Brendan Behan

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Brendan Behan : biography

9 February 1923 – 20 March 1964

According to J.P. Donleavy’s History of The Ginger Man, Behan was instrumental in bringing Donleavy in contact with M. Girodios of Olympia Press (Paris) in order to help Donleavy’s famous first novel, The Ginger Man be published despite its having been ostracized by the world literature community for its "filth" and "obscenity". Donleavy also alludes to the fact that Behan lent assistance to the Russian Nabokov in getting Lolita published in a similar fashion. He was mentioned in the Preacher comics by Garth Ennis when the vampire Cassidy claimed to have known him in the 1950s. Ennis also created a Behan analogue in Hellblazer, who purportedly sold his soul to the Devil in exchange for a collection of the finest drink known to man, and was characterized by a penchant for quoting poetry and literature during casual conversation.

In May 2011, Brendan at the Chelsea, written by Behan’s neice, Janet Behan, was the first play performed in the Naughton Studio at the new Lyric Theatre in Belfast. The production tells the story of Behan’s residence at New York’s Hotel Chelsea in 1963. It was a critical success and is being revived for a tour to Theatre Row in New York in September 2013 before returning to the Lyric in October 2013.

Biography

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 on Russell Street near Mountjoy Square owned by his grandmother, Christine English, who owned a number of properties in the area. Brendan’s 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 came from 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 "Amhrán na bhFiann". 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 (Behan’s half-brother following a relationship between Stephen Behan and Goulding’s mother), 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!"

A 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 of the Garda Siochana. The assassinations were to take place 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 Camp. These experiences were recalled in "Confessions of an Irish Rebel." Released under a general amnesty for IRA prisoners and internees in 1946, his activist 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 IRA member out of a Manchester jail, he effectively left the IRA, though he remained great friends with Cathal Goulding.A tribute to The Lost People of Arlington House, The National Archives, London 2004