The Irish playwright, novelist and memoirist Brendan Behan was born in Dublin on January 9, 1923. He had a short life, with a meteoric rise as a gifted and famous writer and just as swift a fall into alcoholism, poor health and shoddy work. He died in 1964 at the age of 41 from diabetes that he took no steps to control and which led to frequent seizures and comas.
Behan was born into a Republican family and joined the youth wing of the IRA when he was fourteen. At 16 he was arrested in England for smuggling explosives in an attempt to blow up docks in Liverpool and spent three years in a “borstal” or youth prison, the inspiration of his best book, the novel Borstal Boy.
Back in Dublin he was sentenced to 14 years in prison for the attempted murder of two policemen, but was released in 1946, at the age of 23, under the general amnesty for IRA “soldiers” in prison. He described these years in the book Confessions of an Irish Rebel.
Behan’s uncle, Peadar Kearney, wrote the Irish national anthem “The Soldier’s Song.” His brother, Dominic Behan, was also a celebrated songwriter, best known for “The Patriot Game,” made famous by, among others, The Clancy Brothers.
Dominic Behan had a public feud with Bob Dylan whom he accused –quite correctly– of plagiarizing the “The Patriot Game” in Dylan’s song “With God On Our Side.” Ironically, the young Bob Dylan became good friends with Brendan Behan in Greenwich Village while Behan lived in The Chelsea Hotel.
After his release from prison, Behan too began to write, first poems and short stories and then for the theatre. Behan’s two early plays The Quare Fellow and The Hostage (originally written in Irish) made him famous not just in Dublin but also in London and in New York, where he spent much of his later life, drunkenly playing the quick-witted stage Irishman.
Behan didn’t handle fame well and in his final years his drinking was out of control and his health deteriorated rapidly. He had contractual obligations to meet, but was physically unable to write and dictated much of his last work into a tape recorder with the disjointed ramblings later transcribed and edited.
Of what I have read of Behan’s work I especially admire Borstal Boy and its grim, angry, sentimental humour. It is sad that he never achieved anything to match it.
Here are some of Behan’s most famous quotes:
“I’ve joined alcoholics anonymous – I’m drinking under an assumed name.”
“Montreal is the only place in the world where a good French accent isn’t a social asset.”
On his death bed he said to the nun that was tending to him “God bless you sister, may all your sons grow up to be bishops.”
“Critics are like eunuchs in a harem; they know how it’s done, they’ve seen it done every day, but they’re unable to do it themselves.”
“I have never seen a situation so dismal that a policeman couldn’t make it worse.”
“If it was raining soup, the Irish would go out with forks.”
“When I came back to Dublin I was courtmartialed in my absence and sentenced to death in my absence, so I said they could shoot me in my absence.”
“I’m a drinker with a writing problem.”