THE BORSTAL BOY
When Brendan Behan was asked by Canadian customs what was the purpose of his visit he replied ‘to drink Canada Dry’. And later, when a newspaperman asked him what he thought of Montreal he said ‘sure, it will be grand when it’s finished’.
On another occasion when he was visiting Spain he was asked what he would like to see most, he replied ‘Franco’s funeral’. Naturally, this didn’t go down well and he was thrown in jail and then deported. But this was the wit of the man; he was the master of the quick one-liner as well as a born storyteller – shame then that most of it was wasted in the bars of Dublin, London and New York. Not merely squandered but given away for free to strangers and freeloaders who probably didn’t even appreciate that they were in the presence of genius. And Brendan’s genius was his own life; if he could have bottled that he would have been wealthy indeed.
Brendan was born in 1923 to Stephen and Kathleen Behan and grew up in the slums around Russell Street. His father was a house painter, a trade which Brendan himself dabbled in occasionally.. He left school at 14 and owed much of his education to his family, who were well-read, and who had strong Republican sympathies. His Uncle Peader Kearney wrote the Irish national anthem, while another uncle P J O’Rourke managed the Queens Theatre in the city.
The family on both sides was traditionally anti-British; his father was in prison when he was born because of his involvement in the 1916 rising, while his mother had been married before to another republican who had died in 1918.
When others were ‘training to be altar boys’, Brendan and his boyhood friend Cathal Goulding spent their spare time up in the hills outside Dublin drilling and marching with The Fianna, the Republican youth movement.
This resulted in him being sent to Liverpool in 1939 with orders to blow up a British battleship berthed in Liverpool docks. Unfortunately – or fortunately – for him he was arrested in his hotel room before he could carry out the deed. He was just turned 16. He was sentenced to three years in Borstal, and was deported on his release. However, in 1942 he was sentenced to 14 years for the attempted murder of to policemen in Glasnevin Cemetery during the Easter commemorations. He himself said , ‘well, jaysus they were shooting at me, what was I supposed to do?’. He went on the run for a time taking the gun with him. The gun was IRA property and they weren’t too impressed with his behaviour so they sentenced him to death in his absence. He said later; ‘I wrote them a nice letter asking could they carry out the sentence in me absence too’.
He served his time in Mountjoy and Curragh Military Camp and was released in 1946 under a general amnesty. He was in prison again in Manchester in 1947 for a short time for supposedly helping an IRA prisoner escape.
It was during his time in prison that he started to write, and this eventually led him to write for Radio Eireann and The Irish Press. He was still relatively unknown when he married Beatrice ffrench-Salkeld, daughter of the Dublin artist, Cecil Salkeld, in 1955.
As regards his drinking he said; ‘I started early in life. For a long time I thought whiskey was tea, because my granny kept whiskey in her teapot. I became a great tea-drinker. Sometimes she sent me to the pub for a jug of Guinness and I would drink half of it on the way back and top it up with water. These days I only take a drink on two occasions, when I’m thirsty and when I’m not’.
Granny was his Granny English, who owned the tenement building that they all lived in. He described her as ‘a slum landlady. The house was falling down around us and we all lived together in the pigsty’.
His big breakthrough came in 1954 with the production of The Quare Fellow, which was based on his prison experiences. The events were set during the twenty-fours hours preceding an execution and it gave Brendan a platform to attack capital punishment, which he abhorred. As to who ‘the quare fellow’ was Brendan said his name was Bernard Canavan, and that he was waiting to be ‘topped’ by Pierrepoint for chopping up his brother into pieces and feeding him to the pigs. ‘Not a very brotherly thing to do’, he observed.
He was a fluent Gaelic speaker and his next play The Hostage was originally written in Irish (An Giall) but it was taken in hand by Joan Litttlewood’s Theatre Workshop and turned into a massive success both in The West End and on Broadway.
In his plays, Brendan used song, dance and direct addresses to the audience – occasionally appearing himself in the audience, or on stage, to criticize the actors or berate the director. Audiences loved him for this, nowhere better than in New York, where he was lionized. Brendan returned this affection, saying ‘New York is my Lourdes, where I go for spiritual refreshment…a place where you’re least likely to be bitten by a wild goat’.
Borstal Boy wasn’t published until 1958, nearly twenty years after the events portrayed in it, but the intervening years had seen him enacting the story in every pub and shebeen in Dublin. Listening to Brendan in full flow was an experience; a mixture of song, dance and sceal were routinely served up as he rolled from one watering hole to the next. The only one who wasn’t impressed was the poet Patrick Kavanagh, who told him he had ‘turned from a national phony to an international one’. Brendan countered by telling Kavanagh that the best thing he ever wrote was a cheque that didn’t bounce.
The notoriety and critical acclaim that came to Brendan in the mid 1950’s contributed to his downfall. This was fuelled by his prolonged drinking bouts and his self destructive behaviour. He also suffered from seizures caused by pressure on his brain, which caused him to go into a diabetic coma, for which the only remedy was an operation. Brendan had a morbid fear of hospitals and doctors and refused to consider the operation. His health gradually deteriorated, and when the end came on March 20th 1964 he was just 41 years old.
© Tom O’Brien