Note: I am posting this article with Robert Bott's permission.
Irish-Canadian author Brian Brennan
drew readers into Alberta’s past… and his own
By Robert Bott
Brian Brennan: Musician. Husband. Father. Broadcaster. Journalist. Strike leader. Biographer. Historian. Novelist. Born Oct. 4, 1943, in Dublin, Ireland; died Feb. 21, 2021, in Calgary, aged 77.
Brian Brennan’s book launches drew crowds. Calgarians expected perceptive prose after his 25 years with the Calgary Herald as a reporter, critic, feature writer, and columnist, and they enjoyed his deep voice with its light brogue and careful diction, instantly recognizable from CBC Radio appearances. He was an entertaining and informative storyteller—and there might be a song or two.
His 13 books included three major biographies, a memoir, a history of the Calgary Public Library, a novel, and seven collections of Alberta stories and profiles. The biographies reflected the depth and breadth of his diverse interests.
Brian was equally talented in music. His bass vocals and fluency on piano, organ, and accordion provided his income for several stretches after he landed in Canada. He began playing professionally in Dublin at age 14 for church choirs, weddings, and funerals. His last public performance was accompanying his vocalist daughter Nicole (Nico) Brennan in Calgary on March 12, 2020, just before Covid-19 struck. “I always thought it was neat the way his performance life and his writing life were so intimately entwined,” Nico said after his passing.
Brian grew up in middle-class Dublin and Cork, the son of a tax official and a schoolteacher, and was educated by Christian Brothers in English and Gaelic. Unable to afford university, he became a minor functionary in Customs and Excise, while playing music on the side. After three years, he got paid leave to attend University College Dublin, supposedly studying administration but in fact hanging out with the “arts crowd” discussing literature and music.
In 1966, he and a friend decided to try their luck abroad. They chose Canada because it welcomed immigrants and provided interest-free loans for passage. In Vancouver, Brian worked at a customs brokerage for seven boring months. His break was a summer job as a musician-performer entertaining tourists in Dawson Creek, BC.
In the fall of 1967, he and fellow Irishman Shay Duffin scored a record deal with RCA Camden and a nine-month tour of Ontario and the Maritimes. The “Dublin Rogues” duo combined Irish ballads, comedy patter, and musical parodies.
Brian met Zelda Pineau on February 29, 1968, while performing in Halifax, and he was smitten. They began a long-distance romance leading to their marriage in Vancouver in November 1968.
Encouraged by Zelda’s praise for his letter writing, Brian enrolled in a journalism program in Vancouver but after one semester took a reporting job at the weekly Interior News in the northern BC town of Smithers. Nico was born there on March 10, 1969.
After two years in small-town Smithers, the Brennans moved to small-city Prince George. Zelda found an office job while Brian became an announcer and city hall reporter for a private radio station, along with freelance writing and piano playing in a lounge. The editor of the Prince George Citizen showed up one night and offered a full-time job on the daily.
Brian covered Prince George city hall and local cultural events for two years. In late 1973, he was rewarded with a three-month internship in the Ottawa bureau of Southam News and the chance to write about topics like the Canada Council. Many papers ran his humorous piece about playing the National Arts Centre’s new pipe organ.
The Calgary Herald hired Brian in April 1974 as an entertainment reporter and theatre critic. For a dozen years, he covered almost every aspect of the city’s expanding arts scene. In the late 1980s, he became an award-winning feature writer for the paper’s Sunday Magazine, before segueing into the “Legacy” columns for which he is still fondly remembered. The columns celebrated the recently departed with an intimacy seldom found in obituaries.
In the late 1990s, changes in ownership and management led to rising tension at the paper. Brian’s columns were cut to once a week, and he was assigned to “lifestyle” stories he considered trivial. He joined a union organizing committee that won certification in late 1998 with more than 75 per cent support among the 160 editorial employees, and he was on the bargaining committee during a year of fruitless negotiations leading to a strike in November 1999.
Brian was a leader among the “Club of 93”—the number of staffers who held out for the entire eight months of the bitter strike—but he accepted that he would not be returning to the Herald. He was better prepared than most for life as a freelancer. Zelda had a good job teaching for the Catholic School Board, and Nico was well into her professional singing career. Brian already had two book projects in the works that would establish his reputation as an author and historian.
The Mary O’Leary biography, Máire Bhuí Ní Laoire: A Poet of Her People (Collins, 2000), was a personal project about a distant relative. Nico had discovered new material about O’Leary during a 1992 “roots” sojourn in Ireland, and Brian researched her life and times on return visits to his homeland. O’Leary (1774–1848) was a songwriter, a resonant link for the musical Brennans.
Brian’s first Canadian book, Building a Province: 60 Alberta Lives (Fifth House, 2000), profiled men and women, famous and obscure, who shaped the province’s evolution. Its success led to another six thematic collections of journalistic and historical stories with titles like Scoundrels and Scallywags: Characters from Alberta’s Past. They provided fodder for many entertaining radio interviews.
His next biography came out in 2006, How the West Was Written: The Life and Times of James H. Gray. Best known for his portrayals of life on the Prairies during the Great Depression, Gray (1906–1998) was a person Brian had met and interviewed and, in some ways, emulated. Both were largely self-educated former newspapermen with a keen interest in social history. Like Gray, Brian would eventually produce a dozen books, including the biography of a prominent politician; for Gray, it had been former prime minister R.B. Bennett.
The Good Steward: The Ernest C. Manning Story (2008), an important work, was not a labour of love. Despite leading Alberta through vast transitions from 1943 to 1968, the Social Credit preacher-politician offered none of the quirks and escapades that enlivened Brian’s other tales. However, the book was praised by academics and politicians.
Brian’s memoir, Leaving Dublin: Writing My Way from Ireland to Canada (2011), describes experiences unique to his era and circumstances, yet it is also a self-invention story familiar to many immigrants. His novel, The Love of One’s Country (2020), blends fictionalized versions of his own story and that of Mary O’Leary. More blog posts and travel stories are on his website, www.brianbrennan.ca
As the writer of many obituaries, Brian of course had pre-written his own. It concluded with a tip of the hat to his many friends, especially the “Club of 93” stalwarts from the Herald picket line: "Good night and joy be with you all."
A memorial will be held when pandemic restrictions permit. There will be music.
Calgary writer Robert Bott, a friend since 1974, was assisted by Nico and Zelda Brennan, former Herald managing editor Gillian Steward, and Charlene Dobmeier, Brian’s publisher at Fifth House.