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Brendan Francis Behan

Brendan Behan (on left) with Jackie Gleason
Born 9 February 1923(1923-02-09)
Dublin, Ireland
Died 20 March 1964 (aged 41)
Meath Hospital,
Dublin, Ireland
Occupation Writer
Nationality Irish
Period 1942–1964
Genres Irish poet, novelist, playwright Behan was portrayed from life by two Irish artists,Sean O'Sullivan and Reginald Gray.
Subjects Irish Republican struggle, often autobiographical

Brendan Francis Behan (pronounced /ˈbiː.ən/ BEE-ən; Irish: Breandán Ó Beacháin) (9 February 1923 – 20 March 1964) was an Irish poet, short story writer, novelist, and playwright who wrote in both Irish and English. He was also an Irish republican and a volunteer in the Irish Republican Army.



Early life

Behan was born in the inner city of Dublin on 9 February 1923 into an educated working class family. He lived in a house owned by his grandmother, Christine English, who owned a number of properties in the area. His father Stephen Behan, a house painter who had been active in the Irish War of Independence, read classic literature to the children at bedtime from sources such as Zola, Galsworthy, and Maupassant; his mother, Kathleen, took them on literary tours of the city. If Behan's interest in literature came from his father, his political beliefs were by his mother. She remained politically active all her life and was a personal friend of the Irish republican Michael Collins. Brendan Behan wrote a lament to Collins, "The Laughing Boy", at the age of thirteen. The title was from the affectionate nickname Mrs. Behan gave to Collins. Kathleen published her autobiography, "Mother of All The Behans," a collaboration with her son Brian, in 1984.

Behan's uncle Peadar Kearney wrote the Irish national anthem A Soldier's Song. His brother, Dominic Behan, was also a renowned songwriter best known for the song "The Patriot Game"; another sibling, Brian Behan, was a prominent radical political activist and public speaker, actor, author, and playwright. Brendan and Brian did not share the same views, especially when the question of politics or nationalism arose. Brendan on his deathbed (presumably in jest) asked Cathal Goulding, then the Chief of Staff of the IRA, to 'have that bastard Brian shot—we've had all sorts in our family, but never a traitor!'.

Behan's biographer, Ulick O'Connor, recounts that one day, at the age of eight, Brendan was returning home with his granny and a crony from a drinking session. A passer-by remarked, "Oh, my! Isn't it terrible ma'am to see such a beautiful child deformed?" "How dare you", said his granny. "He's not deformed, he's just drunk!"

Behan left school at 13 to follow in his father's footsteps as a house painter.

Republican activities

In 1937, the family moved to a new local authority housing scheme in Crumlin. Behan became a member of Fianna Éireann, the youth organization of the IRA. He published his first poems and prose in the organisation's magazine, Fianna: the Voice of Young Ireland. In 1931 he also became the youngest contributor to be published in the Irish Press with his poem "Reply of Young Boy to Pro-English verses".

At sixteen, Behan joined the IRA and embarked on an unauthorised solo mission to England to blow up the Liverpool docks. He was arrested and found in possession of explosives. Behan was sentenced to three years in a Borstal and did not return to Ireland until 1941. He wrote about these years in his autobiography, Borstal Boy. In 1942, during the timeframe leading to the IRA's Northern Campaign, Behan was tried for the attempted murder of two detectives in Dublin while at a commemoration ceremony for Wolfe Tone, the father of Irish Republicanism. Sentenced to fourteen years in prison, he was incarcerated in Mountjoy Prison and the Curragh. These experiences were relayed in "Confessions of an Irish Rebel." Released under a general amnesty for Republicans in 1946, his "military" career was over by the age of twenty-three. Aside from a short prison sentence he received in 1947 for his part in trying to break a fellow Republican out of a Manchester jail, he effectively left the IRA, though he remained great friends with Cathal Goulding.[1]

