhic Ui Dhomhnaill’.
After the civil war Brennan returned to journalism and hoped to establish a newspaper espousing the post-treaty Sinn Féin point of view. Brennan supported de Valera in the 1926 split in Sinn Féin and was present at the inaugural meeting of Fianna Fáil at the La Scala theatre, Dublin, on 16 May 1926. In 1927 he spent many months in the USA with Frank Gallagher (qv), collecting funds for Fianna Fáil; and on three occasions that year (June and September general elections and the July by-election arising from the assassination of Kevin O'Higgins (qv)) he stood unsuccessfully in Dublin county. In 1931 he was appointed the first general manager of the Irish Press, which he had also helped to establish.
In February 1934 Brennan was reinstated in the diplomatic service as secretary of the Irish legation in Washington. Following a number of months as acting chargé d'affaires, in August 1938 Brennan was appointed Irish minister to the USA. He remained in Washington until 1947, playing an extremely important role during the second world war by explaining and defending Irish neutrality to the Roosevelt administration, a task made all the more difficult by the negative reporting of de Valera's policies by the US minister in Dublin, David Gray (qv), a relation of Eleanor Roosevelt. Brennan was close to the leaders of the Democratic Party and had many friends in congress and excellent contacts with the Washington press. Using them he quashed rumours of German spies operating openly in Ireland, and protested strenuously to the US government when American troops were stationed in Derry in January 1942, and during the ‘American note’ incident of 1944. As the war ended, Brennan played an important part in the conclusion of the Irish–American bilateral air agreement of February 1945. Brennan's account of his wartime mission in Washington was published in the Irish Press in April and May 1958. The account was in part a rebuttal of comments made on Ireland's wartime policies, in particular regarding espionage in Ireland and the American note incident, by the former secretary of state Cordell Hull in his own memoirs.
Brennan returned to Ireland in April 1947 and moved out of the world of diplomacy to become director of broadcasting at Radio Éireann. Initially it was hoped that his contacts in the USA would enable him to play an active part in the establishment of an Irish short-wave radio service, which had been agreed by cabinet in 1945. The service was cancelled and Brennan was removed from the post by the inter-party government in August 1948. He retired and devoted his time to writing his memoirs, published in 1950 as Allegiance. In 1950 he returned to the public service as director of the Irish News Agency. A further novel, set in Washington, The man who walked like a dancer, was published in 1951. Through 1956 and 1957 Brennan published a weekly column of reminiscences in the Irish Press entitled ‘Mainly meandering’. In 1958 Allegiance and Brennan's memoir on de Valera were published in serial form in the Irish Press. Robert Brennan died 12 November 1964 at his home, 42 Dodder Park Road, Dublin, and was buried at Mount Jerome cemetery, Dublin. He left an estate of £3,768.
He married (6 July 1909) Una (Anastasia) Bolger (1888–1958). They had five children: Emer (b. 1910), Manus (1911–12), Maeve (qv), who later wrote for the New Yorker, Deirdre (b. 1918), and Robert Patrick (b. 1928). Brennan's Ireland standing firm (1958) and Eamon de Valera: a memoir (1958) were republished by the UCD press as a joint edition in 2002, with an introduction by Richard Rupp. There are Robert and Maeve Brennan papers in the University of Delaware library.