Monthly Archives: February 2014

Time to take the booze out of Behan

Brendan Behan at the Jaeger House, NYC, September 10, 1960. Pic: Phil Stanziola NYWTS

Brendan Behan at the Jaeger House, NYC, September 10, 1960.
Pic: Phil Stanziola-NYWTS

IRISH writer Brendan Behan died almost 50 years ago.

The photograph on the right offers some clues as to why.

With a few under his belt (and one down the lapel of his shirt) the writer clasps a microphone stand at a ceili in the Jaeger House ballroom in Manhattan. It’s 1960.

According to the original caption Behan’s just been asked to sing. Again. And that probably wasn’t the last song of that particular night.

Two years earlier Borstal Boy, his critically lauded coming of age tale, had been published to positive reviews.

Less than four years after this photograph was taken Behan would be dead, passing away in a Dublin hospital days after collapsing in a city pub. Diabetes, compounded by years of heavy drinking, led to his demise at age of 41.

In the five decades since his death, on March 20, 1964, the fact of Behan the writer has, slowly and deliberately, been incorporated into the myth of Behan the character, the Irishman, the drinker, the artist living life on the edge and falling off it.

A bit like the millions who claimed to be in GPO on Easter Week every man and his dog, of a certain vintage, had his own beer-stained Behan anecdote.

These slowly slipped into popular culture, to the extent that those who never met the writer – like Shane Macgowan – could dream about their own boozed-up encounters with him.

I spoke to one Dublin author recently who compared Behan to another Irish celebrity and alcoholic (or celebrity alcoholic), George Best.

He argued that it’s time to drop the ‘Brendan the boozy broth of a boy’ myth and return to what established Behan’s reputation in the first place.

'Ireland's own boy-o.' US edition of Borstal Boy.

‘Ireland’s own boy-o.’
US edition of Borstal Boy.

For me this is his 1950s’ writing, specifically Borstal Boy, the autobiography which exposed the mundane pointlessness of terrorism; and the play The Quare Fellow, his humanist meditation on capital punishment.

Both works are full of compassion, anger, humanity and – for want of a better word – Irishness.

One thing they lack is the preoccupation with alcohol which marked Behan’s later works and life.

Official Ireland will commemorate Behan next month with the launch of a stamp in his honour. Expect plenty of media coverage of around the anniversary of his death.

As it approaches the best way to remember this Dublin writer is simply to read his work, the best of which stands with the finest of all Irish writing.

Not least of this is his famous account of arriving back in Dublin after being released from jail, which closes Borstal Boy:

The next morning I stood on deck while the boat came into Dun Laghaire, and looked at the sun struggling out over the hills; and the city all around the Bay…

There they were, as if I’d never left them; in their sweet and stately order round the Bay – Bray Head, the Sugarloaf, the Two Rock, the Three Rock, Kippure, king of them all…

…and the framing circle of the road along the edge of the Bay, Dun Laghaire, Blackrock, Sandymount Tower, Ringsend and the city; then the other half circle, Fairview, Marino, Clontarf, Raheny, Kilbarrack, Baldoyle, to the height of Howth Head…

‘Passport, travel permit or identity document, please,’ said the immigration man beside me. I handed him the expulsion order…

‘A hundred thousand welcomes home to you.’

‘Thanks.’

‘It must be wonderful to be free.’

‘It must,’ said I, walked down the gangway, past a detective, and got on the train for Dublin.*

'The road along the edge of the bay.'  Dublin, April 2013.

‘The road along the edge of the bay.’
Dublin, April 2013.

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*Brendan Behan, Borstal Boy (Arrow, 1990), p 370

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The (dropped) call of the wild

Croagh Patrick from Murrisk (on a smartphone), February 2014.

Croagh Patrick from Murrisk (on a smartphone), February 2014.

CONTACT with nature is good for you?

After two months of Atlantic storms most Irish people would disagree. Nature, by way of gales and floods, has well and truly come to us.

Isn’t it supposed to be the other way round?

Richard Louv thinks so. Sheltering indoors from last week’s tempests I came across an article in which he proposes ten reasons why we need more contact with the natural world.

Most of the ten are less than mind-blowing (‘nature brings our senses alive’), but a couple are interesting (‘we suffer when we withdraw from nature’).

His overall message is straightforward: ignore the gales (and whatever else) and get out there.

Just as well. The following day we planned to drive 280km across the country to Westport, facing a forecast of storm-forced winds, sleet and snow.

Snow, north Roscommon. Pic: Clare Kleinedler

Snow, north Roscommon.
Pic: Clare Kleinedler

But after a month spent in the city, and much of that indoors, at home or in the office, a windswept trip West was mentally necessary – whatever the weather.

Driving across the Midlands, washed out and browny bleak, Louv’s main point recurred to me: the more hi-tech our lives become the more nature we need.

Conveniently the thought resurfaced as our mobile phone coverage began to dip in and out across the flatlands of north Roscommon.

By the time we reached Co Mayo thoughts of nature took a backseat to the more immediate task of driving through it, as visibility dropped and the journey was reduced to a 60kph crawl.