Behan the writer

Behan's prison experiences were central to his future writing career. In Mountjoy he wrote his first play, The Landlady, and also began to write short stories and other prose. It was a literary magazine called Envoy (A Review of Literature and Art), founded by John Ryan, that first published Behans short stories and his first poem. Some of his early work was also published in The Bell, the leading Irish literary magazine of the time. He also learned Irish in prison and, after his release in 1946, he spent some time in the Gaeltacht areas of Galway and Kerry, where he started writing poetry in Irish. He left Ireland and all its perceived social pressures to live in Paris in the early 1950s. There he felt he could lose himself and release the artist within. Although he still drank heavily, he managed to earn a living, supposedly by writing pornography. By the time he returned to Ireland, he had become a writer who drank too much, rather than a drinker who talked about what he was going to write. He had also developed the knowledge that in order to succeed, he would have to discipline himself. Throughout the rest of his writing career, he would rise at seven in the morning and work until noon—when the pubs opened. He began to write for various newspapers, such as The Irish Times, and also for radio, where a play entitled "The Leaving Party" was broadcast. Additionally, he cultivated a reputation as carouser-in-chief and swayed shoulder-to-shoulder with other literati of the day: Flann O'Brien, Patrick Kavanagh, Anthony Cronin, and J. P. Donleavy. For unknown reasons he had a major falling-out with Kavanagh, who reportedly would visibly shudder at the mention of Behan's name and who referred to Behan as "evil incarnate".

Behan's fortunes changed in 1954 with the appearance of his play The Quare Fellow -- his major breakthrough at last. Originally called The Twisting of Another Rope and influenced by his time spent in jail, it chronicles the vicissitudes of prison life leading up to the execution of "the quare fellow" -- a character who is never seen. The prison dialogue is vivid and laced with satire, but reveals to the reader the human detritus that surrounds capital punishment. It was produced in the Pike Theatre in Dublin. The play ran for six months. In May, 1956, The Quare Fellow opened in the Theatre Royal Stratford East, in a production by Joan Littlewood's Theatre Workshop. Subsequently it transferred to the West End. Behan generated immense publicity for The Quare Fellow as a result of a drunken appearance on the Malcolm Muggeridge TV show. The English, relatively unaccustomed to public drunkenness in authors, took him to their hearts. A fellow guest on the show, Irish-American actor Jackie Gleason, reportedly said about the incident: "It wasn't an act of God, but an act of Guinness!" Behan and Gleason went on to forge a friendship. Brendan loved the story of how, walking along the street in London shortly after this episode, a Cockney approached him and exclaimed that he understood every word he had said—drunk or not—but hadn't a clue what "that bugger Muggeridge was on about!" While addled, Brendan would clamber on stage and recite the play's signature song "The Auld Triangle". The transfer of the play to Broadway provided Behan with international recognition. Rumours still abound that Littlewood's hand was all over The Quare Fellow and led to the saying, "Dylan Thomas wrote Under Milk Wood, Brendan Behan wrote under Littlewood".

In 1957, his Irish language play, An Giall (The Hostage) opened in the Damer Theatre, Dublin. Reminiscent of Frank O'Connor's Guests of the Nation, it portrays the detention, in a teeming Dublin house in the late 1950s, of a British conscript soldier seized by the IRA as a hostage pending the scheduled execution in Northern Ireland of an imprisoned IRA volunteer. The hostage falls in love with an Irish convent girl, Teresa, working as a maid in the house. Their innocent world of love is incongruous among their surroundings—the house also serves as a brothel. In the end, the hostage dies accidentally during a bungled police raid, revealing the human cost of war—a universal suffering. The subsequent English language version The Hostage (1958), reflecting Behan's own translation from the Irish, but also much influenced by Joan Littlewood during a troubled collaboration with Behan, is a bawdy, slapstick play that adds a number of flamboyantly gay characters and bears only a limited resemblance to the original Irish language version.

His autobiographical novel Borstal Boy followed in 1958. A vivid memoir of his time in Hollesley Bay Borstal, Suffolk, England, an original voice in Irish literature boomed out from its pages. The language is both acerbic and delicate, the portrayal of inmates and "screws" cerebral. For a Republican, though, it isn't a vitriolic attack on Britain; it delineates Behan's move away from violence. In one account an inmate strives to entice Brendan in chanting political slogans with him. Brendan curses and damns him in his mind, hoping he would cease his rantings-hardly the sign of a troublesome prisoner. By the end the idealistic boy rebel emerges as a realistic young man who recognises the truth: violence, especially political violence, is futile. Kenneth Tynan, the 1950s literary critic said: "While other writers hoard words like misers, Behan sends them out on a spree, ribald, flushed, and spoiling for a fight." He was now established as one of the leading Irish writers of his generation.

Decline and death

Grave of Brendan Behan, Glasnevin, Dublin. A bronze bust of Brendan’s face was stolen from the vacant opening.

