Brendan Behan died at just 41 years of age after he collapsed in a Dublin public house in March 1964. To Joan Littlewood, the pioneering figure of working-class theatre in post-war Britain, it was nothing short of a tragic waste of talent: ‘I was so angry with Brendan for dying that I felt like kicking that coffin.’ The journalist Kenneth Allsop who had joined Behan on more than one drinking bout, lamented that ‘Brendan Behan’s rogue elephantine talent drowned in a whiskey glass.’
Behan’s struggle with alcohol, a battle he lost, is well-documented. The tragedy of it was best captured in the memoirs of poet Anthony Cronin, Dead as Doornails, a lament for a generation of bohemian Irish writers who drank themselves to early graves or irrelevance. Yet Behan is much more than all that, emerging as one of the most significant urban writers of twentieth-century Ireland, whose work, positioned within a movement of working-class writers, reached international audiences.
Alongside plays like Shelagh Delaney’s A Taste of Honey and Bertolt Brecht’s Mother Courage, Behan’s work, Littlewood believed, belonged in her new Theatre Workshop, which was radical and sought to address social and political issues. To drama critic Alan Brien, Behan ‘forced us to watch men at the end of their tether, men facing death and humiliation and loneliness with humour and spirit. Behan cared about men at work—and his definition of work included crime, politics, drinking and unemployment.’
Russell Street and Crumlin Beginnings
Brendan Behan was a child of the Irish Revolution, born on 9 February 1923 in a country still in civil war. His father, Stephen Behan, was an IRA Volunteer, house painter, and trade unionist, who first viewed his son through the bars of Kilmainham Gaol, held aloft by mother Kathleen. Stephen had opposed the Anglo-Irish Treaty, while Behan’s uncle Peadar Kearney, author of The Soldier’s Song (which became the Irish national anthem), had first supported the new Free State before quickly growing disillusioned with it. As biographer John Brannigan notes, the young Behan’s writings ‘were forged in the spirit of this deflated and broken idealism’.
Home was Russell Street, in the shadow of Croke Park in the north inner city. Behan recounted that ‘I was born in a Georgian house that had gone to rack and ruin as a tenement, so I should know.’ What Behan omitted from the telling of the tale was that the home, and another beside it, was owned by his grandmother, Granny English. Behan’s mother recalled that even in the Dublin tenement landscape, there were layers of distinction:
The houses in Russell Street were typical Dublin tenements with large windows… Some of the houses were the ‘closed hall door’ kind. They were lived in by people who had work and could afford bigger rents. Ours was the other kind, with doors that hung back into the gloomy hallway day and night.
Kathleen, the daughter of a grocer who had played her own role in the revolution as a member of the women’s movement Cumann na mBan, found the tenement landscape a difficult one in which to raise children. During the preceding years she had served as housekeeper to Maud Gonne, a leading nationalist figure, rubbing shoulders with visitors like W. B. Yeats. Kathleen had a deep interest in the topography of the city and its literary heritage, walking her children endlessly and passing sites of revolution (1798, 1803, and, above all, 1916, were dates drilled into the minds of her young children) and sites of literature.
At home, Kathleen’s children from an earlier relationship, Rory and Sean Furlong, were pivotal influences too. Sean subscribed to the Left Book Club, while Rory was a passionate reader of emerging European literature. As one biographer notes, Brendan ‘was able to read at three, could recite Robert Emmet’s mammoth dock speech at six, could play Ravel’s Bolero on the mouth organ and had written newspaper articles before he was twelve’.
The tenement landscape was radically transformed with the coming to power of a Fianna Fáil government in 1932, bringing the Anti-Treaty opposition into the corridors of Leinster House, with considerable help from an energised Irish Republican Army (whose chief of staff would later acknowledge the peculiarity of it, as ‘nobody had visualised a Free State which Republicans were not supposed to attack’). This, coupled with the appointment of a first housing architect by Dublin Corporation, witnessed an unprecedented housing drive and the emergence of new working-class suburbs.
The Behans would move to Kildare Road, in the new Crumlin scheme on Dublin’s Southside. Brendan, together with younger brother Dominic (a skilled memoirist and author, and collector of folk songs), would emerge as one of the earliest chroniclers of the new suburban experience. By 1938, 400 of the 2,000 families placed in the Crumlin scheme had applied to be transferred back to the city centre, feeling deep social alienation. Kathleen was damning of Crumlin, insisting ‘It was a terrible thing to move half the city out … without schools, buses, or shops. Out in the slums we lived a rebellious, anarchic life that didn’t suit the new Ireland at all.’ To her mind, it was more akin to Siberia than suburbia.
A Young Revolutionary
Still, the Behan household found much to occupy the day. Visitors recalled pictures of Christ and Lenin, in what was jokingly known locally as the ‘Crumlin Kremlin’. A young Brendan joined Na Fianna Éireann, the republican boy scout movement affiliated with the IRA, and his earliest publications in the republican press display a political maturity beyond his teenage years. In the poem ‘Red Envoy’, a denunciation of capitalist exploitation, he concludes:
I see this old bad order die
In a great swift blaze of fire
A structure, clear and mighty high
Born in its funeral pyre
Worker, know the world’s for thee
Wert thou to raise the servile knee
From off the ground.
