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.

_____

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

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