The wrestling doctor

Published in 18th–19th - Century History, Issue 1 (Spring 2004), News, Volume 12

Brenan, John (1768–1830), physician and satirist, was born into a minor landed Catholic family from Ballaghide, Co. Carlow. The details of his early life are hazy, but from about 1801 he was practising medicine in Dublin. He claimed to be the first person to use turpentine against puerperal fever, having observed its benefits in 1812 when he saw it used to cure a horse of colic. Dismissed from Dublin’s Rotunda Hospital in 1813 for using this treatment without permission, he responded by publishing a series of pamphlets denouncing the Dublin medical establishment as a venal cartel and comparing his fate to other pioneers such as Jenner, Harvey and Galileo.

He contributed regularly to Walter Cox’s Irish Magazine, but quarrelled with Cox in January 1812 and began his own Milesian Magazine, published irregularly from 1812 to 1825, with intervals of months, or even years, between issues. Scurrilous, unreliable and highly entertaining, it was largely devoted to extolling the benefits of turpentine and vilifying Brenan’s enemies, especially Cox and Dublin physicians. Even by the abrasive standards of early nineteenth-century Dublin journalism it was particularly vituperative. The first issue dredged up Cox’s association with the Union Star, a newspaper that advocated the assassination of named loyalists in 1797–8, and a later one contained an illustration (reproduced here) of Cox killing his wife. Cox’s magazine responded in kind, mocking Brenan’s poverty, his medical practice, and his readiness to engage in bouts of wrestling—particularly his habit of breaking opponents’ shins and then offering to fix them at a reasonable rate. Brenan was an enthusiastic and skilled wrestler, regularly organising and engaging in bouts on Dublin’s North Strand. Cox also ridiculed the fact that Brenan’s mother had died in Dublin’s Channel Row poorhouse.

Although he supported Catholic Emancipation, Brenan satirised Catholic leaders about to bring a petition to London with a verse beginning: ‘Barney, Barney, buck or doe/Who shall with the petition go’, for which he allegedly received a pension of £200 a year from Dublin Castle. He was known in Dublin as ‘the wrestling doctor’ or ‘the turpentine doctor’. Many contemporaries believed him to be mentally unbalanced: on his deathbed he continually repeated the couplet ‘Barney, Barney, buck or doe/Has kept me out of Channel Row’.

James Quinn is Executive Editor of the Dictionary of Irish Biography, due for publication in 2006 by Cambridge University Press.


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