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by Bamber Gascoigne

Brendan Francis Behan (1923-1964)


Irish author noted for his powerful political views and earthy satire. While not in jail or in pubs, Behan worked in odd jobs and wrote plays and stories that colorfully depicted the life of the ordinary working men. Several of his books were banned in Ireland. Behan spent most of the years from 1939 to 1946 in English and Irish penal institutions on political charges. However, his writings are lively, full of humor, and do not show much signs of anger or bitterness toward the world at large.

"... it was not really the length of sentence that worried me-for I had always believed that if a fellow went into the I.R.A. at all he should be prepared to throw the handle after the hatchet, die dog or shite the licence-but that I'd sooner be with Charlie and Ginger and Browny in Borstal than with my own comrades and countrymen any place else. It seemed a bit disloyal to me, that I should prefer to be with boys from English cities than with my own countrymen and comrades from Ireland's hills and glens." (in Borstal Boy, 1958)

Brendan Behan was born in a Dublin tenement, owned by his grandmother.  His childhood Behan lived in the slums of the city. In spite of the surroundings, he did not end up becoming an unlettered slum lad. He also owed much of his education to his family, well-read, and of strong Republican sympathies. Behan's family on both sides was traditionally anti-British. His uncle Peader Kearney was the author of the Irish national anthem, 'Soldier's Song.' Another uncle, P.J. Bourke, managed the Queens Theatre in Dublin, and one of Bourke's sons was the dramatist Seamus de Burca, whose English name is James Bourke. Brendan's brother Dominic became a dramatist, too, and gained also success and a balladeer and singer,

At Behan's birth his father, Stephen Behan, a housepainter and Republican activist, was in a British compound because of involvement in the Irish uprising of 1916-1922. As a young man, he had studied for the priesthood - this is what he claimed.  He read French and Latin and used to entertain his family by acting out extracts from Dickens, Zola, Maupassant, Pepys, Marcus Aurelius, and Boccassio. Behan's mother, Kathleen (Kearney) Behan, had been married before to another Republican, who had died during the influenza epidemic of 1918. From her mother, Behan acquired a Catholic religious practice.

Until the age of 14,  Behan attended Catholic schools. After he was expelled from the Christian Brothers' School, he then worked as a house painter. From the age of nine he had served in the Fianna Eireann, a youth organization connected with the IRA, and in the late 1930s he was IRA's messenger boy. Following the explosion of an IRA bomb in Coventry city centre in August 1939, Behan was arrested on a sabotage mission in Liverpool in November. With him he carried a suitcase full of homemade explosives. Brendan was  accused of attempting to blow up a battleship in Liverpool harbour.

Brendan was sentenced to three years in Borstal in a reform school, but he first spent two months in Liverpool's notorious Walton Prison. Upon release, Behan returned to Dublin, but in 1942 he was sentenced to 14 years for the attempted murder of two policemen. He served at Mountjoy Prison and at the Curragh Military Camp. In 1946 Behan regained his freedom under a general amnesty and resumed work at his father's trade of housepainting.

During this period he also joined the Dublin literary and artistic underground group, based at McDaid's, a Dublin pub. It included figures such as Patrick Kavanagh, Anthony Cronin, J.P. Donleavy, and Sean O'Sullivan. Alan Simpson, founder of the Pike Theater, remembered Behan from this time as "not a compulsive writer: he was a compulsive thinker and talker." (Brendan Behan: Volume I: Interviews and Recollections, edited by E.H. Mikhail, 1982, p. x) Behan was in prison again in Manchester in 1947, serving a short term for allegedly helping an IRA prisoner to escape. Ironically Behan once observed, that the man with a big bomb is a statesman, while the man with a small bomb is a terrorist.

During his years in prison, Behan began seriously to write, mainly short stories in an inventive stylization of Dublin vernacular. The Landlady was composed at the Curragh. Gretna Green, about the execution of two Irishmen, was produced at the Queen's Theatre as a part of a Republican commemorative concert. In 1952 Behan was deported to France. Later he lived in Paris and Dublin, writing for Radio Telefis and for the Irish Press. In 1955 Behan married Beatrice ffrench-Salkeld, a painter and the daughter of a noted Dublin artist, Cecil Salkeld. The marriage did not stop him from continuing his self-destructive life-style, even after he was diagnosed as diabetic.

