Going postal with Brendan Behan

An Irishman’s Diary about commemorative stamps

Behan having a final drink in London before going back to Ireland. Photograph: Getty Images

Behan having a final drink in London before going back to Ireland. Photograph: Getty Images


I see that Brendan Behan is to be the subject of a commemorative stamp from An Post, completing the official rehabilitation of a youthful IRA man who fought not just against the forces of the crown, but of the harp as well.

Among his several trips to jail was one, at age 19, for the attempted murder of two Garda detectives. But a few years later, he retired from active service as a desperado, and thereafter devoted himself (somewhat) to writing, which is probably what earned him An Post’s eventual approval.

Unfortunately, he devoted himself to another well-known Irish affliction too. Thus the stamp will be issued next month, on the 50th anniversary of his falling in action against Ireland’s most enduring enemy, the drink.

I’m sure Behan would be amused at the thought of having his likeness elevated, if only part-time, to the status enjoyed by British monarchs. But as a man sworn to uphold the Republic declared at Dublin’s GPO, he could hardly be dismissive of the honour.

Few national struggles are so intimately connected with the postal service as the one for which he believed he was fighting. And Behan could consider himself in good company with this year’s stamp programme, which will also recognise the centenary of Cumann na mBan and the bicentenary of Thomas Davis.

He might even approve of one of the non-political stamp issues. According to An Post’s schedule, a series in September will be dedicated to the theme of “cats”. And I’m assuming this is non-political, because although many animals have served their countries’ causes down the years, cats – to my knowledge – have never been among them.

In Behan’s case, at least, it may not have been for want of trying. Reports suggest he once recruited his cat Beamish (named after the stout) into the republican cause. Or at least, according to the writer’s biographer Michael O’Sullivan, he taught the cat a trick that involved standing on its back legs and extending a paw in “the IRA salute”.

This sounds like an impressive achievement, for a cat, until we learn that it always required Behan to dangle a “piece of fish” – in which light Beamish probably disqualifies himself from entitlement to a republican funeral.

Cats have occasionally contributed to the course of history, it’s true, but usually by accident. Visitors to the Patrick Scott exhibition at Imma, for example, will note that mostly-abstract collection includes a conventional portrait of the late artist’s beloved pet, Miss Mouse.

And it’s to that same cat, apparently, that Ireland owed the colour scheme of CIÉ’s old black-and-amber trains, the livery of which Scott designed.

As for trying to teach cats to do anything useful, however, I’ve not heard of anyone anywhere succeeding. Dogs, horses, and even pigeons have won medals for heroism in war. Never cats.

It’s not that they don’t have some of the skills required. Feline agility, night vision, and a talent for landing on their feet from great heights without a parachute would all be useful attributes for undercover work.

You’d think they might have been used to carry messages – or explosives – behind enemy lines on occasion. But even for one-way, kamikaze missions, apparently, they’re too unpredictable.

I know this from experience. Speaking of Imma, it so happens that my back garden is separated from the grounds of that establishment by a 15ft-high wall, topped with barbed wire. Which, for the first nine months of his life, proved an insurmountable obstacle for my cat Pete Briquette.

Then one night last year, he made it across and, in the process, caused what could have been an international security incident. As luck would have it, Imma was at the time hosting a summit of EU finance ministers, and the grounds were in lock-down. So we had to hope that, having penetrated the security cordon, Pete would get hungry enough eventually to escape it again, unassisted.

Instead, it came to the point were we could no longer ignore the pathetic miaowing from the other side of the wall. He was clearly too weak or traumatised for the return climb. So we had to go round to the locked main gate, and explain the problem to gardaí, who gave us an escort to the fugitive’s suspected location.

Sure enough, we found him there. But rather than the gratitude we foolishly expected, Pete just ignored us and carried on searching for mice, or whatever he was at. I had to crawl into shrubbery to catch him, while the little traitor did a convincing impression of never having seen me before. In the end, the guards could have been forgiven for thinking I was the one who’d breached the security cordon for no good reason, not him.



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