From the third week of May 1960, Brendan Behan, aged 37 and at the height of his celebrity, spent over two months with his wife Beatrice in Glenties, Co Donegal. It was a much needed break. In London in March, for the opening of his brother Dominic's play Posterity be Damned, he had careered off the rails, drinking not simply heavily but constantly, almost catastrophically.
Rae Jeffs, his publisher's publicity agent, had tried to take him in hand. Eager to have him presentable when his parents arrived from Dublin, she took him to a fashionable men's outfitters; and there, as she was chatting with the tailor, Behan stripped naked in the middle of the shop. Then, at a rehearsal of his brother's play, he fell asleep - and press photographers snapped him - and he proceeded to cause further controversy when he awoke, by shouting: "Rubbish! There were no murderers in the IRA!" Dominic's take on militant republicanism was not to his liking.
Brendan never made it to the opening night and, ultimately, on March 30, he was admitted to Middlesex Hospital, where he had to be kept "under observation" for 10 days. He was asking for whiskey as they sedated him. A diabetic, he already had advanced cirrhosis. Interviewed from his hospital bed, he said he was moving to the South of France when he was discharged and he was full of praise for the National Health Service: "I think it is wonderful - high time we had it in Ireland."
Glenties, then, was a chance to get things back on an even keel. Brendan and Beatrice booked into the Highlands Hotel, which boasted a grocery shop, a petrol pump and a beer-bottling business. Johnny Boyle, the popular proprietor, shared the Behans' left-wing republicanism and, not unlike the playwright, enjoyed a tall tale well told.
A room was set aside where Behan could write, but it is unclear how much writing got done. He was then working on a play which he was considering calling Richard's Cork Leg or The Catacombs that he never finished. Certainly, he and Beatrice did do a good deal of touring around, with their arrival in towns and villages making the local notes in the regional papers. A trip to Dungloe in late May, where he called on Paddy the Cope, author of a well-received memoir, got a mention in the Derry People; likewise, visits to Killybegs and Mountcharles made the Donegal Democrat.
And then there was Behan's first trip to Derry on July 25. Asked by a man from the Belfast Telegraph what he thought of the city, he replied: "It is quite nice coming into it." And asked what he made of "the Six Counties in general", he dressed his anti-partitionism up as metropolitan condescension: "Oh, it is very nice. I like all country places." He had wanted, he said, to find "a good Orange pub", and failing to find one, he "nipped in for a 'quick one' anyway" - but he took only soda water: "I am strictly on the wagon these days."
Behan was generous with his time in Glenties. Shortly after his arrival there, the Democrat had reported that "Mr and Mrs Brendan Behan, the noted playwright, from Dublin", had been the "guest artistes" at the monthly meeting of the Ardara and Glenties branch of Comhaltas Ceoltóirí Éireann. And on Wednesday, June 8, he attended the Irish Countrywomen's Association Dance in the local hall; at the interval, he drew the winning ticket in a draw - the prize was a holiday in Glenties - and he sang songs, in Irish and English.
In the last week of June, he went back to Dublin to attend the 21st birthday dinner for the founder of Claddagh Records, Garech de Brun - it was hosted by de Brun's father Lord Oranmore and Browne in Jammet's, Dublin's finest restaurant - but he soon returned to Glenties.
Behan had not drunk at de Brun's party, and, consistent with his remarks in Derry in late July about being "on the wagon", it is possible that, whatever of subsequent visits to the north-west, he may have avoided alcohol in Donegal in May-July 1960. Certainly, he looks a lot healthier in photographs taken in those months than in London in March of that year.
Still, the man was drawn to bars like a moth to flame. There is a photograph of him with a glass of tomato juice in Gildea's, now the Beehive, in Ardara in 1960; it was a wonderful tumbledown place, then popular with fellows who had been in the IRA in the late 1910s and early 1920s (the Gildeas had been prominent republicans) and, latterly, visitors who imagined it "bohemian".
A local paper noted that Behan had been in the Rainbow Bar in Letterkenny in early June, "where he regaled those fortunate enough to be present with some typically outspoken comments on affairs of the present". And many years later, Francis Harvey, a bank official in Glenties building a reputation as a playwright and poet, remembered that the Dubliner would keep the lounge of the Highlands "entranced for hours, with excruciatingly funny stories, accompanied by much dramatic posturing and miming, about his various escapades in Ireland and abroad".
Behan had befriended Harvey and another bank official cum writer, Patrick Boyle, who a few years later won international acclaim for his short stories and a novel. Indeed, on Sunday, July 24, Behan gave a seven-course dinner in the Highlands in honour of Harvey, for having had a play broadcast "in a number of languages".
Unfortunately for the diners, Garda Sergeant Dudley Solan raided the party at 12.30am on Monday morning, that is, three and a half hours after closing time (then 9pm on Sundays in the summer, 8pm in winter), and he found nine people at a table in an upstairs room. Eight of them were bona fide, that is, either residents or living more than five miles from the premises. Harvey, however, lived closer to the hotel. Noticing a glass of wine in front of him, Solan asked if he was drinking it; Harvey replied that he was. And so ended Brendan Behan's Donegal dinner party.
The case went to court in September, with the hotelier charged with a breach of the licensing laws and Harvey with "aiding and abetting". They were defended by Louis Walsh - himself the son of a playwright, Louis Joseph Walsh, caricatured by James Joyce, a contemporary in UCD, as Hughes in Stephen Hero.
The dinner, it emerged, had been served in a private room, where Behan, who was "residing" in the hotel, "did some of his literary work". Johnny Boyle testified that he had sold no drink after 9pm and that he had no authority to make people stop drinking what he had sold "as it did not then belong to him". There had been two bottles of champagne served, he said, and two bottles of wine, one red and one white.
Justice Bob O hUadhaigh indulged them and dismissed the case. Behan was named only as "an eminent literary figure and playwright".
For the hotelier, it was a lucky escape. Less than three weeks before the dinner, the Intoxicating Liquor Act (1960), had liberalised the licensing laws: henceforth, alcohol could be served on Sundays from 12.30pm to 2pm and from 5pm to 9pm from June through to September - previously bars had to close at 8pm. Conviction would have been akin to falling at the first fence.
The host of the ill-fated dinner came back to south-west Donegal the following summer, when he stayed in Narin; here, he and Beatrice swam a lot. His celebrity undimmed, he again popped up in the local notes of the regional papers: for instance, the Gweedore notes of the Democrat have him visiting Bunbeg, "where he brightened a group of locals with his wit".
Now, knowing how it ended, the wit does not brighten as much - the drunken drollery loses some of its humour, that is, some, but not all of it. The Derry People reported that on Tuesday, August 22, 1961, Behan "strolled" to the La Scala cinema in Letterkenny to see himself being interviewed by Eamonn Andrews in a newsreel, Meet the Quare Fella - it had been released the previous summer, but it had only then reached Letterkenny. He chose a balcony seat, it went on, "and when the Behan of the film piped up with a song, 'music' burst from Behan in the cinema, claiming as he says, 'the first duet sung by one person in Letterkenny'."
He had about two and a half years left to live - he died on March 20, 1964, aged 41.