Behan's best-known novel, Borstal Boy (1958), drew its material from his experiences in the Liverpool jail and Borstal school (reform school). The young narrator progresses from a rebellious adolescent to greater understanding of himself and the world: "There were few Catholics in this part of the world and the priest had a forlorn sort of a job but Walton had cured me of any idea that religion of any description had anything to do with mercy or pity or love." (Borstal Boy by Brendan Behan, Knopf, 1959, p. 170)

Behan also sailed intermittently on ships-he had become a certified seaman in 1949. At the beginning of his career, Behan had difficulties in getting his plays performed in his own country. The Quare Fellow, based on his prison experiences, was turned down by both the Abbey Theatre and the Gate but eventually it was produced at the tiny Pike Theatre Club in 1954, gaining critical success. Reviewers began to talk of a new O'Casey and the tragi-comedy was subsequently transferred to London's West End for a six months' run. The events were set during the twenty-four hours preceding an execution. Brendan's work is thought to have hastened the abolition of capital punishment in Britain. Brendan also attacked false piety behind public attitudes toward such matters as sex, politics, and religion.

Among Behan's other dramas are The Big House (1957), a radio play written for thr BBC, and The Hostage (1958), written in Gaelic under the title An Giall and set in a disreputable Dublin lodging house - or a brothel - owned by a former IRA commander. This play, perhaps Behan's most enduring theatrical achievement, was first produced in Irish at the Damer Hall in Dublin and then in London, Paris, and New York. It depicts events that surround the execution of an eighteen-year-old IRA member in a Belfast jail. The audience never sees him - he has been accused of killing an Ulster policeman and sentenced to be hanged. A young British soldier, Leslie Williams, is held hostage in the brothel. After the IRA prisoner has been executed, Leslie is eventually killed in a gunfight, when the police attack the place. Before the tragic end, a love story develops between Leslie and Teresa, a young girl, who promises never to forget him. The seriousness of the play is downplayed. In the finale Leslie's corpse rises and sings:

The bells of hell
Go ting-a-ling-a-ling
For you but not for me.
Oh death, where is thy sting-a-ling-a-ling
Or grave thy victory?

In his dramas Behan used song, dance, and direct addresses to the audience, making use of Brechtian techniques. Moreover, he had an unerring ear for dialogue. Occasionally the author himself would appear in the audience and criticize the actors and shout instructions to the director. Behan was five feet eight inches tall, he had gray-green eyes, and a deep voice. Towards the end of his life he was fat.

Several of Behan's works were staged at Joan Littlewood's Theatre Workshop, which left deep impact on modern theatrical style. Littlewood viewed the theatre as a collective and revised much of his script for The Hostage - the author himself approved all changes.

Notoriety and critical attention came to Behan in the mid-1950s and contributed to his downfall, fueled by his prolonged drinking bouts and belligerent behavior. "An Anglo-Irishman only works at riding horses, drinking whisky and reading double-meaning books in Irish at Trinity College," Behan argued in The Hostage. It was Behan's last major drama - his last books were compilations of anecdotes transcribed from tape recordings. His only novel, The Scarpeter, was a thriller. It was first published serially, and pseudonymously, in the Irish Times in the autumn of 1953. "I wrote it under the phoney name of Emmet Street, which is the name of the street opposite the one I was reared in North Dublin, partly because around the fashionable area of Grafton Street the Dublin intelligentsia still regarded me as a writer of pornography and partly because the district around Emmet Street is famous for another reason. " (Confessions of An Irish Rebel by Brendan Behan, Arrow Books, 1991, p. 242)

Like Dylan Thomas, a Welsh poet, Behan was lionized to death in the United States. A lifelong battle with alcoholism ended Behan's career at Meath Hospital, Dublin, on March 20, in 1964, at the age of 41. "Bless you Sister. May all your sons be bishops," were the last words he reportedly said to the nurse taking his pulse. (Last Words of Notable People: Final Words of More than 3500 Noteworthy People Throughout History, compiled by William B. Brahms, 2012, p. 55) Richard's Cork Leg was left unfinished, but a completed version was staged by Alan Simpson at the Peacock Theatre in 1972. The Catacombs, a fragment of a novel, was published in After the Wake (1981). Behan's works have been translated into several languages, among them Stücke fürs Theater (1962) by Heinrich Böll.

