Brendan Behan: Rescuing the Writer from the Myth

Photo: LIFE Magazine

Photo: LIFE Magazine



What first comes to mind when we pronounce the name of Brendan Behan? Do we think of a real man, a product firstly of North inner city Dublin and then of borstal in England and jail in Ireland? Do we have in mind a playwright, poet, and novelist whose formal education for the most part took place behind bars (he himself remembered his time in borstal as one in which he led “a more contemplative life and had plenty of time to think") and whose only important subject matter was himself? Or do we think of a writer who only partly fulfilled his potential and eventually ran out of things to write and even the capacity to write, his last books being little more than transcribed recordings of a story-teller who increasingly rambled and strayed from a central narrative? Probably none of the above. Certainly in the mainstream media Behan’s position as a writer limps home a distant third behind his “role,” or his performances as a drinker and as a firebrand Republican, a man trapped by his own, always controversial public image.

Looking at the news stories about the current production of Borstal Boy in the Irish newspapers is informative of how Behan the writer continues to be obscured by the shadow of images, that have nothing to do with writing, that precede him and his works. The Irish Independent (8 September) runs a story entitled  “Brendan Behan the borstal boy, boozer and bomb-maker” and asserts in its by-line that “Behan today is chiefly remembered for his drinking, his wit, and his writing, probably in that order.” In the popular eye, Behan is remembered (and in some quarters even celebrated) as a Dublin “character”, a “gas man”, a boozer. Amanda Brunker, in The Sunday World (29 March 2014), offers an even more negative image in her article about Dave Hennigan’s recent book, The American Behan. Brunker, for those who don’t read the Sunday World, is a former Miss Ireland and author of the unacclaimed novels, Champagne Kisses (2008), and Champagne Babes (2009). Although the Sunday World has never distinguished itself in the field of literary criticism, it’s hard to imagine Yeats, Joyce, or Heaney being subjected to scrutiny by as utterly unqualified a reviewer as Brunker. But the article is not designed to lead us to Behan’s writings but to celebrate him, as the by-line puts it, as “the original Irish hellraiser”. Unfortunately the article concerns itself predominantly with a story about an alleged attempted rape that Behan, in the end, did not commit.

Fintan O’Toole offers more reasonable coverage in the Irish Times. At least Behan is labeled in the right order in the headline: “Culture Shock: Brendan Behan – playwright, novelist, terrorist”. Fintan O'Toole argues that the British deprived Behan of the glory of martyrdom by sending him to borstal rather than prison and by treating him remarkably well there, and he contrasts this with contemporary treatment of terrorists in the US. O’Toole, however, surely errs in branding the  young Behan a “child terrorist”. Such a label denies Behan his genuine belief in the cause he felt he was advancing, but it also to an extent exonerates him, on the grounds of immaturity (he was seventeen), of responsibility for the acts he carried out, forgetting that he would in fact be a repeat offender and would never fully sever his ties with the Republican movement. 

But it would be wrong to get too tied up with Behan’s terrorist past when others, with pasts far more violent, such as Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness, have been welcomed into the respectable halls of power in Ireland, Britain and in the US. What is perhaps more pressing, in Behan’s case is to see how to get beyond the myths that surround him, myths that he himself helped to shape (and, in this, he was his own worst enemy). The reader has to maintain a critical distance in sifting through the representations of the experiences of his life in his own writings which inevitably mix fact and fiction, anecdote and invention. One of the key problems with the ‘phenomenon’ that was and is Brendan Behan is how to separate the life from the work but also how to distinguish between the myth, in part self-created, in part encouraged by others, and the life for what it was. 

All of Behan’s writing is confessional and it is no accident that Behan himself entitled one of his later books, Confessions of an Irish Rebel and that Colbert Kearney called his influential article on his writer uncle with the very Joycean: “Borstal Boy: A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Prisoner”. First and foremost we need to remember that writing of the self is never a neutral transcription of what happened, of actuality, past and present, but is a stylized, selective, distorted rendering, a conscious fashioning of events designed to be read in a very different moment and mood to that in which it was lived.

In one way, it is easy to label Behan even if he has as many labels as Stephen Dedalus’s father in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. Here are a few: boozer, character, house-painter, drinker with a writing problem, bilingual speaker (who started out in English but learnt Irish well enough to write poetry and indeed, his play, An Giall, bisexual (who started out with young men in borstal but eventually went, for the most part, “straight”), terrorist (sporadically repentant), Irish Republican, Stage-Irishman, singer, entertainer, lout. We might also borrow Joyce’s description of Stephen Dedalus’s father: “praiser of his own past”. But do any of these labels in any sense capture the complexity and humanity of the man, the humour, insight, inventiveness, polemics, and, again, the humanity of the more important writings?

Of course there is nothing new in these questions or in facing this quandary of how to get beyond the mythology, beyond the burdensome labels, and the overwhelming personality, and. Augustine Martin described the problem more than fifty years ago when he wrote in 1963 (the year before Behan died):

Brendan Behan does not invite critical comment on his work. The whole character of the man discourages it. The public image that he has created is so tremendously alive and exuberant that one is inclined to regard the writing as a mere casual offshoot of his rollicking personality. As if, in fact, the work was there as an excuse to display the man. Again one feels a little silly in treating his work with more attention and respect the he allows it himself.

