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Obituary: Tom Brennan

The millionaire builder developed the suburbs of Dublin and appeared at the planning tribunal

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Builder Tom Brennan, seen here arriving at the funeral of developer Patrick Gallagher in Booterstown, Dublin, in 2006. Photo: Tony Gavin
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Builder Tom Brennan, seen here arriving at the funeral of developer Patrick Gallagher in Booterstown, Dublin, in 2006. Photo: Tony Gavin

Tom Brennan was one half of the Mayo-born building duo Brennan & McGowan, who shaped the future of modern Dublin suburbs with affordable housing.

Originally from near the village of Ballyglass, he was born into a family of seven and worked on the farm before emigrating to Chicago following the death of his father. There he joined his older brother Mike working on the new buildings going up around the city, some among the tallest in the world at that time.

He did his military service while in the United States and attended night classes in construction. After seven years, in 1964, he came back to Ireland and, while looking around for a business opportunity, one of his sisters introduced him to fellow Mayo man, Joe McGowan, at a dance in the Arcadia ballroom in Bray, Co Wicklow.

Joe was working with his uncle John on a small building project in Rathfarnham and after lunch in the Kilimanjaro restaurant in Baggot Street, Tom Brennan went with him to look at the site.

Although a lifelong pioneer, they went into the Yellow House in Rathfarnham afterwards and decided to go into the building business together - Brennan was 26 and McGowan 20 years of age.

They opened an account in the Munster & Leinster Bank and put £2,000 each into a partnership. Building houses in Rathfarnham, Killiney, Kilnamanagh (cost £4,900), Tallaght, Blakestown, Shankill, Hartstown, Mulhuddart and other greenfield sites on the edges of Dublin followed, making both of them millionaires within a few years.

"They provided the houses for people who thought that owning a house was unachievable. They enabled people with modest incomes to buy homes at affordable prices," Tom's eldest daughter, Joan, said at his funeral mass last Tuesday.

Quietly spoken, Tom Brennan had a steely determination. When he was asked to become chairman of Hume Street Hospital in 1990 after almost two decades as a board member, he didn't want to take the position initially because the public role required him to make speeches, and he had a genuine terror of public speaking.

But he enrolled in a course, overcame his fear and was the last president of Hume Street Hospital board before it was absorbed in the Charles Institute of Dermatology in UCD in 2006.

The close association of Brennan & McGowan with the Fianna Fáil minister for the environment, Ray Burke, and the Dublin City manager, George Redmond, made them leading witnesses at the Flood Tribunal, which was investigating corruption in the planning process.

During lengthy appearances in the witness box in 2001, Tom Brennan told tribunal barrister Patrick Hanratty SC that he operated from a small office in Mountjoy Square with a secretary he shared with business associates. He said he didn't correspond with solicitors or keep files; and despite having a myriad companies and bank accounts, trust funds, offshore accounts and extensive bloodstock interests, the paperwork hardly filled "a small filing cabinet".

"I keep all of it in my head," he said, adding that when he needed professional advice, he went to see people rather than getting written opinions. He revealed that a Ms Nolan typed his correspondence, which, according to a colourful newspaper description of the proceedings, caused Mr Hanratty to "raise his eyebrows".

"On what?" he inquired.

"On a typewriter," replied Mr Brennan with a deadpan smile, indicating that modern technology was as foreign to him as paperwork.

"Tom was brought up the old way, the rule-of-thumb way, hunch, instinct, gut feeling, intuition, the ability to understand and to do something about it," said his lifelong business partner and friend, Joe McGowan, the other half of the duo, last week.

"These principles worked and were responsible for Brennan & McGowan building 7,000 affordable houses in Dublin. The barristers and planning tribunal we didn't have to worry about because all the land we purchased already had planning permission or was rezoned.

"Tom was my partner and lifelong close friend for 37 years and I will miss him."

Tom Brennan and Joe McGowan also had the distinction of appointing a receiver to Dublin City Council in 1978 after it voted not to pay their company Grange Developments €1,871,917 awarded by the High Court in compensation for the refusal of planning permission for a housing development on the Malahide road.

For a brief period the council was threatened with prison by Mr Justice Murphy for contempt of court, for refusing to obey his order. "The law of the land must be obeyed by everybody, and if they don't they go to Mountjoy," said the judge, before the payment was made as ordered.

In 1976 Tom Brennan bought the 150-acre Hilltown Stud near Clonee, Co Meath, from Cecil King Harman and in the years that followed, became a well-known figure in the bloodstock and horse racing industry, with some of his better prospects trained by Henry Cecil and Jim Bolger. He was also a passionate golfer, playing at Royal Dublin and The Hermitage, and once having a handicap of four.

But "above all he was a family man" said Joe McGowan, who introduced Tom Brennan to Nuala, the woman who would become Tom Brennan's wife. After she qualified as a midwife, the pair married in Rome in 1969 and spent the remainder of their lives together, in Castleknock and later their estate at Hilltown.

Tom Brennan, who had dementia, died on January 29 at the age of 84. He is survived by his wife and their five daughters, Joan, Martha, Eimer, Catriona and Angela.

Sunday Independent

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