The quare fellow 50 years on

Thu, Mar 20, 2014, 01:01

Fifty years ago this week Dublin saw one of its biggest displays of public mourning since the assassination of Collins and the death of Parnell. In great numbers citizens thronged the streets to salute one of their own, a son of Russell Street and Crumlin who gave their city what might be regarded as one of its best known and loved anthems, The Auld Triangle .

That song like the work for stage and page which achieved for Brendan Behan his ranking among our great writers, was born out of the central experience that formed him as a writer and shaped so much of his work – his prison terms for republican activity. His two greatest works, The Quare Fellow and the autobiographical Borstal Boy , drew vividly from those penal experiences and made him one of the truest voices in “prison literature”. They also share Behan’s outstanding quality as a dramatist and prose writer: his ability to blend those twin components of great writing, tragedy and comedy, the humorous and humane.

Behan the carouser and jester became addicted to his hell-raiser image and self-deprecating wit, describing himself as “a drunk with a writing problem”; we can only surmise what other literary accomplishments he might have been capable of if, like his contemporary and fellow habitué of the Chelsea Hotel, Dylan Thomas, he had not been a victim of celebrity and its demons.

A devotion to the Irish language resulted in some fine short stories and poems, as well as his second major play, An Giall/The Hostage , but the work of his last years never matched the talent and originality that The Quare Fellow promised in 1954. Behan’s influence as a cultural icon has never diminished and not since Oscar Wilde has an Irish writer provided so many memorable quotes. The critic Kenneth Tynan once said that Behan sent out words “on a spree, ribald, flushed, and spoiling for a fight”. Those words still continue to sound their jingle-jangle 50 years after his death.