Behan found fame difficult. He had long been a heavy drinker (describing himself, on one occasion, as "a drinker with a writing problem" and claiming "I only drink on two occasions -- when I'm thirsty and when I'm not") and developed diabetes in the early 1960s. As his fame grew, so too did his alcohol consumption. This combination resulted in a series of notoriously drunken public appearances, on both stage and television.

Brendan saw that it paid to be drunk; the public wanted the witty, iconoclastic, genial "broth of a boy," and he gave that to them in abundance, exclaiming: "There's no bad publicity except an obituary." His health suffered terribly, with diabetic comas and seizures occurring regularly. Towards the end he became the caricature of the drunken Irishman. The public who once extended their arms now closed ranks against him; publicans flung him from their premises. Although Brendan cried out that he was a writer, inside he knew his fears had materialised — he was unable to generate another classic. His last two books, Brendan Behan's Island and Brendan Behan's New York, published in 1962 and 1964 respectively, were talk books and cannot be compared to his former works. They were littered with pretentiousness and sycophancy, neither of which he would have tolerated earlier: "As Norman Mailer said to me. ....." Arthur Miller came up to me. ..." "One day with Groucho Marx. ..." Both works were tape-recorded, which Brendan hated. He preferred to write longhand or to type.

Behan had married Beatrice Salkeld (the daughter of painter Cecil Salkeld) in 1955. A daughter, Blanaid, was born in 1963. Love, however, wasn't enough to bring Behan back from his alcoholic abyss. By early March 1964, the end was in sight. Collapsing at the Harbour Lights bar, he was transferred to the Meath Hospital in central Dublin, where he died, aged 41.

He was buried in Glasnevin Cemetery, where he received an Irish Republican Army funeral. En route to the graveyard, thousands lined the streets.

Pop culture references

  • One of his books, Confessions of an Irish Rebel is burnt in the movie Fahrenheit 451.
  • He was mentioned in the Preacher comics by Garth Ennis when the vampire Cassidy claimed to have known him in the '50s. Ennis also created a Behan analogue in Hellblazer.
  • Behan's work has been a significant influence in the writings of Shane MacGowan, and he is the subject of "Streams Of Whiskey", a song by the Pogues.
  • Behan is also mentioned in the Pogues song "Thousands are Sailing" (written by Philip Chevron) with reference to the experience of Irish immigrants in New York.
  • Chicago-based band The Tossers wrote the song Breandan O Beachain, found on their 2008 album On A Fine Spring Evening.
  • In the Thin Lizzy song "Black Rose", in the lyric "Ah sure, Brendan where have you Behan?"
  • In Bob Geldof's song "Thinking Voyager 2 Type Things," the line "So rise up Brendan Behan like a drunken Lazarus."
  • In Dexys Midnight Runners' first single, "Dance Stance" (a/k/a "Burn It Down"), a top 40 hit in the UK, Behan is named among other Irish writers in the song's chorus.
  • Behan's version of the third verse of "The Internationale", from Borstal Boy, was reproduced on the LP sleeve of Dexys Midnight Runners' debut album, Searching for the Young Soul Rebels.
  • In The Mighty Mighty Bosstones song "All Things Considered" where the main character claims "he was there the day Brendan Behan died".
  • Shortly after Behan's death a young student, Fred Geis, wrote the song "Lament for Brendan Behan" and passed it on to the Clancy Brothers, who sang it on their album Recorded Live in Ireland! the same year. This song, which calls "bold Brendan" Ireland's "sweet angry singer", was later covered by the Australian trio The Doug Anthony All Stars, better known as a comedy band, on their album Blue.
  • Brendan Behan is also mentioned in the Damien Dempsey song Jar Song.
  • "Brendan" :Seamus Robinson's song-tribute to Brendan Behan.
  • Behan's prisoner song (which was written by his brother Dominic) "The Auld Triangle", from his play The Quare Fellow (this term being prison slang for a prisoner condemned to be hanged), has become something of a standard and has been recorded on numerous occasions, by folk musicians as well as popular bands like the Pogues and the Dropkick Murphys.
  • Irish band A House mention Behan in their song "Endless Art".
  • The Mountain Goats song "Commandante" opens with the line "I'm gonna drink more whiskey than Brendan Behan".
  • A pub named for Behan is located in the historically Irish Jamaica Plain section of Boston, MA
  • Behan's two poems "On the eighteenth day of November" and "The laughing boy" have been translated to Swedish and recorded by Ann Sofi Nilsson on the album "När kommer dagen".
  • There are two stories associated with him (both of which were in the D Series of QI, in the Episode dealing with Drunks, etc.) One states that he was visiting Canada and he was asked by a reported "Why did you visit Canada, Mr Behan". To which Behan is supposed to have replied "I saw a picture at the Airport saying "Drink Canada Dry" so I thought I'd come here and try". The second story states that he would write a slogan for Guinness if he was given a crate of Guinness a week. The crates were duly delivered and after a couple of months he phoned up the Guinness office and says "I've got a slogan for you - "Guinness makes you drunk""

