Bingeing with Behan – An Irishman’s Diary about the weekend’s debris by a canal

Brendan Behan gazes forever at a blackbird singing beside him. But on Monday, he seemed to be surveying the rubbish

Crossing the Royal Canal at Binn’s Bridge on Monday morning, I was stopped in my tracks by the sight of Brendan Behan. No, not his ghost, but his life-sized bronze likeness, which has been sitting on a bench there for the past 15 years. And it wasn’t so much the sculpture that stopped me this time. It was the state of the place around it.

Binn’s Bridge is an ironic name on the morning after a weekend night in summer. Whatever bins there are in the area must be invisible to people who drink on the canal bank. Everywhere you looked on Monday, there were bottles, cans, and plastic shopping bags, dropped without thought.

But depressing as this spectacle was, it also had the strange effect of bringing Behan even more alive than his sculptor, John Coll, had.

An infamously hard drinker himself, Behan now looked like the last man left at his own party, after everyone else had gone home. As depicted by Coll, he gazes forever at a blackbird singing beside him. But on Monday, he seemed to be surveying the rubbish, depressed at the thought of having to clean up.


Luckily for him, and for people who live around here, he didn’t have to clean it. A local hero was already on the job, gathering the detritus of a weekend with rubber gloves and piling it into the discarded plastic bags. Bad as it was when I passed, it must have been a lot worse earlier, judging by the bags already filled.

But not the least impressive thing about the civic-minded citizen was that, despite having to do this regularly, he still had a sense of humour. When I thanked him on behalf of the citizenry in general, he deflected the attention to Behan, joking that he had been “among his own last night”.

Asked if he was the only one who cleaned up here, the man said no, he had done it before with others (and I note that the people at organise a mass monthly effort at various locations).

But the balmy nights of summer 2018 have created a particular problem around Behan’s place, not just among drinkers but users of various other popular anaesthetics as well. So as the man said of the latter: “I’m not leaving this to them.”

When the Behan sculpture was installed, it was part of a general upgrade to make the canal a “safer and cleaner place for families”. The project appears not to have been entirely successful. Maybe “Binge Bridge” would be a better name for it than the one it has now, which is in honour of John Binns, a 18th-century politician and businessman who was financially ruined by the Royal’s construction.

Switching canals, my thanks to letter writers James Behan (no relation, or is he?) and Christopher McMahon for correcting me about Dublin’s other one, the Grand, after I put cart before horse last week in suggesting that the now-defunct stretch up to the back of Guinness’s had been a spur line, rather that the main event.

Thanks also to Brian J Goggin for pointing out that, behind the Italianate appearance of the name Portobello – located on what used to be the spur – lie Latin American origins, via 18th-century Panama.

This reminded me of the old quiz question about the five areas of Dublin ending in O. The one many people forget is Pimlico. And that’s not Italian either. Subject to further correction, I presume it was named after the Pimlico in London, which according to Brewers Dictionary commemorates a 16th century local, Ben Pimlico, famed as a supplier of “nut-brown ale”.

But courtesy of HG Wells, if no-one else, there is an alternative origin for the name, and like Portobello, it comes from the Americas. It also fits, in a way, with Pete St John’s classic song about Dublin in “The Rare Ould Times”.

That 1970s ballad is narrated by a Pimlico-born veteran, who feels himself a stranger (“I’m a part of what was Dublin”) in a city changed beyond recognition. And as for the London Pimlico, Wells suggested that too was a vestige of a lost tribe.

In his 1924 novel, The Dream, a character remembers the area thus: "It bordered upon the river, and once there had been a wharf there to which ships came across the Atlantic from America. This word Pimlico had come with other trade in these ships; in my time it was the last word left alive of the language of the Algonquin Red Indians, who had otherwise altogether vanished from the earth."