Brendan Behan (1923-1964)

An author’s first duty is to let down his country

Hellraiser and dramatist Brendan Behan was born into a fiercely Republican family. One of his uncles, Peadar Kearney, wrote the Irish national anthem, Amhrán na BhFiann, and many of the clan had taken part in the 1916 Rising. Like many Irish writers, he had a love/hate relationship with the country of his birth. “I regard Ireland in the same way as Sean O’Casey”, he said. “It’s a great country to get a letter from”. His relations with Church and State were stormy. In the 1940s, he was excommunicated by the Irish hierarchy for his activities with the IRA and got to know the Irish penal system at first hand. It compared unfavourably with its English counterpart: “If you ever want to go to gaol, I recommend an English one”, he said.

Prison life was the closet Behan got to a formal education. His two best works, Borstal Boy and The Quare Fellow, draw vividly from his experience of life on the inside. He travelled widely- Paris, New York and Toronto-following productions of his plays. Behan had a nose for self-publicity, which did not harm the box office. He played the stage Irishman abroad. Raising the roof wherever he went and puncturing any pompous questions about his plays. One journalist asked him, “What message is in your plays?” Behan replied, “what do you think I am, a feckin’ telegraph pole?”

The “roaring boy” pulled in an entourage wherever he went. When Behan arrived in New York in 1958, “it was dead” (according to Norman Mailer) but “Behan made the beatnik generation popular uptown”. His play The Hostage was running off Broadway and his autobiographical novel Borstal Boy had just been published. People were curious about this Irish phenomenon and expected a memorable quote to every question. Behan did not disappoint them. When he was asked to define the difference between prose and poetry, Behan paused and reportedly came up with this gem of doggerel:

There was a young fella call Rollocks,                                                                                  Who worked for Ferrier Pollocks,                                                                                            He walked on the strand,                                                                                                         With his girl be the hand,                                                                                                        And the tide came up to his…. knees

“Now that’s prose. If the tide had come any higher, that would’ve been poetry”. Alcohol destroyed Brendan Behan’s talent. He was often picked up by the New York police, having been found wandering the streets of the city. He even spent some time in the New Jersey State Psychiatric Hospital. Behan returned to Ireland and spent his last months with family in his native Dublin. In the Bailey pub on Duke Street, friends waited for the news of his death. When the inevitable day came (in March 1964), Flann O’ Brien remarked: “The streets of Dublin are strangely silent tonight”.

Typical of his legendary wit (some would say apocryphal wit) Behan could manage a last quip, even in his hospital bed. An old nun was tending the ailing writer in his last hours. He thanked her devilishly: “God bless you sister. May you be the mother of a bishop”.