Brendan Francis Aidan Behan, born on February 9 1923 was an Irish poet, short story writer, novelist, and playwright who wrote in both English and Irish. He was named by Irish Central as one of the greatest Irish writers of all time. He was an Irish republican and a volunteer in the Irish Republican Army, and was born in Dublin into a staunchly republican family becoming a member of the IRA's youth organisation Fianna Éireann at the age of fourteen. There was also a strong emphasis on Irish history and culture in the home, which meant he was steeped in literature and patriotic ballads from an early age. Brendan eventually joined the IRA at sixteen, which led to his serving time in a borstal youth prison in the United Kingdom and he was also imprisoned in Ireland. During this time, he took it upon himself to study and he became a fluent speaker of the Irish language. Released from prison as part of a general amnesty given by the Fianna Fáil government in 1946, he moved between homes in Dublin, Kerry, and Connemara, and also resided in Paris for a time.
In 1954, Brendan's first play ‘The Quare Fellow’ was produced in Dublin and was well received but it was the 1956 production at Joan Littlewood's Theatre Workshop in Stratford, London, that gained him a wider reputation. This was helped by a famous drunken interview on BBC television with interviewer Malcolm Muggeridge. In 1958, his play in the Irish language ‘An Giall’ had its debut at Dublin's Damer Theatre. Later, ‘The Hostage’ his English-language adaptation of ‘An Giall’ met with great success internationally. His autobiographical novel, ‘Borstal Boy’ was published the same year and became a worldwide best-seller. By the early 1960s, Brendan reached the peak of his fame and he spent increasing amounts of time in New York City, famously declaring, "To America, my new found land: The man that hates you hates the human race." By this point, Brendan began spending time with people including Harpo Marx and Arthur Miller and was followed by a young Bob Dylan. However, this newfound fame did nothing to aid his health or his work, with his alcoholism and diabetic medical condition continuing to deteriorate his ‘New York’ and ‘Confessions of an Irish Rebel’ received little praise. He briefly attempted to combat this by a dry stretch while staying at the Chelsea Hotel in New York, and in 1961 was admitted to Sunnyside Private Hospital, an institution for the treatment of alcoholism in Toronto, but he once again turned back to alcohol and relapsed.
Behan was born in the inner city of Dublin at Holles Street Hospital on February 9 1923 into an educated working-class family. His mother had two sons, Sean Furlong and Rory (Roger Casement Furlong) from her first marriage to compositor Jack Furlong. After Brendan was born she had three more sons and a daughter: Seamus, Brian, Dominic, and Carmel. They lived in a house on Russell Street near Mountjoy Square owned by his grandmother, Christine English, who owned a number of properties in the area. Brendan's father Stephen Behan, a house painter who had been active in the Irish War of Independence, read classic literature to the children at bedtime from sources including the works of Zola, Galsworthy, and Maupassant; his mother, Kathleen, took them on literary tours of the city. She remained politically active all her life and was a personal friend of the Irish republican Michael Collins. Brendan wrote a lament to Collins, ‘The Laughing Boy’ at the age of thirteen. The title was from the affectionate nickname Mrs Behan gave to Collins. Kathleen published her autobiography, ‘Mother of All The Behans’ a collaboration with her son Brian, in 1984.
Behan's uncle Peadar Kearney wrote the Irish national anthem ‘The Soldier's Song’ and his brother Dominic, also a renowned songwriter, wrote the song ‘The Patriot Game’ among others. Another brother Brian, was a prominent radical political activist and public speaker, actor, author, and playwright. A biographer, Ulick O'Connor, recounts that one day, at age eight, Brendan was returning home with his granny and a crony from a drinking session. A passer-by remarked, "Oh, my! Isn't it terrible, ma'am, to see such a beautiful child deformed?" "How dare you," said his granny. "He's not deformed; he's just drunk!" Brendan left school at 13 to follow in his father's footsteps as a house painter working on lighthouses. During this period, he was employed by the Commissioners of Irish Lights, where one lighthouse keeper, recommending Brendan’s dismissal, described him as “the worst specimen” he had met in 30 years of service, adding that he showed "careless indifference" and "no respect for property". Thankfully for us, Brendan put the paintbrush aside and instead adopted the pen.
