Leaving Dublin: Brian Brennan JournalistThis September, Brian Brennan’s memoir “Leaving Dublin: Writing My Way from Ireland to Canada” hits the bookstores. Formerly a writer at the Calgary Herald before the dissolution of its union in 2000, he was a revered columnist and negotiated on the side of the workers during the eight month strike. Published by Calgary’s Rocky Mountain Books, Brennan’s memoir is described in a blurb on the publisher’s website as “an engaging and entertaining exploration of Brian Brennan’s life that begins in middle-class Dublin, includes stints as a travelling musician and broadcaster in Canada, and culminates in a career as an award-winning journalist and bestselling author.”With passion, candour, humour and vivid stories, Brian tells how he left a soul-destroying job in the Irish civil service to seek new opportunities in a country where he had no friends and no family connections. He offers revealing glimpses of suburban life in the postwar Ireland of the 1950s, the commercial music scene in Canada during the 1960s, and the commercial radio and newspaper scene during the last third of the 20th century, when journalism went from being a business with a conscience and a higher purpose to an enterprise owned by large corporations that care more about private profit than public debate.”

Brennan specializes in books about the colourful personalities of Western Canada’s past. Born in Dublin, Ireland in 1943, he immigrated to Canada in 1966, went to journalism school in Vancouver and worked at newspapers in Vernon, Smithers and Prince George, BC before moving to Calgary where he has lived since 1974. Prior to the labour dispute that resulted in his striking out on his own, he spent 25 years as a staff writer with the Calgary Herald, writing columns and feature stories.

As a storyteller, Brennan has been heard frequently on the CBC Radio program Daybreak Alberta, was short-listed for the 2003 Grant MacEwan Author’s Award, nominated for the Irish Times Literature Prize, 2001, and has received two Western Magazine Awards and the national Hollobon Award for journalism. He was the first winner of the Dave Greber Freelance Writers Award, presented in 2004.

Brennan is no stranger to telling stories about colourful people and events. He expressed this penchant for such things in a popular long running column he wrote for at the Calgary Herald as a “tribute to ordinary people.” He has published eight books of biography and social history including The Good Steward: The Ernest C. Manning Story (2008), How the West was Written: The Life and Times of James H. Gray (2006), Romancing the Rockies: Mountaineers, Missionaries, Marilyn & More (2005) and Scoundrels and Scallywags (2002).  Brennan was the first recipient of Canada’s Dave Greber Freelance Writers Award and has written freelance articles and columns for magazines and newspapers across the United States and Canada, including the New York Times, Globe and Mail and Toronto Star. Brian also serves on the National Council of The Writers’ Union of Canada.

The longest chapter in his memoir, Leaving Dublin focuses on Brennan’s experiences during the Calgary Herald strike that broke the union, ended his twenty five year employment as a journalist and began his career as a freelance writer and author. In an interview with Russell Bowers on CBC’s Daybreak Alberta on Saturday, September 10, Brennan claims the experience gave him “the kick in the pants I needed to get on with the rest of my life.”

Brennan’s Wikipedia entry, likely self-written but that is at it should be, offers some additional insight to the controversy.

Brennan was a leader in the attempt by the Communications, Energy and Paperworkers Union of Canada to organize a union local and negotiate a first contract with the Calgary Herald. Before and during the eight-month strike by journalists in 1999 and 2000, Brennan was a member of the union’s bargaining committee. When the strike ended in June 2000 with the dissolution of the union, he left to devote himself full-time to writing books and magazine articles.

When he wasn’t walking the picket lines, Brennan was writing his first two books. The first of these, Scoundrel and Scallywags, describes stories about “flamboyant, eccentric, and downright bizzare people who established this provincial tradition.” The review in the Calgary Herald claims that the book was “Alberta history in bite-sized, easily digested portions, a lively and entertaining romp through the years.” The book went on be short-listed for the Grant MacEwan Literary Award and was the first of many others in a similar vein. Since then, Brennan has published a book every two or three years, Leaving Dublin the most recent.

Not everyone is popping champagne corks in celebration of Brennan’s colourful memoir. It seems the the Wordfest organizers and the Calgary Herald, one of their platinum sponsors, prefer the cork left in the bottle rather than rehash a not so happy time in the Herald’s long and colourful history. In a July 24, 2011 post on his blog Alberta Diary, David Climenhaga asks “Is WordFest muzzling a popular author to keep the Calgary Herald happy? Sure sounds like it.” He writes that Brennan, who he calls  “the dean of Alberta popular historians,” was uninvited from reading from his latest book at the upcoming Wordfest literary festival.

They talked to him about reading again this year and only changed their minds after they’d looked at a draft of his newest book.

My guess is that likely the lengthy chapter recalls the troubling issues surrounding the Calgary Herald’s eight month lockout and they (and/or their Wordfest organizers on their behalf) would rather it not be read aloud in public and in front of an audience of writers, journalists, fellow sponsors, members of the media and many of their subscribers. How could you blame them?

The Herald lockout is a part of Calgary history,” says Brennan. “Readers are entitled to know why more than 90 journalists walked a picket line for eight months in hopes of securing a first collective agreement with their employer.

An interview posted to Brennan’s own blog likewise describes his perspective on the central issues in the decade old dispute:

Q: One of the longest chapters in Leaving Dublin is about an eight-month lockout and strike at the Calgary Herald in 1999-2000. Why did you devote so much space to this topic?

A: Because nobody had told the insider story before. This was an unusual dispute in Canadian labour history in the sense that it wasn’t about wages or vacation allowances. It was about a group of journalists who wanted to be treated with dignity and respect.

Q: Do you think people will take issue with your interpretations of certain events, for example your description of what was happening at the Calgary Herald before the journalists started walking a picket line?

A: Undoubtedly. Everyone has his or her version of a story. This is my version.

Let’s hope that the Wordfest organizers and the powers that be at the Calgary Herald reinvite Brennan to read from his memoir at this year’s Wordfest. It does makes some sense that Brennan doesn’t insist upon reading from the chapter that their valued and influential sponsor might prefer not to be read in public. It doesn’t behoove invited guests to make corporate sponsors feel uncomfortable at a public event and Brennan is a man of manners and good taste. It’s not an experience he would likely relish. It also makes sense that the Calgary Herald, the city’s largest and oldest daily newspaper be willing — albeit reluctantly — to accept a journalist/author’s right to tell their side of the story without fear of reprisal.

Being refused the opportunity to read from his memoir at the most important literary festival in Calgary, his place of residence for the past twenty four years seems like a reprisal to me. And, it’s not like the Calgary Herald are going to dodge the ball. Now other writers and journalists such as David Climenhaga, who has a large, politically active and devoted following, have stepped up to the plate and hit the ball to other bloggers and journalists to tell the story they didn’t want Brennan to tell. Instead of dodging the controversy, The Herald will likely end up attracting even more attention to the decade old dispute especially in a world where citizen journalists outnumber the paycheque earning journalists thousands to one.

I for one am anxious to read the controversial chapter of Brennan’s book. Not because I am anxious to dampen my esteem for the Calgary Herald. I am not. I am anxious to read about a time when journalists walked picket lines for the sake of dignity, respect and better working conditions. It must have been a heady time, at least while it lasted.

If you’re in the area, you might want to join Brian Brennan for an evening of music and storytelling at the Irish Cultural Centre on Saturday, September 17 at 7:00pm and perhaps check out his latest book. See more about the event and book a seat.