Brendan Behan is mentioned in the Pete St John song about Dublin life made famous by The Dubliners, The Mero, "It's Brendan Behan out walking, Sure he's a ginger man".



  • The Quare Fellow (1954)
  • An Giall (1958), The Hostage (1958)
    • Behan wrote the play in Irish, and translated it to English
  • Richard's Cork Leg (1972)
  • Moving Out (one act play, commissioned for radio)
  • A Garden Party (one act play, commissioned for radio)
  • The Big House (1957, one act play, commissioned for radio)


  • Borstal Boy (1958)
  • Brendan Behan's Island (1962)
  • Hold Your Hour and Have Another (1963)
  • Brendan Behan's New York (1964)
  • Confessions of an Irish Rebel (1965)
  • After The Wake: Twenty-One Prose Works Including Previously Unpublished Material (posthumous - 1981)


  • Brendan Behan Sings Irish Folksongs and Ballads Spoken Arts Records SAC760 (1985)
  • The Auld Triangle appears on the 2006 Bert Jansch album, The Black Swan
  • The Auld Triangle Performed live by The Bleeding Irish
  • The Captain and the Kings


  1. ^ A tribute to The Lost People of Arlington House, The National Archives, London 2004


External links


Up to date as of January 14, 2010

From Wikiquote

It's not that the Irish are cynical. It's rather that they have a wonderful lack of respect for everything and everybody.

Brendan Francis Behan (9 February 1923 - 20 March 1964) was an Irish poet, short story writer, novelist and playwright who wrote in both Irish and English.


  • He was born an Englishman and remained one for years.
    • Hostage (1958)
  • An author's first duty is to let down his country.
    • As quoted in The Guardian (1960), and also in The Cynic's Lexicon : A Dictionary of Amoral Advice (1984), by Jonathon Green, p. 20
  • There's no bad publicity except an obituary.
    • As quoted in The World of Brendan Behan (1966) by Sean McCann, p. 56
    • Variant: There's no bad publicity except an obituary notice.
  • The sun was in mind to come out but having a look at the weather it was in lost heart and went back again.
    • Confessions of an Irish Rebel (1967)
  • It's not that the Irish are cynical. It's rather that they have a wonderful lack of respect for everything and everybody.
    • As quoted in Brendan Behan, Interviews and Recollections (1982), Vol. 2, edited by E. H. Mikhail, p. 186
  • Critics are like eunuchs in a harem: they know how it's done, they've seen it done every day, but they're unable to do it themselves.
    • As quoted in The Cynic's Lexicon : A Dictionary of Amoral Advice (1984), by Jonathon Green, p. 20
  • Mother, they would praise my balls if I hung them high enough.
    • Speaking of newspaper critics, as quoted in Mother of all the Behans : The story of Kathleen Behan as told to Brian Behan (1984) by Kathleen Behan and Brian Behan, p. 119
  • I only drink on two occasions — When I am thirsty and when I'm not.
    • As quoted in Malcolm Arnold : Rogue Genius (2004) by Anthony Meredith and Paul Harris, p. 337

Quotes about Behan

  • Brendan described himself as a drinker with a writing problem, but what he really was a painter with a writing problem. No matter in what country of the globe he resided, or how many luminaries he met, the would always be a painter in his soul. If he had remained one for his livelihood, he could still be alive today.
  • Brendan lit a bonfire under the arse of Irish literature. He took it by the scruff of the neck and dragged it kicking and screaming into the 20th century.
  • If the English hoard words like misers, the Irish spend them like sailors; and Brendan Behan ... sends language out on a swaggering spree, ribald, flushed, and spoiling for a fight.
    • Kenneth Tynan, as quoted in Aspects of the Irish Theatre No. 1 (1972), by Patrick Rafroidi, p. 133

External links

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