from St Anne's

Captain Brennan Remembered

In the first sixty years of the history of Belfast Cathedral deans, vicars, churchwardens came and went, choirboys grew up, but except for a period of service in the Great War one person stayed the whole course: Captain Charles John Brennan, organist and master of the choristers, 1904-1964.

A graduate of Durham University and the Royal Academy of Music, FRCO, Brennan had served in Strabane and in Elwood Presbyterian church, Belfast, before he came to the city’s new Cathedral.  He had challenges to meet: to form a choir and to establish a musical tradition. And the building needed a new organ. As former vicar choral Canon John Nolan remarked in his sermon at the dedication of a memorial plaque to the Captain, ‘he proved himself more than equal to the task.’ St Anne’s did not occupy all his time: he was kept busy with local choirs and operatic societies, as City Organist, private tuition, Ministry of Education examiner in music, and lecturer in the Queen’s University music department. His eminence in the field of music was recognised by the Ulster Society of Organists and the Society of Professional Musicians electing him their president; it also earned him an O.B.E and an honorary M.A. from Queen’s. His ‘Virgin’s Hush Song’ still finds a place in carol services.

John Nolan listed three ‘facets’ to Brennan’s character: a man of discipline, for the choir and for himself (he saw himself as the choir’s sergeant-major, the back-bone of every unit, the one who gets things done): total commitment and punctuality were required of choir members; a man well known for his wit and humour; a man of faith (he never  went to the organ for a service without saying a prayer that all that took place would be to God’s glory).

Captain Brennan retired on the sixtieth anniversary of the consecration of the nave which was also his diamond jubilee as organist.  The preacher at the final service was the Archbishop of Armagh, Dr McCann, who had been one of Brennan’s earliest choristers. Eight years after his retirement Charles Brennan died, aged 96.

On Thursday 24th October 2019 Captain Brennan’s grandson, Richard, and his wife Sharon visited the Cathedral to, in a sense, ‘make contact with’ Richard’s distinguished forebear.  After a tour to explain the building as it existed in Brennan’s time and the developments since then, they were shown photographs, the memorial plaque, his watch, and were given copies of various documents, including his letter of resignation. Cameras were busy throughout. One of Brennan’s choristers, Brian Hunter, himself a former organist and choir-master, and his daughter Susie, a member of St Anne’s choir, joined the party to reminisce about the Captain as choirmaster and organ tutor. (The image below shows Brian Hunter MBE on left and Richard Brennan on right).

- Written by Norman Weatherall, Cathedral Archivist