For further reading: Beckett and Behan by A. Simpson (1962); My Brother Behan by D. Behan (1964); The World of Brendan Behan, ed. by Sean McCann (1965); Brendan Behan by R. Jeffs (1965); Brendan Behan by T.E. Boyle (1969); Brendan by U. O'Connor (1970); The Major Works of Breandan Behan by P. Gerdes (1973); Brendan Behan by R. Porter (1973); My life with Brendan by Beatrice Brendan (1974): 'Behan, Brendan (Francis,' in World Authors 1950-1975, edited by John Wakeman (1975); The Writings of Brendan Behan by C. Kearney (1977); With Brendan Behan by P. Arthurs (1981);  Sayings of Brendan Behan (1997, paperback); Brendan Behan: A Life by Michael O'Sullivan (1999); The Crazy Life of Brendan Behan:The Rise and Fall of Dublin's Laughing Boy by By Frank Gray (2010); City of Writers: from Behan to Wilde, the Lives and Homes of Dublin Authors by Brendan Lynch (2013); Behan in the USA: the Rise and Fall of the Most Famous Irishman in New York by Dave Hannigan (2014); The Men Who Stare at Hens: Great Irish Eccentrics, from W.B. Yeats to Brendan Behan by Simon Leyland (2019)  - See other writers born in Dublin: William Butler Yeats, James Joyce, Samuel Beckett. Note: St Brendan (484-577), an abbot and traveler, founded monasteries in Ireland and Scotland. The Latin Navigation of St Brendan (c.1050) depicts his legendary voyage to Hebrides and the Northern Isles, or even Iceland.

Selected works:

  • The Quare Fellow, 1954
    - Film adaptation in 1962, dir. Arthur Dreifuss, starring Patrick McGoohan, Sylvia Syms, Walter Macken, Dermot Kelly
  • The Big House, 1957
  • The Hostage / An Ghiall, 1958
    - Panttivanki (suom. Kirsti Jaantila ja Seppo Virtanen, 1962)
    - TV play 1962, dir. Hans Abramson, starring Åke Grönberg, Margaretha Krook, Gösta Cederlund, Björn Gustafson; TV drama 1977, dir. Peter Zadek, starring Helmut Erfurth, Heinrich Giskes, Herbert Grönemeyer, O.E. Hasse; TV drama 1996, dir. Eva Bergman, Ralph M. Evers, starring Henric Holmberg, Thomas von Brömssen, Maria Hedborg, Sanna Hultman
  • Borstal Boy, 1958
    - Poikia vankilassa (suom. V. Mattila, 1960)
    - Film adaptation in 2000, dir.
    Peter Sheridan, starring Shawn Hatosy, Danny Dyer, Lee Ingleby, Robin Laing
  • Brendan Behan's Island - An Irish Sketchbook, 1962 (illustrated by Paul Hogarth)
  • Hold Your Hour and Have Another, 1963 (illust. by Beatrice ffrench-Salkeld)
  • The Scarperer, 1964
  • Brendan Behan's New York, 1964
  • Two Plays by Brendan Behan, 1964
  • Richard's Cork Leg, 1965 (play, unfinished)
    - Richardin korkkijalka (suom. Pentti Saarikoski, 1983)
  • Confessions of an Irish Rebel, 1965
  • A Garden Party, 1967
  • Moving Out, 1967
  • Two Short Plays, 1967
  • The Complete Plays, 1978 (issued by Alan Simpson)
  • After The Wake, 1981
  • The Letters of Brendan Behan, 1991 (ed. E.H. Mikhail)
  • The King of Ireland's Son, 1997 (illustrated by P.J. Lynch)
  • The Sayings of Brendan Behan, 1997 (edited by Aubrey Dillon-Malone)
  • The Complete Plays, 2014 (introduced by Alan Simpson; with a bibliography by E.H. Mikhail)

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