Brendan Behan: A drinker with a writing problem

by dollydelightly

There’s a lot to be said for a man who could drink all of his compatriots under the table and still walk a straight line, namely that he had to be Brendan Behan. I say that with the greatest admiration which I have had for Behan ever since reading Borstal Boy. I learned a lot about Behan vicariously through his notoriety and J.P Donleavy, who once characterised his fellow Irishman by saying: “Behan always wore his shirt open to the navel; he never had shoelaces and the tongues of his shoes would always hang out… He was tremendous company…And a very, very interesting and profound man. He was a great raconteur and entertained everyone. Although he was shrewd about fame, most people assume that recognition changed Behan, that he became a great bubbling over, a very talkative, almost loudmouthed crazy man because of success. But he was always like that. He would walk into a village and start to sing….He would carry on conversations everywhere and with everybody as he walked through a street…That was Behan.” But there was also another Behan; a Behan who had an incredible literary gift demonstrated impeccably in After the Wake, a collection of Behan’s writings published by O’Brien Press. The book, with a superb introduction by Peter Fallon, contains some previously unpublished material and boasts a cavalcade of 21 pieces, some fictional, some autobiographical, charting the political, social and cultural history of Irish life through the eyes of one of her most talented but troubled sons.

With typical whiplash flippancy Brendan Behan once noted that the key defining quality of the Irish is “that that they have a wonderful lack of respect for everything and everybody”. This could not have been more true of Behan himself, as both his life and his work was marked by a distinctive tone of sedition. After Behan died in 1964 from sclerosis of the liver, Flann O’Brien wrote his obituary in The Irish Times, describing his one-time drinking pal as “more a player than a playwright, or, to use a Dublin saying, ‘He was as good as a play’.” Behan was indeed a hell of a showman, and a master deipnosophist, but he was also a remarkable writer with a knack for storytelling, an ear for dialogue, rambunctious wit and a dash of comic mayhem surging through his veins. He joined Fianna Boys (an Irish Republican Youth Organisation) at the age of 14, but was discharged for disorderly conduct under the influence of drink. Behan, nevertheless, carried his Republican politics like a tocsin and spent time in prison for a number of offences, including plotting with the IRA to bomb the Liverpool docks and an attempt to kill two gardaí. It was in jail that he honed his writing skills and gathered up material for his canon. Initially Behan’s literary reputation was built on the back of innovative work, but gradually his writing became secondary to the drinking which killed him aged 41. He died in Meath hospital after reportedly telling a nun looking after him: “Ah, bless you, Sister, may all your sons be bishops.”

Behan began his literary career by contributing patriotic prose and verses to Fianna, The Voice of Ireland, Wolfe Tone Weekly and The United Irishman between 1937-9. But his name became a household one after the publication of Borstal Boy in 1958; an autobiographical account of Behan’s arrest and imprisonment (1939 to 1943) for his involvement with the IRA. After the Wake contains a precursor to the autobiography entitled I Became a Borstal Boy initially published in The Bell in 1942. Written in emblematic Behan fashion with a quaint and loquacious medley of Irish and British slang, it alternates between the stark adrenaline-infused reality of confinement and the delicate and tender nuances of friendship informed, subconsciously, by the axiom that “no man is an island, entire of its own”. I Became a Borstal Boy recounts Behan’s sentencing to “three years’ Borstal detention” in a British correctional facility, and a brief description of another fellow who’d “battered in” his wife. With a sense of poignancy, Behan muses: “He spoke with such evident sincerity that when I read later an account of his execution I wondered if he has been guilty after all.” The piece immediately after, called “The Execution”, was first published in 1978 by Liffey Press, and follows three men as they take a snitch out far beyond the city and to his death, the narrator reasoning that if those who  “give away dumps on us” are overlooked “there’d soon be no respect for the army.” In retrospect, and with a dash of sympathy, the narrator says, “the poor devil wouldn’t have run even if we had let him,” and then with an unexpected sense of subdued altruism: “We put him in the grave. He felt quite warm. I told the lads to be careful not to get any bloodstains on their clothes. We began to shovel in earth. I moved a big stone off my shovel – it might smash in his face.” Behan’s writing has a ubiquitous quality and a remarkable vicissitude as it jumps seamlessly from the coarse to the doleful, thereby deliquescing convention to find a voice entirely its own.

The title story, After the Wake, charts Behan’s friendship with a married couple. The husband, a beautiful blonde man “always a little cultured, proud and happy to be so broad-minded”, she [the dying wife] always full of “adolescent pride in the freedom of her married state to drink a bottle of stout and talk about anything with her husband and husband’s friend.” It caused a bit of a stir upon initial publication in the Parisian magazine Points in 1950 for its portrayal of male friendship and unceremonious allusions to homosexuality. The story stands apart from all the others, whatever the provenance, due to its muted tone and the masterly balance of dramatic tension; for its illuminations of certain perdurable human truths and the ability of people to find solace in one another irrespective of circumstance. Behan concludes the story with a resigned sense of cynicism: “I fancied her face looking up from the open coffin on the Americans who, having imported wakes from us, invented morticians themselves.” Some people have dismissed After the Wake on account of moral turpitude and confusion over Behan’s sexuality. But, according to Behan’s wife Beatrice, the semi-destitute Behan was writing pornographic prose in Paris after the war for money rather than to add to his autobiographical catalogue. Either way, the story is marvellous.

