John Brennan - The Forgotten Rebel from Castlehayestown

Billy Sweetman

The folk memory of the 1798 insurrection in Co. Wexford is often remarkably vague considering how widespread and horrific were the effects. It would seem that the survivors were so traumatised by those awful days of May and June and the terrible months that followed, that they shut from their memories the scenes that they had witnessed or been part of. And so it could happen that a man who had a significant role would be forgotten in his own area and among his own people.

A Castlehayestown Farmer

John Brennan was a farmer from Castlehayestown and circumstantial evidence suggests that his farm was the same one later owned by the Callaghan family. The Brennans were well established in the area in the eighteenth century, and a number of them served as priests in the Diocese of Ferns and are buried in nearby Whitechurch.

That John Brennan was a man of some substance can be deemed from the fact that in the years preceding the insurrection he had acted as a sheriff. He was obviously considered a loyal, dependable man, helping the government maintain law and order in the Taghmon area.

The victory on Oulart Hill was one of the most important events in Irish history, both in its immediate effects and its long term repercussions. Had victory gone the other way the recent history of Ireland would have been much different. The insurrection immediately gathered a momentum that tended to claw all, willingly or unwillingly, into its bosom. The choice became painfully simple- 'he that is not with me is against me'.

Two historians of the insurrection make reference to John Brennan. Richard Musgrave mentioned him in passing, while Thomas Cloney paints a rather intimate picture of Brennan in action as Commissary to the southern section of the Wexford insurgents.

Brennan the Commissary

As commissary to the southern army it was Brennan's task to supervise the collection and distribution of supplies - not an easy task but one for which his former experience as sheriff gave him some preparation. There was a danger of wasteful use of food. At Radford Rowe's farm in Bantry forty cattle had been slaughtered but were not properly cured. Brennan had to follow the fighting men, requisition supplies from well-off farmers and see that they were fairly handed out to those who needed them.

Richard Musgrave came across a few receipts that had been issued bearing John Brennan's name, e.g.

Received from Mr John Brennan seventeen bullocks to keep till called for.
Stephen Meyler

The Commissioner-in-Chief requests Commissary Brennan to give bread for forty men for Captain Devereux's corps.
June 15th
Lacken Hill

Mr John Brennan,
Please to send dinner for twelve men belonging to Jeremiah Fitzhenry.

In a footnote Musgrave says of Brennan: 'He had been a member of the Healthfield Cavalry and in violation of his oath of allegiance deserted and joined the rebels'.

Cloney's Comments

Thomas Cloney was in his early twenties when the 1798 insurrection occurred and had fought at The Three Rocks and New Ross and had seen Brennan in action. His account shows something of the amused arrogance of youth.

'There was a great defect in one of our principal departments: the Commissariat not being established on that footing that would cause to apprehend that a scarcity in provision alone would soon paralyse the exertions of the people. Mr John Brennan of Castlehayestown was our Commissary; he was a very respectable man, and a bon vivant, and well accustomed to good living; his situation was not the most uncomfortable, although he was subject to the taunts of voracious gluttons who thought they could never get enough to eat and drink; yet he did the best he could to divide fairly among the people what was placed under his care.'

After the battle of New Ross on the 5th of June, the insurgents had established a camp, first on Slieve Coilte, and later on Lacken Hill where they remained almost a fortnight. Here Mr Brennan helped to feed both these men and those who joined them on the hill. One of those who helped with the cooking was Mary Doyle from Castleboro. On the morning of 19th June the Crown forces were seen advancing towards the camp. Had it not been for the quick thinking of Cloney there might have been disaster. Fr Philip Roche was in no fit condition to issue orders, but Cloney managed to get most of the insurgents away from the hill. But the retreat was so rapid that the Commissary who was at his post some distance from the main body was oblivious of what was happening.

Cloney continues: 'At the moment of our retreat he (Brennan) was at his post in a quarter remote from the road by which we descended from the hill; so that the hospitality of our generous host seemed to be now forgotten by his not receiving timely notice of our movements. I believe it was by the vigilance of his cook, the gallant point of war, Miss Doyle, the worthy man was saved. When he got notice of his danger he mounted a long tailed charger he had, his dress being remarkable - a long scarlet coat like a huntsman's and a large helmet. It was ludicrous to see him descend the hill at full speed while two or three fierce Hessians were running him breast high. When our friend got up to us, and that he had advanced some distance into our ranks he looked about to see if the Hessians had vanished and finding all danger disappear he cried out with vehemence to know what cowardly officer it was who ordered the retreat? Some of our warm-hearted soldiers threatened to shoot the patriotic commissary for making such a remark on any of our officers.'

