blazed bright | 

Brendan Behan at 100: House painter, IRA prisoner, hell-raiser, literary genius

The Dubliner’s works blazed brightly and still shine today

Creative streak: Irish poet and writer Brendan Behan in the mid 1950s. Photo by Archive Photos/Getty Images

Brendan Behan moved to Paris soon after leaving prison. Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Shawn Hatosy (right) as Brendan Behan in the 2000 film Borstal Boy with Danny Dyer and Robin Laing


Brendan Behan was once asked in an interview: “What would you like to have said of you in 50 years’ time?” With a chuckle, Behan replied: “That I’ve celebrated my 86th, my 87th, birthday!”

The joke was, of course, a skilful dodge of the invitation to write his own obituary. It was also typical of the man who, at every turn, expressed an irrepressible zest for life.

His interviewer, who was also his cousin, Eamonn Andrews, knew that Behan had already been warned by his doctor that alcohol addiction combined with diabetes was likely to cause an early death. Within a few short years, on March 20, 1964, Behan died having celebrated his 41st birthday just weeks before.

Behan was born in the midst of civil war, on February 9, 1923. One hundred years since then, the question of how he is remembered remains open. Most of his major writings are in print, but his plays have made infrequent appearances in major Irish theatres. He remains a fixture in tourist memorabilia, and is lauded on posters and websites as one of Ireland’s great writers, but it is often his life and his drinking which are the subject of the narratives about him, rather than his writings.

Then, there are also the doubts. Did he write enough to be remembered as a great writer?

His literary reputation has almost always come down to two plays, The Quare Fellow(1954) and The Hostage (1958), and his autobiographical novel, Borstal Boy (1958).

Did he write his own works, or were his works not co-authored or edited into shape by others? The theatre director Joan Littlewood is frequently cited as having written parts of The Hostage; Carolyn Swift and Rae Jeffs are credited with having edited, respectively, The Quare Fellow and Borstal Boy into shape.

In truth, Behan was the first and most persistent purveyor of doubts about his own literary talents, joking in his own work about being a hack, stealing the ideas of others, or not being able to read. There is no author who hasn’t been improved by an editor, nor a playwright who hasn’t ceded some authorial control to a director. The doubts expressed by others about Behan’s literary talents have always had a whiff of snobbery about them.

Behan grew up in a northside tenement, left school when he was 14, and spent seven years of his short life in prison.

Outside of prison, and before his literary success, he was a house painter, a smuggler, a tramp, and, in his spare time, an IRA volunteer. In none of these occupations did he find any notable fulfilment.

He was dismissed, or dismissed himself, from several painting jobs. As for his misguided ventures with the IRA, it seems he was arrested and imprisoned on his first escapade for the possession of explosives in Liverpool, and was lucky not to have been hanged for his second when he fired shots at gardaí in Dublin.

His experiences of prison and the IRA formed the principal subjects of his writing, but he was a writer, first and foremost.

His first letter to one of his brothers, Sean, after his imprisonment in England in 1939 requested copies of Shakespeare’s plays and a Penguin anthology of English poetry. At the age of 19, he published his first short story in Ireland’s leading literary magazine, The Bell. To describe a prison as akin to a university would be far-fetched, but Behan’s fellow prisoners in Ireland included the Kerry schoolmaster Seán Ó Briain and the novelist Máirtín Ó Cadhain.

He was visited and mentored by Seán Ó Faoláin. He started learning Irish and French, reading the stories of Maupassant, and translating Brian Merriman’s Cúirt an Mheán Oíche. It was in prison that he began to write plays and poems, and to take himself seriously as a writer. Others treated him seriously too. It was not long after he left prison that he began to visit and then live in Paris, where he befriended Albert Camus, Samuel Beckett and James Baldwin.

Brendan Behan moved to Paris soon after leaving prison. Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images

He loved Paris precisely because he was accepted as a writer, without pretension or snobbery. In Paris, as Deirdre McMahon revealed in her RTÉ radio documentary in 2019, he found a home for work which was too daring and controversial to be published in Ireland, and a home among writers and intellectuals who accepted him for who he was.

