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Brian Brennan, 77, elegant wordsmith, musician, courageous trade unionist

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Brian Brennan, at left, on the picket line at the Calgary Herald. Renowned Canadian author Margaret Atwood can be seen in the centre of the photo. To her right in hat is mystery thriller author Grant McKenzie. Image: Calgary Herald Strike Archive

Brian Brennan, elegant wordsmith, storyteller, professional musician and brave leader of the strike at the Calgary Herald in 1999 and 2000, died yesterday. He was 77.

For many years at the Herald, Brian specialized in writing obituaries, each a polished gem of a few hundred words. Often they celebrated the lives of remarkable people whose deaths most journalists would nevertheless have ignored because they were not people of wealth, power or connections, and whose lives were therefore deemed too "ordinary" for attention.

With more poetry than the readers of a daily newspaper could expect, week after week, Brian would give such folk the memorable send-offs they deserved.

Characteristically, when his daughter Nico Brennan announced his death on social media last night, she noted that her dad had written his own obituary. "I once made a living writing the obits of other people," he began. "Here I get to write my own."

"My story began in Dublin, Ireland on Oct. 4, 1943," he continued. "I received the gift of life and held it close for 77 years. Returning the gift wasn't easy. But it was always meant to be and I accepted that. No tears, no regrets. I tried to savour every moment, the winters as well as the summers, the springs and the autumns." That obit is found here.

Brian's years penning obituaries for the Herald set the stage for a successful post-strike career writing a dozen books of biography and social history, most of them focused on Alberta. A true raconteur who never lost his musical Irish brogue, Brian was as entertaining speaking as he was making music or crafting words on a page.

His memoir, Leaving Dublin, Writing My Way from Ireland to Canada, contains the best and most accurate account of the strike at the Herald, a pivotal event in both our lives as Brian once noted. His version was certainly more generous and graceful than anything I could have written on the topic.

Brian led the union bargaining committee in our quixotic effort to bring a little workplace democracy and decency to the Herald.

But Leaving Dublin was about much more than that. "I certainly never would have expected to be engaged by the travails of an Irish lad learning to play the piano in the early 1950s, or the start of the same youth's career as a clerk in the Irish civil service, or even scuttlebutt from the Canadian music scene in the 1970s," I wrote in my review. "But the pages flew by! And, by god, they will for you too …"

Brian is survived by Nico and Zelda, his wife of 53 years. In his obit, he remembered the day he met Zelda in Halifax in 1968, where he was making his living playing the piano. He was a deft touch with the accordion, too, making converts of many who until they met Brian thought they couldn't abide that instrument!

Brian ended his personal obit with a tribute to his comrades-in-arms in the struggle at the Herald, "the surviving members of the Club of 93" -- that is, the 93 union members who stuck it out to the bitter end after eight months on the picket line. "'So, fill to me the parting glass,' the old song said," he concluded. "'Good night and joy be with you all.'"

To you, as well, Brian. To you as well.

David Climenhaga, author of the Alberta Diary blog, is a journalist, author, journalism teacher, poet and trade union communicator who has worked in senior writing and editing positions at The Globe and Mail and the Calgary Herald.

Image: Calgary Herald Strike Archive

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