Writers in the DIB: Brendan Behan (1923-1964)
By Colbert Kearney
Behan, Brendan Francis (1923–64), writer, was born 9 February 1923 in Holles St. Hospital, Dublin, eldest of five children of Frank Behan, a house painter then imprisoned as a republican, and Kathleen Behan (née Kearney) (qv), sister of Peadar Kearney (qv), author of ‘The soldier's song’, which would become the Irish national anthem. (Kathleen had been married to Jack Furlong, a 1916 veteran who died of influenza in 1918, leaving his widow with two sons, Sean and Rory.) From childhood he displayed an extraordinary talent for oral entertainment and a commensurate appetite for applause.
In 1928 Behan attended St Vincent's School in North William St. and in 1934 changed to St Canice's CBS on the North Circular Road. In 1937 he was apprenticed to his father's trade and took a course in Bolton St. technical school. Though he was occasionally employed as a painter, his ambition was to be a writer.
At the age of 8 he joined Na Fianna, the junior wing of the IRA, to which he graduated at the age of 16, despite the misgivings of those who considered him too flamboyant for covert operations. In November 1939, without the sanction of his superiors, he travelled to Liverpool, where he was quickly arrested and found in possession of explosive devices. He was held for some months in Walton gaol and then, because of his age, sentenced to three years' Borstal detention, most of which he spent in Hollesley Bay and most of which he enjoyed. (The governor, Cyril Alfred Joyce, was one of the first to recognise Behan's linguistic virtuosity and to be won over by his charm.) Behan was deported to Ireland in November 1941 but within six months he fired shots at policemen in Dublin in circumstances that combined terror and ineptitude and recalled his invasion of England. Fortunate not to be condemned to death, he was sentenced to fourteen years' penal servitude, of which he served less than five – in Mountjoy gaol, Arbour Hill military detention barracks, and the Curragh camp – before being released in a general amnesty. During the remainder of his life he was to find himself in police cells on several occasions, mostly as a consequence of drunken disorder.
Behan, like many fellow prisoners, had written a good deal while confined, and after his release he tried, with limited success, to put his illegal activities behind him and establish himself as a writer. Convinced that the odds were stacked against a working-class writer in Dublin, he tried to settle in Paris, but eventually many of his friends there found his style of drinking unacceptable. He wrote some dozen poems in Irish, revealing at times a sensitive aspect of his personality that was difficult to detect in his other writings. In 1950 two of his poems were included in Nuabhéarsaíocht, Seán Ó Tuama's anthology of contemporary Irish verse. He published three high-quality short stories, ‘A woman of no standing’ (Envoy, Dublin, 1950), ‘After the wake’ (Points, Paris, 1950), and ‘The confirmation suit’ (Standard, Dublin, 1953). In 1953, drawing on his extensive knowledge of criminal activity in Dublin and Paris, he wrote an engaging serial for the Irish Times which was later published as The scarperer (1964). He was managing to make a living as a journalist – on the radio and in newspapers – with evocations of the characters and colourful expressions of his inner-city childhood. He was also establishing himself as a character, a hard drinker who could enthral any gathering with a stream of songs, parodies, and grotesquely dramatised incidents from the lives of celebrities as disparate as Brian Boru (qv), John Ruskin, Toulouse Lautrec, and Maud Gonne (qv). These public performances were not without their price, for they used up the time and energy his more private self wished to devote to two literary projects: a novel about his time in Borstal and a play about a prison execution.
In 1954, the year of his marriage to Beatrice Salkeld (Beatrice Behan (qv)), daughter of the artist Cecil Salkeld (qv), his play ‘The quare fellow’ was performed and well received at the tiny Pike Theatre in Dublin. Two years later it was produced by the Theatre Workshop in London and was an outstanding success, due mostly to Joan Littlewood's direction but also to the contemporary campaign for the abolition of capital punishment. It was a success from which Behan was hardly ever to recover, especially when a drunken appearance on television, then a medium of high moral standards, delighted large sections of the British public and taught Behan the promotional value of alcoholic outrage.
Behan's final effort to reject the ‘roaring boy’ persona and concentrate on writing was his willingness to provide a play in Irish for Gael Linn, the organisation that had generously encouraged him when he was unknown. ‘An giall’ was well received in 1958, but the applause of the Damer Hall was as nothing compared to the international clamour that greeted Joan Littlewood's development of Behan's translation of the quietly realist ‘An giall’ into ‘The hostage’, a medley of song, dance, topical satire, camp revue, and music-hall exchanges. With its contemptuous dismissal of all the norms of traditional morality and playwrighting, and its casual espousal of love and peace, ‘The hostage’ can now be seen as an overture to the Sixties. Perhaps for that very reason, it has not weathered very well; most modern productions return to some extent to the original.
1958 was also the year in which Behan's masterpiece, Borstal boy, was eventually published. Behan had been working on some form of Borstal boy since his time in Mountjoy gaol when Sean O'Faolain (qv) published ‘I become a Borstal boy’ (Bell, 1942); the slackening of control at the end of the novel suggests the difficulty with which Behan turned from the public stage to the private study in order to finish his imaginative reenactment of his Borstal experiences. Behan exploited his incomparable command of the oral style of Dublin city to produce a dramatic portrait of the artist as a prisoner of national prejudice, in the process creating some of the greatest comic scenes in modern literature.
It was to be his last completed written work. The later ‘books’ were either derived from his earlier journalism or based on tape-recordings. The tragedy of his final years was all the more appalling for being so public. His failure to face up to the solitary discipline of writing filled him with guilt and self-disgust, which led in turn to heavier drinking in order to obliterate his demons, although, as a diabetic, he knew that such drinking was suicidal. He disdained medical advice and was frequently hospitalised, almost always signing himself out and returning to the pubs where once he had been applauded but was now avoided as tediously truculent and repetitious. Despite international success, he lacked confidence in himself and in his writing. He was fearful that exposure of his homosexual proclivities would destroy his image as working-class tough guy. He was also troubled by his loss of faith in the extreme nationalism of his earlier years. Despairing of any resolution he longed for death and yet, as ‘a daylight atheist’, dreaded what might follow. He died in the Meath Hospital in Dublin on 20 March 1964. His funeral to Glasnevin cemetery, with full IRA honours, was one of the largest ever seen in the city.
Colbert Kearney, The writings of Brendan Behan (1977); E. H. Mikhail, The letters of Brendan Behan (1992); Michael O'Sullivan, Brendan Behan: a life (1997)
This entry for Brendan Behan is one of 925 entries for literary subjects in the DIB. The 925 DIB biographies cover many centuries of writing and include poets, novelists, essayists, playwrights and literary critics. Among the 925 lives you will find Bram Stoker, John B. Keane, James Stephens, Mary Manning, Dáibhí Ó Brudair, Maeve Brennan, Louis MacNeice, Maria Edgeworth, Daniel Corkery, Molly Keane and Máirtín Ó Cadhain.
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