'This gentlemen, Brennan, wrote Cloney, 'was arrested very early after the insurrection and transported to Botany Bay. What charge was preferred against him I never learned, but I am satisfied he was incapable of committing a dishonourable act. He was an elderly man and had a large family, but their claims to commiseration or mercy for him were not attended to; he died some years back in New South Wales.'

Sentenced to Transportation

Richard Roche in Here's Their Memory has a list of 'prisoners held in Wexford gaol in March 1799 as a result of involvement in the rising'. John Brennan's name appears as one of those transported. His wife's petition for mercy was unsuccessful. (See Appendix A)

On the 22nd of August 1799 the convict ship 'The Friendship' put out from Cork and set sail for Australia. There were over 150 convicts on board. Besides Brennan, other prominent Wexford men were Fr James Dixon, William Gough (Goff), Kilbride; Michael Hayes, Ballymurn and Wexford town, and Matthew Sutton, a barrister.

They were escorted by convoy as far as the Madeira Islands and their ship called at Capetown. It was the 16th of February when they at last reached Sydney and they had been at sea for about six months. Nineteen convicts had died on the voyage and 'on arrival many of the Irish prisoners were afflicted with dysentery, of which, several died.'

The convicts on 'The Friendship' had been very well behaved and the captain claimed 'he had not occasion during the whole passage to inflict the slightest punishment.'

Governor Hunter was perplexed as to how he should deal with some of the prisoners and on 20th March 1800 wrote to London: 'Many of the prisoners have been bred up in genteel life or to professions unaccustomed to hard labour... we can hardly divest ourselves of the common feelings of humanity so far as to send a physician, a formerly respectable sheriff of a county (Brennan), a Roman Catholic priest (Dixon) or a Protestant clergyman (Henry Fulton) to the grubbing hoe or timber carriage.' The Governor had been impressed already by Convict Brennan.

Whether John Brennan was allowed to bring his family or some of them out to Australia is uncertain. Most convicts were not - Cloney does not seem to think he did. Yet the 1801 muster, only a year from the date of landing, shows him with a family of four. In Whitechurch graveyard (Castlehayestown would have been in the old parish of Whitechurch) there is the following inscription, which is probably that of a close family relative:
Erected by Mrs Brennan of Castlehayestown, in memory of her son, Mr Arthur Brennan, who departed this life, 20th January 1812, aged 26? yrs.

Back in Australia, it seemed to be the case of one Commissary recognising another, for soon we hear that John Brennan is managing the farm of the local Commissary, James Williamson, at the Hawkesbury river. In January 1802 he received a conditional pardon but it was not until 1809 that he received a full pardon. By 1806 it would appear that he had acquired a farm of his own, one hundred acres at Cattai (Cat Eye) on the Hawkesbury River.

Governor Hunter was replaced by Governor King, and in 1806 William Bligh became Governor. This was the famous, or infamous, Captain Bligh of 'The Bounty'. Nor were his days in Australia to be less turbulent. In January the settlers revolted against his tyranny and arrested him. John Brennan was one of the few Irish involved in this revolt and he helped to draw up a petition calling for Bligh's removal, though he (Brennan) later regretted his part.

In 1809 a number of his fellow Wexford convicts were allowed to return to Ireland including Fr James Dixon, William Gough and Matthew Sutton. Whether Brennan wished to return is not known - his age may have deterred him undertaking such an arduous voyage.

In 1814 he was living at Windsor. In Unfinished Revolution Anne Marie Whittaker, on whose work the latter part of this note is based, wrote.... 'The agricultural expertise of men such as Brennan... contributed to the development of self sufficiency in the still economically fragile colony'.

Starting as a farmer in Castlehayestown, John Brennan had been sheriff, member of the Healthfield Cavalry, rebel commissary, convict and in Australia, farmer again and good citizen.


Thomas Cloney: A Personal Narrative of these Transactions in the County Wexford in which the Author was Engaged.
Anne Marie Whittaker: Unfinished Revolution.
Richard Roche: Here's Their Memory. Enniscorthy Guardian, Sept. 5, 1936
Tithe Composition.
Griffith's Valuation.
Brian Cantwell: Memorials of the Dead.
Richard Musgrave: Memoirs of the Irish Rebellion of 1798.
The National Archives