brendan behan | never at a loss for words

17 03 2008


NOTES from the UNDERGROUND… No. 134 | March 17, 2008


from BRENDAN BEHAN—never at a loss for words

I am a drinker with writing problems.

If it was raining soup, the Irish would go out with forks.

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.

It’s not that the Irish are cynical. It’s rather that they have a wonderful lack of respect for everything and everybody

I have a total irreverence for anything connected with society except that which makes the roads safer, the beer stronger, the food cheaper and the old men and old women warmer in the winter and happier in the summer.

The Bible was a consolation to a fellow alone in the old cell. The lovely thin paper with a bit of mattress stuffing in it, if you could get a match, was as good a smoke as I ever tasted.

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.

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.


Brendan Francis Behan (Irish: Breandán Ó Beacháin) (February 9, 1923 – March 20, 1964) was an Irish poet, short story writer, novelist and playwright who wrote in both Irish and English. He was also a committed Irish Republican and an erstwhile member of the Irish Republican Army.

Behan was one of the most successful Irish dramatists of the 20th century. Behan was born in the inner city of Dublin on February 9, 1923 into an educated working class family. He lived in a house owned by his granny English, who owned a number of properties in the area. His father Stephen Behan, a house painter who had been active in the Irish War of Independence, read classic literature to the children at bedtime from diverse sources such as Zola, Galsworthy and Maupassant; while his mother Kathleen took them on literary tours of the city. If Brendan Behan’s interest in literature came from his father, then his political beliefs were injected by his mother. She remained politically active all her life, and was a personal friend of the famed Irish republican Michael Collins. Brendan Behan wrote a lament to Collins: “The Laughing Boy,” at the age of thirteen. The title was derived from the affectionate name Mrs Behan gave Collins. She published her autobiography “Mother of All The Behans,” a collaboration with her son Brian, in 1984.

Behan’s uncle Peadar Kearney wrote the Irish national anthem A Soldier’s Song. His brother, Dominic Behan, was also a renowned songwriter most famous for the song The Patriot Game, while another sibling, Brian Behan, was a prominent radical political activist and public speaker, actor, author and playwright. Brendan and Brian did not share the same views, especially when the question of politics or nationalism arose. Whether seriously or (perhaps more likely) in jest, Brendan on his deathbed asked Cahil Goulding, then the Chief of Staff of the IRA, to ‘have that bastard Brian shot – we’ve had all sorts in our family, but never a traitor!’.

Behan’s biographer Ulick O’Connor recounts that one day, at the age of eight, Brendan was returning home with his granny and a crony from a drinking session. A passer-by remarked: “Oh, my! Isn’t it terrible ma’am to see such a beautiful child deformed?” “How dare you,” said his granny, “he’s not deformed, he’s just drunk!”

At the age of thirteen, Behan left school to follow in his father’s footsteps as a house painter.

In 1937, the family moved to a new local authority housing scheme in Crumlin. Here, Behan became a member of Fianna Éireann, the youth organization of the IRA; he published his first poems and prose in the organisation’s magazine Fianna: the Voice of Young Ireland. He was also the youngest contributor to be published in the Irish Press when a poem of his entitled: “Reply of Young Boy to Pro-English verses” was published in 1931.

At the age of sixteen (in 1939) Behan joined the IRA and embarked on an unauthorised solo mission to England to blow up Liverpool docks. There he was arrested in possession of explosives. He was sentenced to three years in a reform school (or Borstal in British English) and did not return to Ireland until 1941. He wrote about these years in his autobiography Borstal Boy. In 1942, during the timeframe leading to the IRA’s Northern Campaign, Behan was tried for the attempted murder of two detectives in Dublin while at a commemoration ceremony for Wolfe Tone — the father of Irish Republicanism. Sentenced to fourteen years in prison, he was incarcerated in Mountjoy Prison and the Curragh. These experiences were relayed in “Confessions of an Irish Rebel.” Released under a general amnesty for Republicans in 1946, his “military” career was over by the age of twenty-three. Aside from a short prison sentence that he received in 1947 for his part in trying to break a fellow republican out from a Manchester jail, he effectively left the IRA, though he remained great friends with the future Chief-Of-Staff Cathal Goulding.

Behan’s prison experiences were central to his future writing career. In Mountjoy he wrote his first play, The Landlady, and also began to write short stories and other prose. Some of this work was published in The Bell, the leading Irish literary magazine of the time. He also learned Irish in prison and, after his release in 1946, he spent some time in the Gaeltacht areas of Galway and Kerry, where he started writing poetry in Irish. He left Ireland and all its perceived social pressures to live in Paris in the early 1950s. There he felt he could lose himself and release the artist within. Although he still drank heavily, he managed to earn a living, supposedly by writing pornography. By the time he returned to Ireland he had become a writer who drank a lot, rather than a drinker who talked about what he was going to write. He had also developed the knowledge that, in order to succeed, he would have to discipline himself. Throughout the majority of his writing career he would rise at seven in the morning and work until 12 noon-when the pubs opened. He began to write for various newspapers, such as The Irish Times, and also for radio, where a play entitled “The Leaving Party” was broadcast. Additionally, he cultivated a reputation as carouser-in-chief and swayed shoulder-to-shoulder with other literati of the day: Flann O’Brien, Patrick Kavanagh, Anthony Cronin, J. P. Donleavy. For reasons unknown he had a major fall-out with Kavanagh, who reportedly would visibly shudder at the mere mention of Behan’s name, and who referred to Behan as “evil incarnate”.