The key is to stop taking Behan on his own terms and to start admitting the extent to which this cult of personality wears thin. As with all self-obsessed storytellers, at a certain point, the listener has enough. This is the cue for the reader to re-enter the scene, seeking out those writings which remain the uniquely valuable productions of a fragile talent which was as rare as it was abused. Far too often, Behan did not tend his craft with the care that it deserved, leaving it to others – editors and theatre directors – to fill in his many gaps with their own interpretations and approximations of what he would have wanted. Mostly, in the latter years, he was incommunicado in whatever pub would still let him in. Only sporadically did he see his projects through with the kind of painstaking attention necessary, and his later works should probably never have seen print. To borrow from John Horgan, it was as if his supporters, editors, and publishers were collectively trying to turn the bird that lay the golden egg that was The Quare Fella “into a battery hen”.

Fortunately, in the fifty years since his premature death, many critics have given his works the critical attention that at least some of them deserve and which he never fully allowed himself. He did however recognize his own creative insecurity and fragility when telling Iain Hamilton, who commissioned Borstal Boy for Hutchinson: “We have no proper view of our own work – we think we’re James Joyce one minute and plain gobshites the next.” It is the task of the reader and the critic to situate Behan’s works, to establish a “proper view” or, better, proper views. A leader in this endeavour is John Brannigan, author of Brendan Behan, Cultural Nationalism and the Revisionist Writer, originally published in 2002 and reprinted this year. Brannigan reads against many of the stereotypes hung around the figure of Behan, situates him in mid-century among a generation of Irish writers dealing with the dull, even dour aftermath of the previous, more heroic, age of Irish twentieth-century history.  Theirs was an age of disappointment and anti-climax in which the promise of the early decades of the twentieth century was not delivered on and, as Behan has the lag Dunlavin put it in The Quare Fella: “the Free State didn’t change anything more than the badges in the warder’s caps”. Brannigan also explores the importance of Behan’s time across the water, his links with English writers (mostly the Angry Young Men), English politics, English popular cultural, making Behan a unique if unlikely bridge between the two countries and the two cultures. What also emerges here is Behan’s feeling at sea in ’50s Dublin and his impatience with the supremacy of a rural aesthetic in Irish letters. As he put it in a letter in 1951: “Cultural activity in present-day Dublin is largely agricultural. They write mostly about their hungry bogs and the great scarcity of crumpet. I am a city rat. Joyce is dead and O'Casey is in Devon. The people writing here now have as much interest for me as an epic poet in Finnish or a Lapland novelist”. Thus he found himself attempting, almost singlehandedly, to give voice to the Dublin working class and to Dublin Republicanism. 

More recently Brannigan edited a special issue of the Irish University Review dedicated to Behan which includes the full text Brendan at the Chelsea, the hugely successful play written by Behan’s niece, the actor, writer, and  director Janet Behan. Among a strong selection of essays, are a witty anecdotal piece on Behan’s visits to Aran by Andrew McNeillie (a welcome intrusion, this, of wit, personality, and insight into the often-stuffy and strait-jacketed world of academic writing), and an eye-opening discussion of class and postcolonialism in An Giall and The Hostage by Michael Pierse of Queen’s University Belfast. This is a must-buy publication for anyone claiming a genuine interest in Behan’s writings and reputation.

Janet Behan, John Brannigan, and Michael Pierse, will be among an accomplished group of scholars, critics, actors, and writers who will gather in Rome from 25-27 September for an International Conference organised by the Università Roma Tre and the University of Notre Dame to reassess Behan’s work in the year which marks the fiftieth anniversary of his premature passing. It will examine his place in the canon of Irish literature in both English and Irish and within the English tradition, as well as his often complicated relationships with the others writers of his generation (such as Kavanagh and Flann O’Brien). It will also focus on what we can politely call the intertextual nature of Behan’s works or, better, what Joyce refers to in Finnegans Wake as  “Stolentelling”. When Behan was accused of plagiarising Frank O’Connor’s story “Guests of the Nation” in his play, The Hostage, he is said to have openly admitted as much. In his obituary of Behan, O’Connor recalls him telling him: “Ah, sure, of course I stole the fucking thing”. Similarly, the song that is popularly associated with Behan, “The Auld Triangle”, may not even have been written by him but by a fellow prisoner in Mountjoy (or even, others say, by his brother, Dominic). Just as it is increasingly evident that Joyce’s Finnegans Wake is an amalgam of distorted quotations from a multitude of other texts, so too are Behan’s writings. Which is not necessarily a bad thing.

It is ironic, however, that these two figures, both of whom created such a cult of individual personality around themselves, ended up almost as filters of the voices, writings, songs, popular culture of their respective times, as conduits of other texts. But with a difference. Joyce never lost control of the elements that he appropriated and included, he never ceded control to editors or directors but fought, tooth and nail, to preserve the integrity and individuality of his work. Behan’s mistake was to farm too much of the hard graft of writing out to others, and ultimately to put himself at their mercy (including, among others, the well-intentioned Joan Littlewood). Too often he relied excessively on the uniqueness of his own, often wonderfully witty, often touching, storyteller’s voice which, at its best, was a master’s voice but at its worst, was the voice of a late night drunk, talking to himself (or to a tape-recorder) when all of his listeners had already gone home. Perhaps for this reason, some of his most interesting writing was done in Irish, precisely because this was a language that he acquired belatedly and always had to handle with care as it did not trip off the tongue with the same mellifluous ease and resisted the playful impulse that too often was an end in itself. His later works in English would have needed a similar restraining discipline to pull them away from their sometimes serendipitous and rambling nature.



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