Thursday 9 February 2023

On This Day | Brendan Behan (1923-1964) | Born One Hundred Years Ago Today

Brendan Behan (1923-1964)

A Legend that Was Born One Hundred Years Ago Today

Brendan Behan (1923-1964). Watercolour painting.
Reginald gray,
Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Brendan Behan (1923-1964), the Irish author, playwright, poet, memoirist, storyteller, raconteur would be 100 years old today were he still alive. However, anyone familiar with the legend that surrounds his name would understand why this was never on the cards for such a larger-than-life character. A drinker with a writing problem, he passed from this world at the tragically young age of 41 but, having already lived more life than one, it could be argued.

Brendan Behan was born in Dublin's inner city (the family would later move to what was then the 'cow-and-culchie' land of Crumlin) to an educated working class family that was also steeped in Irish republicanism. His father participated in Ireland's War of Independence, while his uncle on his mother's side, Peadar Kearney wrote the lyrics to A Soldier's Song which, when translated into Irish, became Ireland's national anthem as Amhrán na bhFiann.

Behan himself would become involved in political activities quite early in his life, becoming a member of a member of Fianna Éireann, an Irish republican youth organisation, whose activities were mostly clandestine and supportive of those sections of Irish nationalism that rejected the Anglo-Irish Treaty of 1922. For these activities, Behan would serve several periods of confinement in jails across Ireland and Britain, most notably, in the Hollesley Bay borstal institution in Suffolk, England. The experience of this latter period of detention would serve as the basis for his celebrated memoir, Borstal Boy, published in 1958.

Other works of note by Behan include two plays, which also dwell on themes of imprisonment and incarceration: The Quare Fellow (which includes the song, The Auld Triangle, which has firmly embedded Behan in Irish popular culture) and An Giall, a play in Irish, later translated into English and performed as The Hostage.

Much of Behan's work addresses social and political themes, openly critical and often confrontational of authority, for which reason, he was a controversial figure in his day, coming under the scrutiny of the censor on more than one occasion.

Another aspect of his life that made him controversial (albeit well-liked by many) was his flamboyant lifestyle influenced by more than a taint of alcoholism – 'not an act of God but an act of Guinness' was how the actor, Jackie Gleeson reportedly described a certain interview that Behan gave to the English TV presenter, Malcolm Muggeridge in the 1950s.

"Behan was notorious and, in his pomp, was known to expound boisterously and tempestuously in 'wild Irishman' fashion on a plethora of topics. He was a larger-than-life individual with a somewhat unpredictable nature. He exhibited the drunken Paddy to the world and it certainly did him no favours," says Dennis McIntyre in his recently published Customs House to Howth Head: A History and Guide to Dublin's North Bay Area.

He loved an audience and he could be a nuisance and a bowsie, truculent and repetitive as he tended to celebrate his reputation as a boisterous boozer and a jailbird. The Behan myth often marred his work but his overall generosity and bonhomie, together with his disregard for convention, were enough to maintain a certain popularity. – McIntyre, Ibid

If Behan's background resembles much of the 'shabbygenteelism' of a contemporary Irish author, Seán O'Casey, his sharp wit recalls that of an Irishman of an earlier vintage, Oscar Wilde. That "there is no such thing as bad publicity – except your obituary," is among the epigrams he produced that Wilde himself would have been proud to call his own.

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