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Sunday 21 September 2014

How Brendan Behan's family rallied round 'warts an' all' biography

A reference to a homosexual element in Behan's lifestyle caused an incredible furore

Ulick O'Connor

Published 30/03/2014 | 02:30

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Brendan Behan pictured in 1958
Brendan Behan pictured in 1958
LITERARY CONVERSATION: left, Brendan Behan, author, playwright and poet, at the Chelsea Hotel, New York
Ulick O'Connor with Kathleen Behan, mother of Brendan Behan, at a reception in the Abbey Theatre in Dublin to launch Ulick's book, Brendan Behan, in 1970

UlIck O'Connor's biography of Brendan Behan caused a stir when it was published in 1970. It was well received by the critics but it caused intense argument among many who felt that it delved too much into Behan's private life.

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Malcolm Muggeridge in the Observer wrote, "Excellent. Mr O'Connor has made a very good job on putting this prodigious figure into a biography".

The New York Times called it "fascinating" and the Sunday Times said, "It is a dedicated and warm study, absorbing to read and pathetically touching"

Elia Kazan said about it: "Brendan in a hell he created then couldn't escape – I will never forget".

And John Ford said about it: "His book on Behan is vivid lucid and nostalgic about wonderful, wicked and whimsical Dublin."

The London launch of the biography I wrote of Brendan Behan took place in July, 1970 in a blaze of publicity. One reason might have been that I had referred in the book to a homosexual element in Brendan's lifestyle which was not dominant but a remnant of his days in Borstal in England.

It is hard to imagine today the furore which this revelation caused in Dublin. The campaign against the book was led by Cathal Goulding who had been interred in the Curragh with Brendan in the 1940s as a member of the IRA and who had persuaded Brendan's wife Beatrice to attack the book.

However, the Behan family rallied round me. His father Stephen and mother Kathleen as well as his brothers came over to London to the launch in 1970 to show their approval of the book. An extract from my diary of the time captures some of the atmosphere.

"5.30pm: The large room of Brown's Hotel London is packed. Suddenly it appears to me that Brendan has risen from the grave and actually appeared in the crowd. Then I realise that it is his brother Seamus (whom I have never met before) who is a dead ringer for Brendan.

Seamus is somewhat the black sheep of the family because he emigrated to England during the war and joined the RAF. The patriotic Behans including their father Stephen and mother Kathleen were not too pleased at this. But Seamus ploughed his own furrow and has made a very good living in England working as a printer. He comes up to me now with a grin, his very white teeth showing.

'You did it, warts an' all, as Oliver Cromwell said to Sir Peter Lely when he was doing his portrait.'

"Only a Behan could have used the hated Cromwell's name to another Irishman to make a positive point. Later Kathleen, at my request, sang her favourite song of Brendan's. She had put it together herself taking a verse from Charles Kingsley beginning: "When all the world is young, lad" and placed it side by side with a verse of AE Housman, "With rue my heart is laden".

"I don't know where the blazes she got the tune from but it works like a dream with the London audience.

"They are tickled to death that Brendan's mother should have composed a song from the lyrics of two great English poets."

When the book was later published in the United States, there was an even greater response from the public. The launch took place in the Chelsea Hotel, the renowned artistic hang-out, where I was staying at the time.

There are three plaques up outside the hotel, one to Mark Twain, another to Dylan Thomas and a third to Brendan Behan. The Behan plaque has the quote:

"Brendan Behan – New York, the man that hates you hates the world".

Here is an excerpt from my Diaries of the launch in July 1971:

"Chelsea Hotel studio full for Brendan Behan launch. The Behan legend is still alive here."

Brendan, according to Norman Mailer, whom I met that night, had had an influence on the Beat poets, including Ginsberg, etc.

"It was Behan who made the Beatniks acceptable uptown. We couldn't get on the big talk shows, Johnny Carson and others, like he did. After he came, the door was opened. He'd ploughed the field for us'."

George Kleinsinger, the famous musical and opera composer, best known for Archy & Mehitabal, asked me up to his room the following day for tea and talk about Brendan.

"Brendan used to come to this room to recover from booze," he said as he showed me round.

He was absolutely fascinated with Behan's conversation even when he was under the influence. George asked if he could play his recording, Lament for Brendan Behan, for me. The composition begins with a few notes recorded from Brendan's conversation and then takes off. As the music commences on the tape it mounts to a large crash. Then George rushes over to the piano and starts to play furiously, his face almost touching the music sheets. Nothing bothers him as he swings his shoulders in time, a cigarette hanging from his lips. The tape finishes with a flourish of Kleinsinger music and in the background is clearly heard a drunken Brendan singing the Irish national anthem.

I thought no wonder they put Brendan's name on a plaque outside the hotel. No other English speaking writer has received a greeting in America like him except his fellow Dubliner Oscar Wilde whom the Yanks thought of as a Brit anyway.

Some of Brendan's famous 'talk book', Brendan Behan's Island, was written in the Chelsea Hotel. It was recorded there by Rae Jeffs and was the idea of Ian Hamilton, director of Hutchinson publishers who despaired at getting a contracted book out of Brendan.

His colleague arranged that she would come to the Chelsea Hotel at nine o'clock in the morning for three months and record for two hours, getting the author to talk literature into a microphone. A series of questions had been prepared by Ian Hamilton. This resulted in a remarkable book which is the only large volume in existence of Irish conversation at its eloquent best.

Brendan was mostly sober while he made it and did put everything he had into a task which he knew was artistically valid. Unfortunately he went on to do another book in the same category, Hold Your Hour and Have Another, but he used alcohol to fuel his energy for this work and it is without the authenticity and value of his earlier 'talk book'.

He will be remembered as a playwright for The Hostage (which won the Prix de Nations in Paris) and which was the first work in English to effectually utilise the Brechtian format of music and expressionistic characters.

His prison play The Quare Fellow is still performed throughout the world.

Borstal Boy, his account of life in prison as a young man, is a masterpiece of autobiography. As an artist, however, he expresses himself most clearly in poetry.

Because his poems were nearly always written in Irish, he has not come before the public eye as a poet as much as he should.

A stunning poem, Jackeen ag Caoineadh an Blascaod, shows him to be one of that rare breed, a true poet. Here is a translation:

A Jackeen Says Goodbye to the Blaskets

The great sea under the setting sun gleams like a glass,

Not a sail in sight, no living person to see it pass

Save the last golden eagle, hung on the edge of the world,

Over the lonely Blasket resting, his wings unfurled.

Yes, the sun's at rest now and shadows thicken the light,

A rising moon gleams coldly through the night,

Stretching thin fingers down the quivering air,

On desolate, deserted dwellings, pitifully bare.

Silent save for birds' wings clipping the foam,

Heads on breast, they rest content, grateful to be home.

The wind lifts lightly, setting the half-door aslope,

On a famished hearth without heat, without protection, without hope.

(Translated by UOC)

Sunday Independent

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