Friday 6 December 2019

John N Brennan

Author whose background in law and horse racing led to a sweeping oeuvre, writes Charles Lysaght

John Needham Huggard Brennan, who has died in Wexford at the age of 96, was, under the pseudonym of John Welcome, a prolific and versatile author whose output included thrillers, novels, biography and other historical topics.

He was prominent in racing circles as chairman of Wexford Racecourse, twice senior steward of the National Hunt Steeplechase Committee and one of the longest- serving members of the Turf Club. He hunted with several local packs in Wexford where, until his retirement over 30 years ago, he practised as a solicitor.

John's family roots were in Kerry, on the Lansdowne estate, but his father, a solicitor, married into the legal family of the Huggards in Wexford and practised there, attaining local renown as an advocate. Uncertain of the future for protestants in independent Ireland, he sent John to Sedbergh in Yorkshire, where he won a place to read law in Exeter College, Oxford.

He was taught there by Cheshire and Fifoot, authors of a standard book on the law of contract. Cheshire was not impressed by John and told him he had no future as a lawyer. The trouble was that he had got in with the horsey set and was doing little work. Fifoot spotted that for all his idleness, John had an incisive mind and encouraged him to persevere with law.

Returning to Ireland, he qualified as a solicitor and practised in Cork with Exhams, but his career was interrupted by the outbreak of the Second World War and he was commissioned in the Royal Artillery.

But he had got no further than England when, in 1942, his parents perished in a house fire and John was released to rescue the family practice which was in some disarray.

Capable as he was as a lawyer, John was not absorbed mentally by it and began to write. In those days, solicitors were not permitted to advertise themselves so he had to adopt a pen name. Hence John Welcome.

Beginning with Red Coats Galloping in 1950, he produced a regular succession of well- crafted novels. Some, such as the best-selling Grand National, were about the horsey world he knew so well.

His novel Bellary Bay is set in Kerry during the War of Independence and shows a sympathy for the rebel side acquaintances might not have suspected. He was a writer whose books were difficult to put down once begun. His writing has echoes of John Buchan, with whom he was sometimes compared.

Among his non-fiction was an authoritative history of the Cheltenham Gold Cup and a biography of Fred Archer, which was described as the best biography of a jockey ever written. He turned his legal expertise to good use in Cheating with Cards, an account of three famous Victorian court cases, one of which, "Pike v Beamish" was heard in Cork and related to an altercation in the Cork County Club.

He wrote frequently for newspapers on racing and as a book reviewer. He was part of a talented team assembled by Bruce Arnold in the 1990s to review books regularly in the Irish Independent.

A charming, handsome man with a formidable presence and a touch of hauteur, John lived in a beautiful Georgian house at Drinagh, outside Wexford.

His mental faculties were unimpaired into extreme old age. He worked to the end, completing unfinished works for publication and assessing books for a daughter who was a literary agent in London. Early this year, failing physical health compelled him to move into a home and part with his beloved house, where he had been lovingly cared for by his loyal staff.

John was predeceased by his wife Stella and an infant son. He is survived by his four daughters. His funeral service at Killinick church last Tuesday, planned in detail by himself, concluded cheerfully with his daughter reading lines by the poet Banjo Paterson:

I don't want no harping nor singing --

Such things with my style don't agree:

Where the hoofs of the horses are ringing

There's music sufficient for me.

Sunday Independent

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