Behan’s fortunes changed in 1954 with the appearance of his play “The Quare Fellow” (Irish slang for “condemned man”)-his major breakthrough at last. Originally called “The Twisting of Another Rope” and influenced by his time spent in jail, it chronicles the vicissitudes of prison life leading up to the execution of “the quare fellow”-a character who is never seen. The prison dialogue is vivid, and laced with satire, but reveals to the reader the human detritus that surrounds capital punishment. It was produced in the Pike Theatre in Dublin. The play ran for six months. In May 1956, The Quare Fellow opened in the Theatre Royal Stratford East, in a production by Joan Littlewood’s Theatre Workshop. Subsequently it transferred to the West End theatre. Behan generated immense publicity for “The Quare Fellow” as a result of a drunken appearance on the Malcolm Muggeridge TV show. The English, relatively unaccustomed to public drunkenness in authors, took him to their hearts . A fellow guest on the show, the American actor Jackie Gleason, reportedly said about the incident: “It wasn’t an act of God but an act of Guinness!”. Behan and Gleason went on to forge a friendship. Brendan loved the story of how, walking along the street in London, shortly after this episode, a Cockney approached him and exclaimed that he understood every word he had said-drunk or not-but hadn’t a clue what “that bugger Muggeridge was on about!” While addled, Brendan would clamber on stage and recite the play’s signature song “The Auld Triangle”. The transfer of the play to Broadway provided Behan with international recognition. Rumours still abound that Littlewood’s hand was all over The Quare Fellow and led to the saying, “Dylan Thomas wrote Under Milkwood, Brendan Behan wrote under Littlewood”.


Brendan Behan and Jackie Gleason

In 1957, his Irish language play, An Giall (The Hostage) opened in the Damer Theatre, Dublin. Reminiscent of Frank O’Connor’s “Guests of The Nation,” it portrays the detention, in a teeming Dublin house in the late 1950’s, of a British conscript soldier seized by the IRA as a hostage pending the scheduled execution in Northern Ireland of an imprisoned IRA volunteer. The hostage falls in love with an Irish convent girl, Teresa, working as a maid in the house. Their innocent world of love is incongruous among their surroundings-the house also serves as a brothel. In the end, the hostage dies accidentally during a bungled police raid, revealing the human cost of war-a universal suffering. The subsequent English language version of The Hostage (1958), again much influenced by Joan Littlewood during a troubled collaboration with Behan, is a bawdy, slapstick play that inter alia adds a number of flamboyant gay characters, and bears only a limited resemblance to the original Gaelic version.

His autobiographical novel Borstal Boy followed in 1958. A vivid memoir of his time in Hollesley Bay Borstal, Suffolk, England, an original voice in Irish literature boomed out from its pages. The language is both acerbic and delicate; the portrayal of inmates and “screws” cerebral. For a republican, though, it isn’t a vitriolic attack on Britain-it delineates Behan’s move away from violence. In one account an inmate strives to entice Brendan in chanting political slogans with him. Brendan curses and damns him in his mind, hoping he would cease his rantings-hardly the sign of a troublesome prisoner. By the end the idealistic boy rebel emerges as a realistic young man who recognises the truth: violence, especially political violence, is futile. Kenneth Tynan, the 1950s literary critic said: “While other writers horde words like misers, Behan sends them out on a spree, ribald, flushed and spoiling for a fight.” He was now established as one of the leading Irish writers of his generation.

As his fame grew, so too did his alcohol consumption. Brendan saw that it paid him to be drunk, as the public wanted the witty, iconoclastic, genial “broth of a boy”. And he gave it to them in abundance. He staggered through the drunken hoops held out to him exclaiming: “There’s no bad publicity except an obituary.” His health suffered terribly, with diabetic comas and seizures occurring with frightening regularity. Towards the end he became the caricature of the drunken Irishman. The public who once extended their arms now closed ranks against him; publicans flung him from their premises. Although Brendan cried out that he was a writer, inside he knew his fears had materialised — he was unable to generate another classic. His last two books, “Brendan Behan’s Ireland” and “Brendan Behan’s New York”, published in 1961 and 1962 respectively, were talk books and cannot be compared to his former works — they were littered with pretentiousness and sycophancy, something which he wouldn’t have tolerated earlier: “As Norman Mailer said to me. …..” Arthur Miller came up to me. ..” “One day with Groucho Marx. …”

Behan married Beatrice Salkeld (the daughter of painter Cecil Salkeld) in 1955. They had a daughter, Blanaid, born in 1963. Love, however, wasn’t enough to haul him back from his alcoholic abyss. By early March 1964, the end was in sight. Collapsing at the Harbour Lights bar, he was transferred to Meath Hospital, where he died.

