Brendan Behan

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Brendan Behan : biography

9 February 1923 – 20 March 1964

His autobiographical novel Borstal Boy followed in 1958. In this 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 is not 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.

He learned to speak Irish at the home of the Nolan family in the Gaeltacht area of Galway in the late 1940s. Drs Sinead and Maureen Nolan (daughters of the house) never heard a disrespectful word or a hint of obscenity from him during that time. He was much loved and revered by their deeply religious parents, who recognized his genius for language early. They saw his theatrics for what it was: a cover up for an exquisitely sensitive nature. In the end his favourite drink (a lethal combination for a diabetic) was champagne and sherry.

Decline and death

Grave of Brendan Behan by Clíodhna Cussen, Glasnevin, Dublin. A bronze likeness 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 famously 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, was not 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.