Brendan Behan at 100: His works shine brightly and still shine to this day

Brendan Behan was once asked in an interview: “What would you like to say about yourself in 50 years?” Giggling, Behan replied, “That I celebrated my 86th and 87th birthdays!”

Of course, his joke was a clever dodge of his own invitation to write an obituary. It is also typical of a man who always shows an irresistible zest for life.

His interviewer and cousin, Eamonn Andrews, learned that Behan had been warned by a doctor that alcoholism combined with diabetes was likely to cause an early death. Within a few short years, on March 20, 1964, Behan died after celebrating his 41st birthday just a few weeks earlier.

Behan was born in the midst of the Civil War, on February 9, 1923. One hundred years on, the question of how people will remember him remains open. Most of his major works are in print, but his plays do not frequently appear in major Irish theatres. He remains a fixture in tourist memorabilia, and is hailed on posters and websites as one of Ireland’s great writers, but his life and drinking His works are often the subject of stories told about him, rather than his writings.

Then there are also doubts. Has he written enough to be remembered as a great writer?

His literary fame almost always comes with two plays, Quare’s colleague (1954) and hostage (1958), and his autobiographical novel, Borstal boy (1958).

Did he write his own works, or were his works not co-authored or edited by others? Theater director Joan Littlewood is often cited as having written parts of hostage; Carolyn Swift and Rae Jeffs are credited, respectively, for editing, Quare’s colleague And Borstal boy shape.

In fact, Behan was the first and most persistent to raise doubts about his own literary talent, joking in his own work about being a hack, stealing other people’s ideas. or unable to read. There is no author who has not been improved upon by an editor, just as there is no playwright who has not ceded control of the author to the director. Others’ suspicions about Behan’s literary talent were always a little snobbish about them.

Behan grew up in a northern apartment complex, dropped out of school at 14, and spent seven short years in prison.

Outside of prison, and before his literary success, he was a house painter, a smuggler, a vagabond, and in his spare time he was an IRA volunteer. He doesn’t find any noticeable satisfaction in any of these jobs.

He was fired, or fired himself from some painting job. As for his misadventures with the IRA, it appears he was arrested and jailed on his first escape for explosives possession in Liverpool, and fortunately was not hanged a second time. when he opened fire on a gardener in Dublin.

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His experiences with prison and the IRA form the main themes of his writing, but first and foremost, he is a writer.

His first letter to one of his brothers, Sean, after his imprisonment in England in 1939 requested copies of Shakespeare’s plays and an anthology of English poetry. by Penguin. At the age of 19, he published his first short story in Ireland’s leading literary magazine, Bell. To describe a prison like a university would be far-fetched, but Behan’s fellow inmates in Ireland included school principal Kerry Seán Ó Briain and novelist Máírtín Ó Cadhain.

He was visited and mentored by Seán Ó Faoláin. He began learning Irish and French, reading stories by Maupassant and translating Brian Merriman’s stories. Cuirt an Mheán Oice. It was in prison that he began to write plays and poetry, and at the same time considered himself a writer seriously. Others also take him seriously. Not long after his release from prison, he began visiting and later living in Paris, where he befriended Albert Camus, Samuel Beckett, and James Baldwin.


Brendan Behan moved to Paris shortly after being released from prison. Photos by Hulton Archive/Getty Images

He loves Paris precisely because he is accepted as a writer, not pretentious or snobby. In Paris, as Deirdre McMahon revealed in her RTÉ documentary in 2019, he found a home for work that was too bold and controversial to be published in Ireland. It was the home of writers and intellectuals who accepted him for who he was.

When Behan returned to live in Ireland in the early 1950s, he had already established a reputation for himself in a number of genres. His poems in Irish have been published in anthologies of some of the finest young poets since independence, Nuabhearsaiocht.

He has contributed dramas and documentaries to Radio Éireann, including flashbacks to folk songs and games from his childhood north of Dublin. He was invited to write a serial crime novel for Irish Timesand a regular column for Irish Press.

The column he wrote for Press, which ran sporadically from 1951 to 1954, and then, almost without interruption, weekly until 1956, covering comedy, history, folklore, fiction, and autobiography. It represents one of his most enduring periods of composition.

Lilliput Press will publish all of his articles as a new book, A bit of a writer: Collected Short Prosein April to mark Behan’s centenary, and bring Behan’s genius for comedies, anecdotes and memoirs of self-doubt to a new generation of readers.

Behan’s breakthrough as a writer came in 1954 when Quare’s colleague was performed at the small experimental Pike Theater in Dublin, a year before Beckett’s Waiting for Godot play in the same theater.

Quare’s colleague is a bold and extraordinary play, taking the grim events of a prison execution as a comedy theme. A good work will make the audience laugh out loud before making them break into a cold sweat.

Quare’s colleague is said to have influenced public debates about the death penalty, but to regard it as an element of epochal political persuasion is to ignore its broader social connotation. One murderer was hanged, and another was pardoned; prisoners understand the difference is due to class, as they also understand that they are in prison for petty crimes, while people of a different class can evade punishment because their crimes are not considered crime.

The play was rejected by the Monastery; Pike can only perform for small audiences. The play was acquired by a new London theater company, Joan Littlewood’s Theater Workshop, and in 1956 the play premiered in London to critical acclaim, and moved to the West End. Almost overnight, Behan became a media star.

Two years later, his fame grew when he translated and adapted a play he first wrote in Irish into An Giall into a music hall and melodramatic extravaganza, Hostage. It has the makings of a tense thriller. A British soldier is held hostage in an IRA safehouse (also a brothel), and is to be executed in retaliation for the execution of an IRA prisoner held in Belfast. However, Behan has no interest in writing a horror movie.

Instead, all conventional political and sexual allegiances were overthrown. The British soldier becomes the play’s lovable hero; the IRA leader is an Englishman in a skirt and mispronouncing the Gaelic he knows.


Shawn Hatosy (right) as Brendan Behan in the 2000 film Borstal Boy with Danny Dyer and Robin Laing

Each character in the play turns out to have multiple allegiances and identities, and half the cast (and for a good night, the audience, too) sings a tribute to being gay. hostage is a festival of diversity, subversion and of emancipated genders: it’s a play written in 1950s Ireland in which Panti Bliss would be entirely at home.

Behan once said of his own artistic practice, that the ‘trick’ is to entertain the reader or audience, while surreptitiously subverting them behind their backs. Borstal boy, his autobiographical novel, exemplifies the practice. Various ways considered the confession of an IRA prisoner, or the vulgar account of working-class masculinity, Borstal boy also tries to subtly tell the story of how Behan fell in love with an English sailor. It ends with one of the most beautiful descriptions of being back in Dublin, and a sarcastic remark about what Irish freedom means.

Perhaps more than any other writer since 1922, Behan pondered a broader understanding of human freedom – freedom from poverty, from oppression, from toil – and questioned Ask about the meaning of freedom.

It is a question we can ask more often as the state has entered the second century.

Behan’s decline from illness and notoriety is well known, and those old enough to remember him in his youthful glory have faded from us. His tales of drunken antics will fade, too, and we’ll eventually be left with writer Brendan Behan, whose brilliant work across Europe and North America during his lifetime. and still shines to this day. Brendan Behan at 100: His works shine brightly and still shine to this day

Fry Electronics Team

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