Thursday 22 March 2018

Poetry: 'Brendan Behan used to yell at me from across the street'

Brendan Behan
Brendan Behan

Ulick O’Connor

Almost 60 years ago, in May 1956, Brendan Behan's first serious play, The Quare Fellow, caused a sensation when it had its London première at Joan Littlewood's Theatre Workshop at the Theatre Royal London. The play was about life in prison, which appealed to the British especially when the leading character in the play was a loquacious Dubliner who spoke as if he came out of a Sean O'Casey play.

This sojourn in prison was important for Brendan. The governor of the prison turned out to be a theatre fan and became a lifelong friend of the writer. The play kicked off his drama career and was succeeded by The Hostage, which was a world beater.

At first, for some reason, Brendan took a scunner to me. He used to yell at me from across the street referring to various parts of my anatomy, in what would be considered threatening terms. One day this led to fisty-cuffs and a subsequent visit by Brendan to the nearby St Vincent's hospital, which at that time was situated on Stephen's Green.

Brendan, when he wasn't tanked-up, was a wonderful talker in the Dublin tradition of Oscar Wilde, Mahaffy and Oliver St John Gogarty. As well as being a successful playwright, he was a fine poet.

The difficulty was he wrote his poetry only in Irish, believing that he could best get in touch with the inner man if he wrote in his native language. Later ,when I wrote Brendan's biography, I translated a number of his Irish poems into English. I particularly liked his Gaelic poem on 'Spring', which I have included below. It is a gentle and loving piece which brings the "season of mists and mellow fruitfulness" easily before the mind's eye.

When he was a little boy, it was Sister Monica, the head of William Street School, who taught Brendan his prayers in Irish and first set him off on poetry and the love of the language. She told his mother that "she was rearing a genius". In his last hours in the Meath Hospital when a visiting nun mopped his fevered brow with a cold compress, Brendan muttered: "God bless you, Sister, may you be the mother of a bishop".

Wild wicked winter

Your harsh face I hate.

The North wind blows in

Trembling, tormented, tough,

Without growth or goodness,

Loveliness or love,

Till the white feast of Brigid

And the resurrection of joy.

Then comes the South wind,

Promise of heat for my limbs

Life leaping in me,

Awakening of the blood.

Winter, you wastrel,

Old age is your season.

Welcome and a thousand more to you,

O Spring of my youth.

Brendan Behan 1923-1964

Translated by Ulick O'Connor

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