How Behan was born to be this man of genius
Brendan Behan grew up in a family who traded wit and words at the breakfast table, writes Ulick O'Connor
Published 15/03/2009 | 00:00
This week is the 45th anniversary of Brendan Behan's death. His work still holds up worldwide despite a limited output. Three books of importance, two plays and a number of fine poems in Irish. Still he made himself famous as a wit and personality on television in a way that no other Irish writer had done before in this century. Television was his star outlet. He could put his personality over to millions of viewers who might otherwise never have heard of him or read his books.
Norman Mailer used to maintain that it was Brendan's triumph on American television that enabled the Beatniks to get on screen: "He made them respectable".
As a Dubliner, of course Brendan had come out of a culture of talkers and wits. But the family was not, as often presented, penniless, working class and living in a tenement. Brendan's father Stephen was president of the painters' union and had studied to be a Jesuit as a young man, before he decided he had no vocation. He was a concert violinist and read to his children in bed every night before they went to sleep. Dickens, Zola, Galsworthy, even Marcus Aurelius. Three of his children became writers, Brendan, Dominic and Brian. Rory, the eldest (he was a half brother), was an early jazz expert who had collected a library of every Penguin book published to keep his brothers up to date. Then there was Kathleen, Brendan's mother, whose brother Peadar wrote The Soldier's Song. She knew, I think, more ballads than anybody I have ever met and would sing them at the drop of a hat as well as having a natural elegance of a lady of the court (she may possibly be related to Barack Obama; his great grandfather too was a Kearney and there is a likeness between a portrait of Kathleen by the painter Sarah Purser and the American president).
Stephen imbued the boys with his own razor-like wit and there were many back and forward exchanges during the years Brendan grew up. Once when Stephen wouldn't answer her when he was reading the paper, Kathleen threw a bowl of porridge through the paper, which landed on Stephen's face, whereupon he remarked: "Kathleen Behan, if Jesus Christ was married to you, after three weeks he would be glad to be back on his comfortable flaming cross".
The whole family had wit and they vied with one another. When Brendan heard that Dominic and Brian had begun to write books, he remarked to his mother, "What do they think, geniuses come in litters?"
The Behans didn't live in tenements, they owned them. Mrs English, Brendan's grandmother on his father's side, owned a number of houses on Mountjoy Square and was very nifty in handling the pound notes. At the age of 77, she decided to go on a bombing expedition to England on behalf of the Republic. She was sentenced to three years' penal servitude, remarking to the judge as he was about to sentence her, "hold your hour. There's the bell. I want to say me Angelus".
Music, laughter, and literature -- it was these that moved the young Behans minds as they grew up. After the war, Brendan, with his writing success, hit London and New York like no other writer has done since Oscar Wilde. As Wilde had been, Behan was prepared when he landed to field any questions from the newspaper men. So many people were at the landing place in New York that he had to have a police escort. Asked by a reporter did he always have one in Dublin, Brendan replied: "Yes, but I'm usually handcuffed to them".
He took England by storm. Television was very middle class at the time. But Behan was well able for them. Malcolm Muggeridge, the most famous interviewer then, was routed by Brendan. The fact that Brendan was on a binge made it better as far as the English public, who were always pleased to see the Establishment under fire, were concerned. Brendan's play The Hostage hit the headlines at the Theatre Royal Stratford East under Joan Littlewood's direction and soon moved up to the West End for a long run. His book Borstal Boy was a runaway bestseller. Soon he was a European figure, getting national awards in Paris and Cologne for French and German presentations of The Hostage.
The only time I met Brendan was in Davy Byrne's, where he had a fight with me over a student protest I had been involved in. I couldn't avoid passing him in the street during the week, a swearing exhibitionist strolling down Grafton Street shouting "wanker" at Paddy Kavanagh and sometimes singing at the top of his voice. It was after his death that I discovered the remarkable short stories and the spectacular poems written in Irish, which Brendan had done. I had refused to do a biography of him when asked by my American publisher Prentice Hall, but my discovery of his work in Irish convinced me that he was a true artist and not just a playboy so I went ahead. The biography would be published in London and New York in 1970.