Brendan became a member of Fianna Éireann, the youth organisation of the Anti-Treaty IRA. He published his first poems and prose in the organization’s magazine, ‘Fianna: the Voice of Young Ireland’. In 1931 he also became the youngest contributor to be published in The Irish Press with his poem ‘Reply of Young Boy to Pro-English verses.’ At 16, he joined the IRA and embarked on an unauthorised solo mission to England to set off a bomb at the Liverpool docks. He was arrested by British law enforcement and found in possession of explosives. As he was only 16 at the time of his arrest, British prosecutors tried to convince him to testify against his IRA superiors and offered in return to relocate him under a new name to Canada or another faraway colony of the British Empire. Refusing to be turned, Brendan was sentenced to three years in a borstal (Hollesley Bay, once under the care of Cyril Joyce and did not return to Ireland until 1941. He wrote about the experience in the memoir ‘Borstal Boy.’ In 1942, during the wartime state of emergency declared by Irish Taoiseach Eamonn De Valera, Behan was arrested by the Garda Síochána and put on trial for conspiracy to murder and the attempted murder of two Garda Detectives, which the IRA had planned for during a Dublin commemoration ceremony for Theobald Wolfe Tone. He was found guilty and sentenced to 14 years in jail. He was first incarcerated in Mountjoy Prison in Dublin and then interned both with other IRA men and with Allied and German airmen at the Curragh Camp in County Kildare. He later related his experiences there in his memoir ‘Confessions of an Irish Rebel.’ Released under a general amnesty for IRA prisoners and internees in 1946, his active IRA career was largely over by the age of 23. Aside from a short prison sentence in 1947 for trying to break an imprisoned IRA man out of prison in Manchester, Brendan effectively left the organisation but remained friends with Cathal Goulding. Behan's prison experiences were central to his future writing career. In Mountjoy, he wrote his first play, ‘The Landlady’, and also began to write short stories and other prose. It was a literary magazine called Envoy (A Review of Literature and Art), founded by John Ryan, that first published Behan's short stories and his first poem. Some of his early work was also published in ‘The Bell,’ the leading Irish literary magazine of the time.
He left Ireland and all its perceived social pressures to live in Paris in the early 1950s. There, he felt he could lose himself and release the artist within. Although he still drank heavily, he managed to earn a living, supposedly by writing pornography. He returned to Dublin and began to write seriously, and to be published in serious papers such as The Irish Times, for which he wrote In 1953, drawing on his extensive knowledge of criminal activity in Dublin and Paris, he wrote a serial, that was later published as ‘The Scarperer.’ Throughout the rest of his writing career, he would rise at seven in the morning and work until noon, when the pubs opened. He began to write for radio, and his play ‘The Leaving Party’ was broadcast. Literary Ireland in the 1950s was a place where people drank and Brendan cultivated a reputation as carouser-in-chief and swayed shoulder-to-shoulder with other literati of the day who used the pub McDaid's as their base: Flann O'Brien, Patrick Kavanagh, Patrick Swift, Anthony Cronin, John Jordan, J. P. Donleavy and artist Desmond MacNamara whose bust of Behan is on display at the National Writers Museum. Behan fell out with the obstreperous Kavanagh, who reportedly would visibly shudder at the mention of Behan's name and who referred to Brendan as "evil incarnate".
Behan's fortunes changed in 1954, with the appearance of his play ‘The Quare Fellow.’ Originally called ‘The Twisting of Another Rope’ and influenced by his time spent in jail, it chronicles the vicissitudes of prison life leading up to the execution of ‘The quare fellow’ a character who is never actually seen. The prison dialogue is vivid and laced with satire but reveals to the reader the human detritus that surrounds capital punishment. Produced in the Pike Theatre, in Dublin, the play ran for six months. In May 1956, ‘The Quare Fellow’ opened in the Theatre Royal Stratford East, in a production by Joan Littlewood's Theatre Workshop. Subsequently, it transferred to the West End where Brendan generated immense publicity for ‘The Quare Fellow’ as a result of a drunken appearance on the Malcolm Muggeridge TV show. The English, relatively unaccustomed to public drunkenness in authors, took him to their hearts. A fellow guest on the show, Irish American actor Jackie Gleason, reportedly said about the incident: "It wasn't an act of God, but an act of Guinness!" Behan and Gleason went on to forge a friendship. Brendan loved the story of how, walking along the street in London shortly after this episode, a Cockney approached him and exclaimed that he understood every word he had said—drunk or not—but had not a clue what "that bugger Muggeridge was on about!" While addled, Brendan would clamber on stage and recite the play's signature song, ‘The Auld Triangle.’ The transfer of the play to Broadway provided Behan with international recognition. Rumours still abound that Littlewood contributed much of the text of ‘The Quare Fellow’ and led to the saying, "Dylan Thomas wrote ‘Under Milk Wood’, Brendan Behan wrote under Littlewood". Littlewood remained a supporter, visiting him in Dublin in 1960.