When Behan returned to live in Ireland in the early 1950s, he was already establishing a reputation for himself, in several genres. His poems in Irish were published in a collection of some of the best young poets since independence, Nuabhéarsaíocht.

He contributed dramas and documentaries to Radio Éireann, including reminiscences of the folk songs and games of his childhood in northside Dublin. He was invited to write a serial crime novel for theIrish Times, and a regular column for theIrish Press.

The column that he wrote for the Press, running sporadically from 1951 to 1954, and then, almost uninterrupted, on a weekly basis until 1956, embraces comedy, history, folklore, fiction and autobiography. It represents one of the most sustained periods of his writing.

Lilliput Press will publish the entire run of his newspaper articles as a new book, A Bit of a Writer: Collected Short Prose, in April to mark Behan’s centenary, and to bring Behan’s genius for comedy, anecdote and self-deprecating memoir to a new generation of readers.

Behan’s breakthrough as a writer came in 1954 when The Quare Fellowwas performed in the small, experimental Pike Theatre in Dublin, a year before Beckett’s Waiting for Godot played in the same theatre.

The Quare Fellow is a bold and extraordinary play, which takes the grim event of an execution in a prison as the subject of comedy. A good production will coax the audience into warm laughter, before plunging them into a cold sweat.

The Quare Fellow is credited with influencing public debates about capital punishment, but to regard it as a period piece of political persuasion is to miss its broader social significance. One murderer is hanged, and another reprieved; the prisoners understand the difference is down to class, as they also understand that they are in prison for petty crimes, whereas people of a different class are able to evade punishment because their crimes are not recognised as crimes.

The play was famously rejected by the Abbey; the Pike could only perform to small audiences. The play was snapped up by a new theatre company in London, Joan Littlewood’s Theatre Workshop, and in 1956 it opened in London to critical acclaim, and transferred to the West End. Almost overnight, Behan became a media star.

His celebrity grew two years later when he translated and transformed a play that he had first written in Irish as An Giall into a music hall and melodramatic extravaganza, The Hostage.It has the makings of a tense thriller. An English soldier is held hostage in an IRA safe house (which is also a brothel), and will be executed in reprisal for the execution of an IRA prisoner held in Belfast. Yet Behan had no interest in writing a thriller.

Instead, every conventional political and sexual allegiance is subverted. The English soldier becomes the lovable hero of the play; the IRA chief is an Englishman who wears a kilt and mispronounces the little Gaelic he knows.

Shawn Hatosy (right) as Brendan Behan in the 2000 film Borstal Boy with Danny Dyer and Robin Laing

Every character in the play turns out to have multiple allegiances and identities, and half the cast (and on a good night, the audience too) sings a song celebrating being queer. The Hostage is a carnival of diversity, subversion and of liberated sexualities: it is a play written in 1950s Ireland in which Panti Bliss would be perfectly at home.

Behan once said of his own artistic practice, that the ‘trick’ was to keep the reader or audience entertained, while smuggling subversion in behind their backs. Borstal Boy, his autobiographical novel, exemplified the practice. Variously received as the confessional narrative of an IRA prisoner, or ribald account of working-class masculinity, Borstal Boyalso manages to subtly tell the story of how Behan fell in love with an English sailor. It ends with one of the most beautiful depictions of returning to Dublin, and an ironic comment on the meaning of Irish freedom.

Perhaps more than any other writer since 1922, Behan pondered a more expansive understanding of human freedom — freedom from poverty, from repression, from drudgery — and asked the question about what it meant to have liberty.

It is a question we might turn to ask more frequently now that the state has entered its second century.

Behan’s decline into illness and notoriety is well known, and those old enough to remember him in the glory of his youth have faded from us. The stories of his drunken antics will fade too, and we will be left, finally, with Brendan Behan the writer, whose works blazed brightly across Europe and North America in his own lifetime, and shine still today.

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