Brendan Behan, a lion roaring in a wilderness


BRENDAN BEHAN died on March 20, 1964. Fifty years ago and I haven’t heard a word about it by, or from,  my own Government, the National Broadcaster, RTE, by the National Theatre Company, The Abbey Theatre or by the Irish Film Institute, the national archive of Ireland’s contribution to the film industry. So where, do they estimate someone who gave us The Quare Fella, The Hostage and The Borstal Boy, stands in the pantheon of great Irish artists?

Nowhere, it appears. If it’s to be estimated from this complete and outrageous act of cultural airbrushing that only rivals Stalin era to 1990 photo compositions of the movers and shaky shakers of Soviet power, like the West’s version of the Hollywood Oscar shakeup.
One year and 50 years since the almost totally ignored Irish workers’ revolution of 1913, since, conveniently, and ambiguously, known as ‘The 1913 lock out’, one of the greatest contributors to the hall of international fame’s list of Irish artists, Brendan Behan, died.

And we, since I can’t, in all fairness exonerate myself from blame here, failed to celebrate. Let’s consider why?

Brendan Francis Behan (/ˈbən/ BEE-ən; Irish: Breandán Ó Beacháin; 9 February 1923 – 20 March 1964) was an Irish poet, short story writer, novelist, and playwright who wrote in both English and Irish. He was also an Irish republican and a volunteer in the Irish Republican Army. Born in Dublin into a republican family, he became a member of the IRA’s youth organisation Fianna Éireann at the age of fourteen. However, there was also a strong emphasis on Irish history and culture in the home, which meant he was steeped in literature and patriotic ballads from a tender age. Behan eventually joined the IRA at sixteen, which led to him serving time in a borstal youth prison in the United Kingdom and was also imprisoned in Republic of Ireland. During this time, he took it upon himself to study and he became a fluent speaker of the Irish language. Subsequently released from prison as part of a general amnesty given by the Fianna Fáil government in 1946, Behan moved between homes in Dublin, Kerry and Connemara and also resided in Paris for a period.

In 1954, Behan’s first play The Quare Fellow was produced in Dublin. It was well received; however, it was the 1956 production at Joan Littlewood‘s Theatre Workshop in Stratford, London, that gained Behan a wider reputation – this was helped by a famous drunken interview on BBC television. In 1958, Behan’s play in the Irish language An Giall had its debut at Dublin’s Damer Theatre. Later, The Hostage, Behan’s English-language adaptation of An Giall, met with great success internationally. Behan’s autobiographical novel, Borstal Boy, was published the same year and became a worldwide best-seller.

He married Beatrice Ffrench-Salkeld in 1955. Behan was known for his drinking problem, which resulted in him suffering from diabetes, which ultimately resulted in his death on 20 March 1964. He was given an IRA guard of honour which escorted his coffin and it was described by several newspapers as the biggest funeral since those of Michael Collins and Charles Stewart Parnell.

And that’s the potted history from Wikipedia, And what about Dave Finnegan’s recent reflections in the Irish Times regarding the level of notoriety and acclaim Behan accrued from his exploits in New York in the late ’50s and early ’60, he enjoyed a celebrity so large it might be best described as what you’d get today if you crossed the literary credibility of Colum McCann with the tabloid notoriety of Colin Farrell.

One minute he was discussing Joyce with James Thurber and Burgess Meredith, the next he was on the front pages for drunkenly rampaging across the stage during a Broadway production of The Hostage . A few weeks into trying to figure out whether there might be an actual book to be wrung from this type of carry-on, I happened upon a quote from Frank O’Connor.

“I wish I had it in my power to suppress ‘Brendan Behan’s New York’ with which we are threatened,” wrote O’Connor in the week of Behan’s death in March 1964. “It will not be New York and it will not be Brendan. I should be happier to think that some young writer was gathering up the hundreds of stories about him that are circulating at this moment in Dublin and that would tell scholars and critics 100 years from now what sort of man he was and why he was so greatly loved.”

There are as many pubs today, in Dublin, where you can hear that many stories about him in a day and there is probably as many people you might meet, who could claim to have known him/drunk with him/ or witnessed a row between himself and Patrick Kavanagh as there wre people who claimed to have been in the GPO in 1916 or, to at least, have had a relative who knew someone else who knew someone who was there.

The point is, the one common, and the pertinent point is, common, denominator, is Brendan Behan, the writer, activist, republican or whatever, but above all, is a Dubliner and one who gave voice to a new generation of Dublin, beyond O’Casey, oblivious to , Swift, Wilde, Synge or Yeats, never mind the aforementioned O’Casey, Beckett or Joyce, a voice in a new country, a voice of the common people.

So here’s the thing…Behan became celebrated internationally, in the late ’50s for his autotbiographical, The Borstal Boy and subsequently, for his earlier writings, The Quare Fella and The Hostage. Films were made of at least two of these productions and God knows how many times his plays are staged around the world and that’s just on national theatre stages…so why has the anniversary of his death been marked with less than a whimper and barely a whisper.

Behan was a lion roaring in a wilderness, and now he can’t be heard? Pathetic.

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