Behan found fame difficult to deal with. He had long been a heavy drinker (describing himself, on one occasion, as “a drinker with a writing problem” and claiming “I only drink on two occasions-when I’m thirsty and when I’m not”) and developed diabetes in the early 1960s. This combination resulted in a series of notoriously drunken public appearances, on both stage and television. His last two works: “Brendan Behan’s Ireland” and “Brendan Behan’s New York” were tape-recorded, a device which Brendan hated, preferring to write or type his words. He died, aged 41, in the Meath Hospital in central Dublin, and was buried in Glasnevin Cemetery where he received a Republican funeral. En route to the graveyard, thousands lined the streets.

  • * One of his books, “Confessions of an Irish Rebel” is burnt in the movie Fahrenheit 451.
  • * He was mentioned in the Preacher comics by Garth Ennis when the vampire Cassidy claimed to have known him in the ’50s. Ennis also created a Behan analogue in Hellblazer.
  • * Behan’s work has been a significant influence in the writings of Shane MacGowan, and he is the subject of “Streams Of Whiskey”, a song by the Pogues.
  • * Behan is also mentioned in the Pogues song “Thousands are Sailing” (written by Philip Chevron) with reference to the experience of Irish immigrants in New York.
  • * Behan is also mentioned in the song “All Things considered” by The Mighty Mighty Bosstones .
  • * In the Thin Lizzy song “Black Rose” in the lyric “Ah sure, Brendan where have you Behan?”
  • * In Dexys Midnight Runners’ first single, “Dance Stance” (a/k/a “Burn It Down”), a top 40 hit in the UK, Behan is named among other Irish writers in the song’s chorus.
  • * Behan’s version of the third verse of “The Internationale”, from Borstal Boy, was reproduced on the LP sleeve of Dexys Midnight Runners’ debut album, Searching for the Young Soul Rebels.
  • * Shortly after Behan’s death a young student, Fred Geis, wrote the song “Lament for Brendan Behan” and passed it on to the Clancy Brothers, who sang it on their album Recorded Live in Ireland! the same year. This song, which calls “bold Brendan” Ireland’s “sweet angry singer,” was later covered by the Australian trio The Doug Anthony All Stars, better known as a comedy band, on their album Blue.
  • * Brendan Behan is also mentioned in the Damien Dempsey song Jar Song.
  • * “Brendan” :Seamus Robinson’s song-tribute to Brendan Behan.
  • * Behan’s prisoner song “The Auld Triangle”, from his play The Quare Fella (this term being prison slang for a prisoner condemned to be hanged), has become something of a standard and has been recorded on numerous occassions.
  • * Irish band A House mention Behan in their song “Endless Art”.
  • * The Mountain Goats song “Commandante” opens with the line “I’m gonna drink more whiskey than Brendan Behan”.


  • * The Quare Fellow (1954)
  • * An Giall (1958), The Hostage (1958)
  • o Behan wrote the play in Irish, and translated it to English
  • * Richard’s Cork Leg (1972)
  • * Moving Out (one act play, commissioned for radio)
  • * A Garden Party (one act play, commissioned for radio)
  • * The Big House (1957, one act play, commissioned for radio)


  • * Borstal Boy (1958)
  • * Brendan Behan’s Island (1962)
  • * Hold Your Hour and Have Another (1963)
  • * Brendan Behan’s New York (1964)
  • * Confessions of an Irish Rebel (1965)


  • * Brendan Behan Sings Irish Folksongs and Ballads Spoken Arts Records SAC760 (1985)
  • * The Auld Triangle Performed live by The Bleeding Irish
  • * The Captain and the Kings


  • * Brendan Behan – A Life by Michael O’Sullivan
  • * My Brother Brendan by Dominic Behan
  • * Brendan Behan by Ulick O’Connor
  • * The Brothers Behan by Brian Behan
  • * With Brendan Behan by Peter Arthurs





3 responses

17 03 2008
Joe Larkin

Thanks so much for this fitting entry on St. Patrick’s day. Behan has always been a favorite of mine. Keep up the good work lads!

15 07 2009
Paul Gannon

The small exposay was nice to read in fact it was excelant, but it did not mention Behans short stories.

2 01 2011
poetry dispatch and other notes from the underground | 2010 in review « poetry dispatch & other notes from the underground

[…] brendan behan | never at a loss for words March 2008 2 comments 4 […]

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