Unsurprisingly, the young Behan attempted to enlist in the ranks of the Irish republican left who volunteered to fight in the Spanish Civil War. As Michael O’Sullivan notes, ‘[H]is mother hindered his efforts by intercepting his correspondence from the recruiters and destroying it.’ Cathal Goulding, later a significant figure in the course of Irish republican history, recounted visiting a house on Dublin’s Ormond Quay with Behan to meet Frank Ryan, leader of the Irish contingent going to Spain, who rejected the boys on account of their age.
Graduating from the ranks of Na Fianna, the still-teenaged Behan joined the Irish Republican Army, an organisation that had spent the 1930s in ideological disarray, losing much of its left wing through a combination of splits and expulsions. Still, as historian C. Desmond Greaves noted in an obituary for Behan,
Even after the withdrawal of some of its best members, including Frank Ryan, when the Republican Congress was formed, there still remained a substantial ‘left’ in the IRA. It was impossible for it to be otherwise. The intertwining of the national and working-class struggle is the essence of the politics of modern Ireland.
Drifting without a political agenda, the IRA launched a disastrous bombing campaign of British cities in 1939. Greaves says, ‘The picture of Brendan Behan who came over to Liverpool at the end of 1939 with a suitcase of explosives is of a lively, irrepressible youngster of sixteen, whose mercurial impressionable manner concealed a real depth of purpose. Impressionable would be the word.’ The young Behan’s decision to partake in this campaign would alter the course of literary history—landing him in the borstal system.
In court, Behan declared, ‘I came over here to fight for the Irish Workers and Small Farmers Republic, for a full and free life for my fellow countrymen north and south’. While the ideal of a ‘Workers’ Republic’ had perhaps been abandoned by his superiors, the statement certainly represented the ideology of the teenager.
The period of imprisonment in the British borstal system, which followed, was to prove politically and personally transformative; his biographer Ulick O’Connor noted that ‘later on Brendan would refer to his experiences at Borstal as having given him the first opportunity to recognise that he could enjoy sexual congress with either sex’, an assertion that was widely condemned at the time of publication of the biography, though Behan’s bisexuality is now widely acknowledged. Beyond sexual attraction, there were commonalities of experience Behan found with working-class British prisoners:
I had the same rearing as most of them, Dublin, Liverpool, Manchester, Glasgow, London. All our mothers had all done the pawn—pledging on Monday, releasing on Saturday. We all knew the chip shop and the picture house and the four penny rush of a Saturday afternoon, and the Summer swimming in the canal and being chased along the railway by the cops.
Imprisonment in Dublin’s Mountjoy Prison for an altercation with Gardaí followed in 1942, leading to subsequent internment during the length of the global war Ireland ludicrously christened ‘The Emergency’. This provided the space to develop as a writer; and by his early twenties Behan’s revolutionary career was largely over. Prison experiences would influence both The Quare Fellow, Behan’s breakthrough play, and his autobiographical Borstal Boy.
Attempts by the tiny Pike Theatre (a theatre nestled down a Dublin laneway, which also championed Samuel Beckett and Bertolt Brecht) to put the play on a bigger Dublin stage ultimately failed. The Olympia Theatre scorned the work—as Brendan’s half-brother had been dismissed from his job there for selling copies of the Daily Worker to punters sitting in ‘the gods’. This, it was remembered, involved ‘the dual crime of left-wing political allegiance and encouraging patrons to part with money for something on which the theatre got no profit’. The Abbey Theatre had shunned an earlier edition of the work—Dublin’s loss was Littlewood’s gain.
A Sad Demise
It was Joan Littlewood who nurtured Behan’s raw talent into something of brilliance, creating in the process what Samuel Beckett would christen ‘the new O’Casey’. In The Observer, the play led a reviewer to insist ‘It is Ireland’s sacred duty to send over, every few years, a playwright to save the English theatre from inarticulate glumness.’ Still, there is no denying Behan’s relatively short collected body of works, with some of his later publications dictated to his publicity manager and friend Rae Jeffs, lacked the genius present in earlier publications.
Behan’s commitment to progressive causes remained throughout his career—he endorsed Spanish Civil War veteran Michael O’Riordan in the 1954 Irish general election, signing the nomination papers for the widely condemned candidate (‘Don’t vote for the Red O’Riordan’ being the slogan of The Catholic Standard newspaper). In response to clerical warnings that voting for O’Riordan was a mortal sin, Behan greeted O’Riordan on the street following the election with ‘well done Mick on the 295 mortallers’!
Greaves recalled that ‘When in London he would occasionally come to Hyde Park on a Sunday afternoon and listen to the Connolly Association meetings.’ Perhaps most significantly, his play The Quare Fellow was a harrowing condemnation of capital punishment, the abolition of which was a cause that Behan championed, using the media platform he was accorded. Behan humanised the prisoner within the carceral system in the eyes of many—and never forgot those who remained within it.
It is perhaps most fitting to end with words said about him by his friend and former fellow-internee, the trade unionist Mattie O’Neill. Standing at the grave of Behan in Glasnevin Cemetery, he recognised the same infuriating loss of talent that Joan Littlewood did:
There was life throbbing in every vein of him. It is heartbreaking to see all that gaiety and all that bravery going under the soil at Glasnevin. His memory will be green as long as Dublin lies on the Liffey.