Brenon, Edward St John (Brennan, Edward John) (1842/3–1916), journalist and poet, was born Edward John Brennan in Dublin, son of William Brennan, master of St Mathias's Church of Ireland school; his mother was mistress of St Mathias's girls’ school. William Brennan also acted as tutor to John Boyce (b.1837), the epileptic (and subsequently alcoholic) younger son of a deceased Waterford merchant and landowner; this led to the development of a friendship between Boyce and the young Brenon. Brenon showed a precocious intelligence, a gift for languages, a love of music (he was a choirboy in the Chapel Royal, Dublin), and a determination to make up for the relative poverty of his background. In 1863 he went to London with the aim of pursuing musical training or reading for the English bar. He shared lodgings with Boyce, who had left his family and come to London meaning to study art. When Brenon was appointed organist of the British embassy church in Rome (1865), Boyce accompanied him. They lived at Rome until 1872, when Boyce moved to Naples. During this period Brenon established complete personal dominance over Boyce, transacting his business and overseeing his correspondence. He also produced several books of poetry, including Bianca (1867), narrative poems with an Italian setting, Ambrosia amoris (1869, as by Edward Brennan), notable for arrogant and self-righteous lubricity, The witch of Nemi and other poems (1873), and Lamentation on republican France (1870).
During a return visit to Ireland, Brenon married Frances Harris, a writer, on 19 October 1869; they had at least one son and one daughter. From 1867 he received the dividends on Boyce's holdings of government stock, which were subsequently transferred to his name. By this time Boyce's family were openly hostile to Brenon, whom they accused of defrauding Boyce; then and for years afterwards rumours circulated in Dublin that Brenon had murdered Boyce as well as robbing him.
Brenon claimed to have been tremendously impressed by witnessing the Italian Risorgimento, and to have been inspired by it to undertake a political career in Britain. He claimed that an acquaintance with Disraeli led to his standing for Berwick upon Tweed in 1874 and Gloucester at the general election of the same year; he was unsuccessful on both occasions. According to Brenon, these political setbacks led Boyce to draw up a deed (executed 20 February 1875) transferring his property to Brenon in order to give him the financial independence necessary for political success. For more than three decades Boyce remained in Naples, dependent on a small allowance from Brenon. He may have had his own reasons for remaining there: in subsequent legal proceedings passages from his correspondence showing ‘complete moral degeneration’ – in which Brenon was not involved – were shown to the judge (though not read in court) as proof of his insanity. It may be relevant that Naples was notorious for male prostitution.
In the late 1870s Brenon returned permanently to Ireland and spent some time as a leader-writer on the Irish Times; he also produced a work entitled The morals of Merrion Square. In May 1877 he unsuccessfully sought nomination as a home rule candidate at the Tipperary by-election. In 1880 he withdrew a proposed candidacy for Westmeath, and received a letter from C. S. Parnell (qv) offering him any other seat he might choose; he later claimed to have been on terms of intimate friendship with Parnell. According to T. M. Healy (qv), Parnell's friendliness towards Brenon reflected an attraction to Frances Brenon, which her husband was quite prepared to exploit, and from which all Healy's efforts were required to extract Parnell. In fact Frances was pregnant for most of 1879, gave birth to a son, Herbert Brenon (qv) (later a film director), in January 1880, and in the summer of 1880 experienced a temporary separation from her husband owing to his accusations of infidelity (which she passionately denied). While Healy probably did play a part in discouraging Parnell's association with Brenon, his account should also be seen as part of a lifetime's project of self-justification by emphasising Parnell's misdeeds.
The end of Brenon's relationship with Parnell was signalled by the appearance in 1881 of The tribune reflects, and other poems, dedicated to Gladstone ‘the scholar not the statesman’. The title piece is a long dramatic monologue in which Parnell is made to reflect on the fate of aristocratic demagogues and the humiliating compromises he has had to make to secure the loyalty of his followers, whose dirt, stupidity, treachery, and religious credulity are described in excoriating terms. T. D. Sullivan (qv) and his brother A. M. Sullivan (qv), T. M Healy (Scaeva), and E. D. Gray (qv), who had secured the Tipperary seat sought by Brenon, are singled out for contempt. Parnell is presented as a man of ability but humiliatingly aware of his inferiority to the uncompromising genius of ‘the Idoan’ (Brenon himself). The book also contains several dramatic monologues on classical, Neapolitan, and erotic themes (including a love poem to his wife).
Brenon went on to make a successful career in London conservative journalism, achieving particular renown for his vitriolic pen and drama criticism; he edited a paper called Piccadilly and later stated that at one point in his career he was editor of ‘one of the most important political papers on the continent’. In 1894 Frances Brenon sued her husband for divorce on the grounds of his adultery; during the proceedings he concealed his interest in the Boyce estate from the court. Brenon subsequently contracted a second marriage, ended by his wife's death in 1904. By this time he was in severely reduced financial circumstances and suffering from a severe illness which brought him near to death and cost him the sight of one eye.
In 1907 some of Boyce's relatives found him living in Naples in conditions of the utmost filth and poverty and brought him back to Ireland, where he was placed in a private asylum. They then instigated legal proceedings to recover Boyce's property from Brenon. The case came to court in June 1909 and involved extensive exchanges between Brenon and Healy (acting as counsel for the relatives). Although the master of the rolls accepted Brenon's plea that the cession of his payments to Boyce had been due to his own difficulties rather than deliberate neglect, he held that the deed of 1875 was invalid because Boyce had not possessed the mental capacity to make it, that Brenon had exercised undue influence over him, and that Brenon's business relationship with Boyce was so intimate that it placed on him the undischarged onus of proof concerning the validity of the deed. He noted that Brenon repeatedly contradicted himself under oath, and accused him of fraud in securing and maintaining the deed. Brenon sought to appeal the judgment, but without success. He died in 1916.
Brenon is a striking example of the ‘Micks on the make’ active in international journalism in the nineteenth century. The destructive nature of his personal relationships and his failure to live up to his exalted self-image should not obscure the impression his abilities made on contemporaries. The judge who found against him in the Boyce case remarked that Brenon struck him as coming nearer to genius than any other witness he had seen in his career, and suggested that his failure to achieve greatness might be attributable to vanity.