My favourite, however, has to be The Confirmation Suit first published in The Standard in 1953. It is near impossible to reduce a reader to tears, but the story had me lachrymose; the coruscating, hardy prose describing an episode from Behan’s childhood is both tender and provocative, and relays the making of his Confirmation garb by his grandmother’s neighbour. He recalls his grandmother and Miss McCann, who proudly made the garments, crying as they saw him “in the velvet suit, with its small lapels and big buttons” and later celebrating with a “drink to the strength of my having grown to be a big fellow in the space of 12 years.” Embarrassed, Behan wears his topcoat during the ceremony, recollecting afterward how every Sunday from thereon in “my mother fought over the suit. She said I was a liar and a hypocrite, putting it on for a few minutes every week, and running into Miss McCann’s and out again, letting her think I wore it every week-end.” Only later, following the death of Miss McCann who loved him more than any kid she knew, does he realise what it meant to her to have fashioned the ceremonious regalia, concluding: “After the funeral, I left my topcoat in the carriage and got out and walked in the spills of rain after her coffin. People said I would get my end, but I went on till we reached the graveside, and stood in my Confirmation suit drenched to the skin. I thought this was the least I could do.” One of the most distinguishable qualities of Behan’s work is its ability to evoke unsolicited emotion and he does do throughout. Similarly, in the first, and formerly unpublished, story of the collection called The Last of Mrs Murphy which records Behan’s memories of an elderly neighbour who, on his fifth birthday, took him to “Jimmy the Sports” for his first “dandy glass of porter” and a bit of “white snuff”. But the story is about more than that; it is about the collective consciousness of a community closely knitted together trough fallen skies, madness, old age, marriage, death and beyond. When Mrs Murphy is taken to the “Refuge of the Dying” by Behan’s grandmother, Lizzie MacCann and Long Byrne, the three neighbours conclude that: “It’s not the kind of place I’d like to leave a neighbour or a neighbour’s child.” The scene ends with a little ardent banter between a nurse and Byrne, when the former says, sniffing at Mrs Murphy, “I get a distinct smell of whiskey”, to which Byrne replies: “How well you’d know it from the smell of gin, rum or brandy… Ah well I suppose practice makes perfect.”

The other previously unpublished piece of the collection is The Catacombs, a part of an unfinished novel, which commences with the following: “There was a party to celebrate Deirdre’s return from her abortion in Bristol” for which Behan “put up the money for the trip and the readies to pay the quack”. The story gets both more absurd and funny, as Behan relays his interaction with Deirdre’s Catalonian-Irish family, her “screwy old bitch” mother, Deirdre’s brother and fellow IRA sympathiser Ciaran, and uncle Hymie who mostly sits “in the corner blind drunk as he has been for sixty years” and infects the world with his poisonous yet comical persiflage. The seemingly copacetic state of affairs quickly develops into garboil as Behan gets embroiled in a forbidden dalliance, is accused of selling “Jesus Christ for three-quarters of a pound of beef,” and nicks a tenner while making his exodus from the pandemonium before heading down to the pub. The Catacombs is a brilliant piece of prose, as are most in the collection; not least the last of the longer pieces entitled A Woman of No Standing. First published in Envoy in 1950, and then some years later as That Woman in Creation the story is an all too human portrait of a deceased man’s “other woman” and her appearance at his funeral. On his death bed in “Pigeon House sanatorium” the man in question is absolved from all his sins, with the priest concluding: “It’s not when you die, but how you die that matters”. As for the other woman, “no one saw her to know what she thought of it, but the priest gave strict orders that she wasn’t to be let near the funeral”. The wronged wife forgives her husband “whatever lingering scald her heart might hold” only to be confronted by the other woman who, “bent in haggard prayer, dressed in the cast off hat and coat of some flahoo”, passes the widow by with “her head down and a pale hunted look in her eyes”. A Woman of No Standing has a wonderful human quality to it, a gift which Behan had in abundance and more than any of his contemporaries.

The remainder 14 pieces under the blanket title of The Same Again, Please were published in The Irish Press between 1954-6. Amusing, impulsive, perceptive, funny, they range in content and tone and style, as the opening of each attests. The following are some of my favourites, starting with: The Turnip Boat which commences with a somewhat arbitrary statement: “For some reason a friend of mine wanted to ship turnips from Six Counties port.” Another one called Toronto Spinster Frowned opens with an even more peculiar thought: “Myself and Winston Churchill were once upon a time in the same organisation; he as an Elder Brother of Trinity House and I as a painter for the Irish Lights.” Then there’s a piece called Red Jam Roll, the Dancer which sees Behan recollecting something with great wordplay: “I am reminded of boxing matters by an encounter I had this day with a former opponent of mine, pugilistically speaking. I do not mean our encounter this day was a pugilistic one, but it was pugilitstically speaking we last spoke.” And Three Celtic Pillars of Charity which deems: “This life is full of disappointments.” That may be true generally speaking, it is not so when it come to Behan. While there’s always a fear that a writer one admires but has read very little of might, in the end, turn out to be a disappointment, After the Wake is an Emerald Isle gem and much like the man himself a heady mixture of “hell and heaven and despair and presumption and hope”.