In 1958, his Irish-language play ‘An Giall:The Hostage’ opened in the Damer Theatre, Dublin. Reminiscent of Frank O'Connor's ‘Guests of the Nation’, it portrays the detention in a teeming Dublin house in the late 1950s of a British conscript soldier, seized by the IRA as a hostage pending the scheduled execution in the North of Ireland of an imprisoned IRA volunteer. The hostage falls in love with an Irish convent girl, Teresa, working as a maid in the house. Their innocent world of love is incongruous among their surroundings since the house also serves as a brothel. In the end, the hostage dies accidentally during a bungled police raid, revealing the human cost of war, universal suffering. The subsequent English-language version ‘The Hostage’ (1958), reflecting Brendan's own translation from the Irish but also much influenced by Joan Littlewood during a troubled collaboration with him, is a bawdy, slapstick play that adds a number of flamboyantly gay characters and bears only a limited resemblance to the original version.
His autobiographical novel ‘Borstal Boy’ followed in 1958. In the vivid memoir of his time in St Andrews House, Hollesley Bay Colony Borstal, near Woodbridge, Suffolk, England. The site of St Andrews House is now a Category D men's prison and Young Offenders Institution. The language is both acerbic and delicate, the portrayal of inmates and "screws" cerebral. For a Republican, though, it is not a vitriolic attack on Britain; it delineates Brendan’s move away from violence. In one account, an inmate strives to entice him into chanting political slogans with him but Brendan curses and damns him in his mind, hoping that he would cease his rantings-hardly the sign of a troublesome prisoner. By the end, the idealistic boy rebel emerges as a realistic young man, who recognises the truth: violence, especially political violence, is futile. The 1950s literary critic Kenneth Tynan said: "If the English hoard words like misers, Behan sends them out on a spree, ribald, flushed, and spoiling for a fight." He was now established as one of the leading Irish writers of his generation. He revered the memory of Father William Doyle, a Dublin priest of the Society of Jesus, who served as military chaplain to the Royal Dublin Fusiliers as they fought in the trenches of the Western Front. Father Doyle was killed in action while running to the aid of wounded soldiers from his regiment during the Battle of Passchendaele in 1917. Brendan expressed his affection for Father Doyle's memory in the memoir ‘Borstal Boy.’ Alfred O'Rahilly's 1920 biography of the fallen chaplain was one of Brendan's favorite books.
Brendan married horticultural illustrator for The Irish Times, Beatrice ffrench Salkeld, daughter of the painter Cecil ffrench Salkeld, in February 1955. Dublin wits nicknamed the family the French Behans. A daughter, Blanaid, was born in 1963, shortly before Brendan’s death. He had a one-night stand in 1961 with Valerie Danby-Smith, who was Ernest Hemingway's personal assistant and later married his son, Dr Gregory Hemingway. Nine months later, Valerie gave birth to a son she named Brendan and he died two years later, having never met his son. Brendan found fame difficult, he had long been a heavy drinker describing himself, on one occasion, as "a drinker with a writing problem" and claimed, "I only drink on two occasions—when I'm thirsty and when I'm not" and he developed diabetes in the early 1950s but was not diagnosed until 1956. As his fame grew, so too did his alcohol addiction. This combination resulted in a series of famously drunken public appearances, on both stage and television. His favourite drink was champagne and sherry. The public wanted the witty, iconoclastic, genial "broth of a boy", and he gave that to them in abundance, once exclaiming: "There's no bad publicity except an obituary." His health suffered, with diabetic comas and seizures occurring regularly. The public who once extended their arms now closed ranks against him; publicans flung him from their premises. His books, ‘Brendan Behan's Island’, ‘Brendan Behan's New York’ and ‘Confessions of an Irish Rebel’, published in 1962 and 1964, were dictated into a tape recorder because he was no longer able to write or type for long enough to be able to finish them.
Brendan Behan died on 20 March 1964 after collapsing at the Harbour Lights bar (now Harkin's Harbour Bar) in Echlin Street, Dublin. He was transferred to the Meath Hospital in central Dublin, where he died, aged 41. At his funeral, he was given a full IRA guard of honour, which escorted his coffin. It was described by several newspapers as the biggest Irish funeral of all time after those of Michael Collins and Charles Stewart Parnell. Following his death, his widow had a son, Paudge Behan, with Cathal Goulding, Chief of Staff of the Irish Republican Army and the Official IRA.
The Quare Fellow (1954)
An Giall (The Hostage) (1958)
Behan wrote the play in Irish, and translated it to English.
Richard's Cork Leg (1972)
Moving Out (one-act play, commissioned for radio)
A Garden Party (one-act play, commissioned for radio)
The Big House (1957, one-act play, commissioned for radio)
Borstal Boy (1958)
Brendan Behan's Island (1962)
Hold Your Hour and Have Another (1963)
Brendan Behan's New York (1964)
Confessions of an Irish Rebel (1965)
The Scarperer (1963)
After The Wake
Many thanks to Wikipedia for some of the info used in this article.
Images courtesy of Wikimedia.
© John A. Brennan 2022. All Rights Reserved.