When it came out, the Behan name was still so potent that any event in connection with it was bound to hit the headlines. But I certainly had not anticipated the controversy that erupted over a single aspect of the book. I had attempted to present a portrait of my subject that would make his character come alive on the page and that required shaping the material like a sculptor to reveal the true personality beneath. Two of Brendan's best friends, John Ryan, the artist and owner of the Bailey, and the sculptor, Des MacNamara, had talked to me about what Brendan used refer to as his "Hellenic" relationships with young men. Of course, Brendan was very much a woman's man but this other interest had been acquired in Borstal prison and lingered after his release. But with publication of the book, the matter was exaggerated out of all proportions.
Beatrice, Brendan's wife, was encouraged by a malign force to take action. She wrote to the papers in protest. I liked Beatrice; her father Cecil Ffrench Salkeld, a superb painter, was a friend and medical patient of my father. Her own work as an artist was, I thought, greatly underestimated. But I was devastated that she should have done what she did. She knew perfectly well that there were other matters I could have included, if I had simply wanted to make a scandal, but had not done so as I didn't think these were essential to the portrayal of the main personality in the book.
However, fortunately the Behan family took quite a different attitude. Kathleen's comment was, "aren't we all human". She and Stephen came over to London for the launch after attending an earlier launch in the Abbey Theatre. Brendan's brothers Seamus, Brian and Dominic came to the party too. Kathleen referred to me in front of the gathering as "her seventh son". I only got Dominic to the party by the skin of his teeth, though. A week before the launch, I had been returning to Dublin from London when I saw my Behan biography on sale at Heathrow Airport. I thought I had better send one to Dominic by taxi. He lived on the outskirts of London and I wanted him to read the book before he made any comments. Lucky I did.
This appeared in Alan Brien's column in the Sunday Times the following week: "Dominic Behan rang me today with this reaction. 'I have been asked to the launching party for the book on my brother in London on Thursday. If I go, it will be to take Mr O'Connor by the scruff of the neck and sock him half way round London.'
"And then it came to pass as temperatures rose that a special messenger delivered a copy of Mr O'Connor's book to Dominic Behan's home.
"'I have been up all night reading it,' Mr Behan said contritely. 'Speaking for myself personally, I think it's a good book, highly objective.'"
The greatest Dublin conversationalists in the English language on an international level were Dubliners Oscar Wilde and Oliver St John Gogarty. A claim can be made for Brendan Behan's inclusion in this pantheon. All three come from the same oral culture, that of Swift, Sheridan and Tom Moore. By an extraordinary coincidence, the priest who received Oscar Wilde into the Catholic Church on his deathbed, Fr Cuthbert Dunne OP, was in residence in Mount Argus Monastery, Kimmage while Brendan was still living about a quarter of a mile or so away in Kildare Road. They never met but they could have. I'm sure Fr Cuthbert would have approved of Brendan's wonderful poem, written in Irish, in praise of Oscar and referring to his reception into the Catholic Church on his deathbed. After referring to Oscar as "the young prince of sin", Brendan expresses his satisfaction that Oscar has got the best of both worlds, shedding his sins as life ebbed out.
Sweet is the way of the sinner,
Sad, death without God's praise
My life on you, Oscar boy,
Yourself had it both ways.
Translated by Ulick O'Connor
'Brendan Behan' by Ulick O'Connor was published by Hamish Hamilton in London in 1970 and the following month in New York by Prentice Hall. It is still in print after 39 years and seven editions and has sold over 60,000 copies. A statue to Brendan Behan stands at the Royal Canal at Dorset Street, but the plaque on the house in which he grew up on Russell Street opposite Croke Park is no longer there.