The team that can boast of a good full back can afford to weak in several positions on the field. He is the keystone of the defence and on him rests the onus of protecting his goalie from encroaching forwards. He has the whole field ahead of him and if he is a shrewd general he can do quite a lot to knit his defence into a work manlike unit, as he is in a position to see the weak points outfield and can suggest remedies. Tipperary has always been fortunate in the matter of good full-backs….The present occupant of that most onerous of positions, Tony Brennan is in the beat traditions of Tipperary last line defenders. Tall and commanding, strong and fearless, with sure hands and hurling brains to burn, this lithe, sinewy Clonoulty Skipper has filled the position with credit to himself, his parish and his county”. This extract, taken from a profile on Tony Brennan published under the pseudonym ”Prefect” in the ‘Nationalist” on January 21st 1950.
James Anthony Brennan was born in Clonoulty on Jan 13th, 1916 to James Brennan, who originally came from Boyle Co. Roscommon and Kate Byrne, of Coolanga, Clonoulty. Tony began swinging a caman as soon as he was able to walk, but his career as a hurler was almost terminated when he fractured his skull at the age of 12. After spending three weeks in hospital he was up and about and carried the mark of this injury on his crown until the day he died.
Tony’s interest in hurling is unremarkable. His uncles, on his father’s side, were outstanding athletes in their day, and from his mother he must have inherited his hurling prowess, for she was the sister of Phil Byrne, Coolanga, who won four All-Ireland medals, three with Tubberadora in 1895,1896 and 1898 and one with the Horse&Jockey in 1899. Another brother Tom Byrne won two All-Ireland Football medals with Dublin in 1892 and 1894. Unfortunately Phil Byrne lived to see only one of his nephews All-Ireland triumphs as he died in 1946.
No record exists of Tony’s deeds with Clonoulty at Juvenile level and, as he was a quiet, unassuming man he revealed little of his exploits on the hurling field, even to those who knew him best. Anthony’s hurling really began to blossom in Thurles C.B.S under the tutelage of such as Brother Lynam and Brother O’Brien. In 1930 he was a member of the Dean Ryan Cup Team and was full back on the team that won the first ever Harty Cup for Thurles C.B.S in 1933, beating North Monastery of Cork in the final. Tony’s final year of secondary school took him to Rockwell college where he won a cup and gold medal for being and outstanding athlete in 1935. That same year he played for the college’s Harty cup team that as beaten in the final by North Monastery who won four Harty Cups in a row from 1934 to 1937. At that time the All-Ireland colleges’ championship was played on an Inter-Provincial basis and Tony was selected for Munster on four occasions from 1931 to 1935.
Tipperary had twice in a row won Munster Minor hurling titles from 1930 to 1935 and from 1952 to ’57. Tony was a member of the team that won the Munster and All-Ireland honours in 1933 and ’34, playing at full back. His senior hurling career with Clonoulty began in 1932 at the tender age of 16 years in what was a glorious era for hurling in Clonoulty. The club won the first four west finals from 1930 to 1933 and Brennan was part of the team in 1932 and ’33. In 1934 Clonoulty’s stronghold on West Tipperary hurling was broken when Cashel won the west final and by ’36 the club was back hurling at junior level. Tony was part of the team the won the west junior final of that year but he was not to hurl for his native parish again until 1945.
In 1937 Tony joined the Irish speaking Battalion of the Army and was stationed at Renmore in Galway for eight years. While there his club team won the Galway junior championship and was a member of the Galway junior team that won the Connaught championship. The following year he was a member of the senior team and played with them in all their engagements until he returned to his native Clonoulty in 1945. On returning Brennan was chosen to play at centre forward in the first round against Waterford and Tipeerary won by 3-6 to 0-3. He was again at centre forward against the Cork side that had won four All-Irelands in a row. Tipperary won by 2-11 to 3-2 with Brennan contributing 0-2. Tipperary went on to beat Limerick in a memorable Munster final on July 15th with Brennan again at centre forward. Tipp reached the All-Ireland final and faced Kilkenny and for this tie Brennan was moved to full forward. A crowd of 64,459 attended Croke Park that day on Sept 2nd to see Tipperary win on a score line of 5-6 to 3-6 with Brennan contributing 1-2. In 1949 Brennan filled the full back position and eased the selectors worries. That year Tipp beat Cork in the National League final by 3-5 to 3-3. It was their first since 1928 and Brennan excelled at full back. Tipperary overcame Limerick in the Munster final that year by 2-8 to 1-9. They had two easy victories over Antrim and Laois respectively. Tipperary won the Oireachtas final by beating Laois on a score line of 2-8 to 1-6 and Brennan collected his second Oireachtas medal. Tipperary put two league titles back to back in 1950 with Tony again at full back. In 1951 Tony collected his fourth All-Ireland medal by defeating Wexford by 7-7 to 3-9.
However the year wasn’t over yet for Brennan, exactly a fortnight after that All-Ireland win Tony captained his beloved Clonoulty to victory in the west senior hurling final against Kickhams on the score 3-2 to 0-3. Despite the rigours of a hard All Ireland campaign Tony gave an outstanding display at centre back to inspire his team to its first west final win in 18 years. Clonoulty-Rossmore went on to cause a huge upset by defeating the highly fancied Borrisoleigh team powered by players such as Jimmy Finn and the Kenny Brothers Sean and Pat. They beat Borrisoleigh by 3-7 to 1-8 in Thurles on Oct 21st. Tony’s remaining ambition in hurling, to win a county title with his club was dashed in no uncertain terms by Holycross on Nov 6th, when they routed a Clonoulty-Rossmore side that failed to live up to its expectations in the final. The final scoreline, 5-15 to 1-4 emphasised the gulf between the teams on the day that even the presence of Brennan could not bridge.
To crown a glorious year Tony won his one and only Railway cup medal on St.Patrick’s day when Munster defeated Lenister by 4-9 to 3-6.Tony one his third and last National medals in 1952 by defeating Wexford with a last minute point from Pat Stakelum. In 1953 Tipperary reached the Munster final only to loose to Cork by 3-10 to 1-11. This marked the end of Brennan’s inter-county career that spanned fourteen years at senior level. Tony played against many well known figures and regarded Jack Lynch (Cork), Jackie Power, Mick Mackey and Paddy McCarthy (Limerick), John Keane (Waterford) and Nicky Rackard (Wexford) as the best players he encountered during a full score years on the hurling fields.
It has been said that only the good die young. So it was for Tony Brennan. On November 4th, 1965 Tony and his father in-law embarked on a shoot from which Tony was not destined to return alive. He had borrowed a shotgun from a neighbour that had a defective catch. While changing the gun from one hand to another to put a pheasant he had just shot into his bag, the firearm accidentally discharged bringing the life of this Tipperary legend to a premature end. Grief and disbelief seized the community as the news of his death trickled. His funeral was one of the largest ever seen in Clonoulty village as neighbours, friends and hurling colleagues and opponents of yesteryear including the great Nicky Rackard of Wexford came to mourn the passing of the giant of the ash. The ‘Tipperary Star” ran a competition to select the Tipperary Team of the Millennium. Tony’s final accolade was to be a posthumous one as he was selected at full back this team by the popular vote of the people of Tipperary, an honour he would have deeply appreciated. I measc na naoimh is na n-aingeal go raibh a anam uasal – Francis Kearney.