Far from stressful (though AMII might have disagreed) the drive was oddly relaxing. Confronted with a wall of white and driving over freezing sleet there was nothing to do but focus on the road, or what could be seen of it, and keep going.

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THE snow made an impression on the landscape too.

The following dawn we awoke to an ominous Croagh Patrick, its peak above Westport clouded in grey.

As the morning drew on, and the skies cleared, revealing an ice-covered mountain top.

After coffee in Westport we drove to Murrisk, at the foot of the mountain. We didn’t plan to climb it this time, but couldn’t resist driving a couple of miles out for a closer peak.

A previous visit to Croagh Patrick, November 2010.

A previous visit to Croagh Patrick, November 2010.

Some 760 metres above lay the summit, and we could just make out the shape of the church on it. Having climbed The Reek a number of times I’d never seen it so clear, in such pristine northerly air.

I could, of course, have witnessed the same vista without leaving my sitting room in Dublin, sifting through innumerable online photos of the mountain. But how could that compare?

A month of laptop browsing was worth just a second stood underneath the real thing.

Here was just path, wind, slope and scree, with snow on top. The full, analogue majesty of the outdoors;  our senses ignited, our souls replenished by contact with nature, and not a smart phone in sight.

They sat in our pockets, untouched.

Untouched, that was, until we needed to snap the scene.

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On turning 36

Ernest Hemingway, Havana, 1934. Pic: NARA

Ernest Hemingway, Havana, 1934.
Pic: NARA

Ernest Hemingway sailed the Caribbean in the Pilar, spending much of his time fishing for marlin out of Bimini; the fish later featured in his greatest work.

Miles Davis played club dates, stranded between his first and second great quintets following the departure of John Coltrane.

Marilyn Monroe, disillusioned with fame yet planning new movies, died of a barbiturate overdose at her home in Los Angeles.

Edmund Hillary published High Adventure, an account of his successful ascent of Everest.

Raymond Carver left the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, where he had drunk often (and worked occasionally) with fellow alcoholic John Cheever, hoping that a change of location would help him sober up.

Siddharta Gautama attained enlightenment following 49 days of meditation, after which he was known to followers as the Buddha.

Marie Curie was awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics for her researches on radiation.

'Snow Storm: Hannibal and his Army Crossing the Alps' J.M.W. Turner (1812)

‘Snow Storm: Hannibal and his Army Crossing the Alps’
J.M.W. Turner (1812)

J.M.W Turner completed Hannibal Crossing The Alps; contemporary critics branded his impressionistic landscapes as “pictures of nothing, and very like.”

Woody Guthrie wrote Deportee, after reading a newspaper report of the death of 28 Mexican farm workers in a plane crash at Los Gatos, California.

Billie Holiday, battling drug addiction, starred in a 15 minute short with a 12-year-old piano prodigy, Frank ‘Sugar Chile’ Robinson.

Bob Dylan finished the Rolling Thunder Revue tour, having released his 17th album Desire; it went to number one in the Billboard Pop Albums chart.

'Taos, New Mexico (1931)' Dorothea Lange Pic: The Getty Trust

‘Taos, New Mexico (1931)’
Dorothea Lange
Pic: The Getty Trust

Dorothea Lange traveled to New Mexico with her husband and two children, frustrated that family life had limited her photography.

Patrick Kavanagh published his poem on rural deprivation, The Great Hunger; every copy of the magazine it first appeared in was seized on the orders of the Irish government.

Gertrude Stein continued to encounter difficulty in selling her writing to publishers, despite critical acclaim for her first novel Three Lives.

Dylan Thomas began work on Under Milk Wood, having completed his first American tour; shortly afterwards he dropped it to script a film for the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company.

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Farewell to a detective’s detective

'Browne here'.

‘Browne here’.

“PHONE me. It’s important”.

Every now and then you get the call and you know – particularly if it’s in the early hours – that it’s not good news.

It came in the middle of the night this week – a message from a Herald colleague to tell me that a contributor and friend had passed away.

PJ Browne had worked as a detective in Dublin for more than three decades. After his retirement in 2009 he turned to writing, working as a crime and security analyst for the Herald.

As a writer he covered the areas he had expertise in: serious and organised crime, murder, organising investigations.

He brought readers behind the tape. He recounted the confrontations he’d had with major criminals, with the most evil elements of society.

He was also forthright in criticising the authorities, where he saw fit.

But above all he was a detective’s detective, most at home amongst plainclothesmen.

As an detective superintendent he led his unit from the front.

As an analyst he rarely filed an article without some mention of the battle being fought by his ex-colleagues ‘on the frontline’.

There were plenty of other sides to PJ, the family man, the charity fundraiser, the golfer, the Listowel native, but that was the one I saw, and worked with.

It’s strange to realise that, come the next major crime story, I won’t be dialling his number to be greeted by his standard response, the one he used for everyone from pestering journalists to the Garda Commissioner: “Browne here”.

Alas, no longer. Rest in peace.

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