Brendan Behan would have celebrated his 100th birthday a couple of weeks back if he’d stayed alive. But that was hardly on the cards for a hell-raising, working class writer from Dublin with a drinking problem.
Rarely has legend so obscured an artist. You have to wonder why? Well, Behan was larger than life, and in the incestuous, competitive world of Dublin letters he was considered to have jumped the queue.
The fact that he had left school at 14 to become a house painter didn’t help, for Ireland in the 1950s was more class conscious than Calcutta, and Brendan was most definitely from the wrong side of town.
From this distance it’s often hard to distinguish the man from the fumes of alcohol that seem to swirl around him.
Drinker he was, but one who dealt with undiagnosed diabetes for much of his life. It’s also conveniently unmentioned that he often went “on the dry” for long stretches.
But make no mistake, Brendan Behan was a first class writer who turned out two successful Broadway plays and one of the best coming of age memoirs in literature. Try achieving what he did in his 41 years, either on or off the bottle. It’s close to impossible.
Oddly enough, Mr. Behan is now far more appreciated in the world of music than theatre. He was an authentic rebel in word and deed, and that counts for a lot in the realm of Celtic Rock - not to mention that he wrote "The Auld Triangle."
While Shane MacGowan never aped Behan, the Dubliner’s influence informed the Pogues singer. And why not. North Side Brendan learned his Gaeilge in jail and delved deep into the “hidden Ireland” of seanchaí and bard long before Shane.
It’s hard to understand the man without an appreciation of his Republican roots and beliefs. Behan was an actual rebel who longed for a 32-County Gaelic Republic, hence his attempt to blow up the Liverpool docks during World War II.
He spent seven years of his short life in British jails and Irish internment camps for his troubles. Those lost years undoubtedly damaged the man and his psyche.
I first heard of him while listening to the BBC news with my grandparents. Brendan had been arrested for outrageous behavior in Toronto. To which my granny muttered, “That fellah should be ashamed of himself, making a show of the country abroad.”
Though I wasn’t even a teenager I took note of his name. Anyone who could shake up a calcified Ireland ruled by the church and de Valera was fine by me.
His two successful plays, though enormously influential in their day, are rarely performed now. Though there can be a slap-dash quality to them, yet a mighty heart beats within. Set in Mountjoy Jail, "The Quare Fellow" played a major part in the banning of capital punishment in Ireland and the UK.
"The Hostage" (adapted from his own An Giall) was way ahead of its time, as was Behan. In those puritan days of the 1950s Behan dealt openly with homosexuality. His flamboyant Princess Grace in "The Hostage" was undoubtedly the first black queer character to grace Irish theatre.
Although barely a footnote in Broadway history now, Brendan was a friend and rival of Arthur Miller, Tennessee Williams, and Norman Mailer. He is often credited with introducing the hip Alan Ginsberg to uptown audiences, and a young Bob Dylan was so enamored that he trailed the Irishman around Greenwich Village hoping for a word.
Though drink and diabetes delivered the fatal blow, fame killed Brendan Behan. His need for it was deep-seated and originated in a deprived working class Dublin background. Anything to stand out from the crowd was acceptable to Behan. The fact that critics wrote about him was more important than what they said.
A proud man, and the voice of his class and political faction, he was never less than aware that in his later years his talent for writing was slipping away, yet he still longed to be the center of attention.
Now that we have passed the centenary of his birth, perhaps we’ll be able to re-evaluate this ever-popular poet of the people, and excavate the man and writer from the shambles of his myth and legend.