Brendan Behan was born in Dublin’s inner city in 1923. He inherited his love of literature from his father, a house-painter who had fought in the War of Independence, and much of his Republicanism from his mother Kathleen, a sister of Peadar Kearney, the man who wrote Amhran na bFhiann.
Behan was politically active from an early age and was also publishing as a teenager. He was one of the youngest contributors to the Irish Press, for example, with his poem, Reply of a Young Boy to pro-English verses.
At the age of 16 he joined the IRA and decided, apparently of his own volition, that it would be a good idea to bomb Liverpool docks. The result was his arrest in England for possession of explosives. His explanation to the court for the contents of the bag with which he was discovered was that the potassium chlorate found in his luggage was medication for his ears. He even claimed to have a doctor’s note to that effect. The Judge was not impressed. Pronouncing sentence he told Behan that, but for his youth, his prison sentence would have been much longer. He was committed to borstal for three years. Soberingly, on the day he was sent down two IRA volunteers, Peter Barnes and William McCormick, were hanged in Winston Green prison in Birmingham for their involvement in an explosion in Coventry in 1939 which had killed five people.
Behan’s sojourn in prison would become the inspiration for his autobiographical novel Borstal Boy.
On his return to Ireland Behan was jailed once again, sentenced to fourteen years for the attempted murder of two Irish detectives. He was released in a general amnesty in 1946. While he maintained a healthy disrespect for the forces of law and order, once observing that, ‘I have never seen a situation so dismal that a policeman couldn’t make worse’ his militant Republican activities had ended by his mid 20s.
His first major commercial and artistic success was his prison play The Quare Fellow. This started life in the Pike Theatre in Dublin before the famous English director Joan Littlewood took it to London. The play was an instant success and transferred to the West End. Behan did the cause of the play no particular harm, whatever about his own reputation, when he appeared drunk on a BBC TV interview with the rather self-important Malcolm Muggeridge. Sceptics, unwilling to accept Behan’s credentials as a writer, claimed, unfairly, that it was really Littlewood who had crafted The Quare Fellow, prompting the gibe that ‘While Dylan Thomas wrote Under Milk Wood, Brendan Behan wrote under Littlewood.’
Further success followed with The Hostage in 1958, an English language version of his play An Giall which was first produced in the Damer theatre on Stephen’s Green. Though some claim that the resemblance between the two is a passing one. The appearance of Borstal Boy the same year further enhanced his growing reputation.
Unfortunately, coinciding with this success, Behan was becoming almost as well known for his drinking as for his writing. He once described himself as a ‘drinker with writing problems’ and one bon mot ascribed to him on a visit to North America was the observation that ‘I saw a billboard saying ‘Drink Canada Dry – so I did’. Like another famous Celtic roisterer, the aforementioned Dylan Thomas, Behan would have a short life. He developed diabetes in his thirties and it hastened his death. He collapsed in a Dublin bar in 1964 and died in the Meath Hospital. He was only forty-one years old.
Brendan Behan, two days short of his 17th birthday, was sentenced to 3 years in Borstal at Liverpool Assizes 74 years ago, on this day.