Brendan Behan was born in Dublin’s inner city on February 9, 1923. His father Stephen was a house painter who had been imprisoned as a republican. His mother Kathleen, also a republican activist, had a store of folk ballads and Brendan’s brother was a well-known singer and songwriter, Dominic Behan. Another brother Brian was a radical political activist, author, and playwright.
Brendan’s uncle Peadar Kearney wrote the Irish national anthem, A Soldier’s Song.
In 1937 the family moved to a corporation housing scheme in Crumlin. At 14 Brendan became an apprentice painter and decorator. He became a member of Fianna Éireann, the youth organisation of the IRA. He published his first poems and prose in the Fianna’s magazine.
At 16 he joined the IRA and, equiped with explosives, embarked on a solo mission to England to blow up the Liverpool docks. He was arrested and sentenced to three years in a Suffolk borstal, where he made good use of the library, and which was to be the subject of his book, Borstal Boy.
He returned to Ireland in 1941 and a year later was given 14 years in Mountjoy prison for the attempted murder of two detectives in Dublin. Again he broadened his education, becoming a fluent Irish speaker. During his first months in Mountjoy prison, Sean O Faolain published Behan’s description of his borstal experiences in The Bell. These experiences were also relayed in the book Confessions of an Irish Rebel.
He was released in 1946 as part of a general amnesty and returned to house painting. For some years he concentrated on writing verse in Irish. He lived in Paris for a time – drinking heavily and reputedly writing pornography - before returning in 1950 to Dublin, where he became one of the more colourful figures in the city’s literary subculture.
His play The Quare Fellow was well received in 1954 in Dublin’s Pike Theatre. However, it was the 1956 production at Joan Littlewood’s Theatre Royal in London, that brought Behan a wider reputation – significantly assisted by a drunken interview with Malcolm Muggeridge on BBC television. Thereafter, Behan was never free from media attention, and he in turn was usually ready to play the drunken Irishman.
His next play, An Giall (1958), was commissioned by Gael Linn, the Gaelic language organisation. Behan translated the play into English as The Hostage and it was Joan Littlewood’s production which led to success in London. The play is set in a Dublin brothel where the IRA imprison an English soldier. (Some argue that Littlewood diluted the naturalism of the Irish version with interludes of music-hall singing and dancing). The transfer of the play to Broadway provided Behan with international recognition.
Behan’s autobiographical Borstal Boy also appeared in 1958, and its early chapters on prison life are among his best work. By then, however, he was a victim of his own celebrity, and alcoholism and diabetes were taking their toll. His English publishers suggested that, instead of the writing he now found difficult, he dictate to a tape recorder. The first outcome was Brendan Behan’s Island (1962), a readable collection of anecdotes and opinions in which it was apparent that Behan had moved away from the militant republicanism of his youth.
Tape-recording also produced Brendan Behan’s New York (1964) and Confessions of an Irish Rebel (1965), a disappointing sequel to Borstal Boy. A collection of newspaper columns from the 1950s, published as Hold Your Hour and Have Another (1963), merely underlined the weakness of his later work.
Behan had long been a heavy drinker and developed diabetes in the early 1960s. He once famously describing himself as “a drinker with a writing problem” and claiming “I only drink on two occasions — when I’m thirsty and when I’m not”. His drinking got worse with time, leading to a series of notorious drunken public appearances, on both stage and television.
Towards the end he became the caricature of the drunken Irishman which, along with his boorishness, made him unpopular with ordinary Dubliners. His response was another witticism: “There’s no bad publicity except an obituary.”
By early 1964, the end was in sight. After collapsing in a Dublin pub, he was rushed to the Meath Hospital where he died several days later on March 20, aged 41. In 1955 Brendan Behan married Beatrice Salkeld (the daughter of painter Cecil Salkeld). The had two children, Blanaid and Paudge.
The sayings of Brendan Behan:
- I am a drinker with writing problems.
- Critics are like eunuchs in a harem. They’re there every night, they see it done every night, they see how it should be done every night, but they can’t do it themselves.
- The big difference between sex for money and sex for free is that sex for money usually costs a lot less.
- The most important things to do in the world are to get something to eat, something to drink and somebody to love you.
- I never say actually … unless I am actually pissed.
- There’s no bad publicity except an obituary.
- When I came back to Dublin I was court-martialed in my absence and sentenced to death in my absence, so I said they could shoot me in my absence.