John Behan: The Bull of Sheriff Street by Adrian Frazier review

A tribute to a once-marginalised sculptor argues that his work is central to Irish art,writes Brian Lynch

John Behan: The Bull of Sheriff Street
Author: Adrian Frazier
ISBN-13: 978-1843516583
Publisher: Lilliput
Guideline Price: €25

This book presents itself initially in the guise of a warm tribute to the now 78-year-old sculptor John Behan by a friend and neighbour in Galway. But the friendly neighbour is also a professor – Frazier is the biographer of George Moore – and he uses his skills as a historical stylist to do far more than radiate warmth. The book is as challenging as it is affable. The gauntlet is not so much thrown down as dropped lightly in front of anyone interested in our visual culture, but it is art historians who will have to pick it up.

Imagining how they might meet the challenge is not the only intriguing thought provoked by Frazier’s knight-errantry on behalf of Behan. The apparently casual portrait he paints is subtly judged, dense with detail, a vivid mix of information derived from conversations with the sculptor and access to his sometimes surprising private papers. The picture we get is complex: Behan may look like Sancho Panza but he is more like Don Quixote, less wily, no less puzzled, much more practical.

One of Frazier’s chief purposes is to give voice to claims that Behan, and artists associated with him, were not marginal to 20th-century Irish culture but central to it. He establishes a case that future historians will have to argue with, like it or not.

Behan is the son of a small farmer from Laois and a native-speaking mother from Donegal who kept a shop in Dublin's poverty-stricken Sheriff Street. At the age of 15 Behan left North Strand Technical School to become an apprentice metalworker; by 1960, when he was 22, he was showing work at the Living Art exhibition. The welcome for his blacksmith expressionism did not last long, and as late as 1969 the Hibernia critic Dorothy Walker was advising him to "spend a year in a very good art school". Behan boiled.

That some of the haughtier critics were ascendancy Protestant, Trinity College-educated Irish Times readers was, Behan believed, not incidental to their opinions. But the Times was changing with the times: Brian Fallon, the paper's magisterial art critic, led the way in discovering that Behan's roughness disguised a rapidly developing finesse as a maker-thinker.

Class-conscious judges

Respectability had a lot to do with the haughtiness of more class-conscious judges of taste. After all, Behan and his band of remorselessly merry men, often charioted by Bacchus and his pards, would insist on riding into the establishment’s artistic tea shop, the Arts Council, on a variety of shaggy piebald hobby horses.

The then manager of the tea shop was not a Protestant, but he was the nearest thing to it at the time: a Jesuit. As director of the council, Fr Donal O'Sullivan was so High Church he might as well have been standing en pointe on the steeple. Not only did he wear "a shot-silk waistcoat with black stone buttons", he was the lover of the novelist Graham Greene's lover, Catherine Walston, who regarded "a soutane as an aphrodisiac" and whose "long drinking binges" O'Sullivan encouraged on the Greenean grounds that they "brought her closer to God". Such de-luxe-quality mysticisms seem to have misted O'Sullivan's eye for art, though maybe it was that in the gloom of the Jesuits' diningroom in Leeson Street he failed to see that the picture on the wall, of Christ betrayed, was by Caravaggio. Whatever the reasons, his myopia prevented him seeing the merits of Behan, James McKenna, Michael Kane, Charlie Cullen, Brian Bourke and Tadhg MacSweeney, to name but six of the many original talents in that generation of artists.

Allegations, however, that the Arts Council was engaged in a conspiracy against them were discounted by Brian Fallon, and indeed it may have been simply the case that the council, as Fallon put it, “didn’t like the cut of their cake”. Still, there is little doubt that Fr O’Sullivan, acting in cahoots with Michael Scott, the Busáras architect, deliberately excluded Behan from patronage, and they did it speedily: within 10 days of his applying for assistance to open a foundry to cast sculpture (work that was then done abroad), the proposal was rejected. Behan went ahead anyway, and 40 years later the Dublin Art Foundry is still going.

Behan and his group were not alone in fighting the war against blinkered privilege. The Evening Press critic Tony Butler, for example, went so far as to say that the Arts Council was using "public money as an instrument of private investment", a foolhardy statement to make in a legal system where an arm and a leg often cost much less than the loss of a good name. In the event, no one sued for libel, probably because, even if the charge were proved untrue, a lot of other muddy matter would have been flung around the High Court.

Actually, far from being isolated, the artists had powerful allies. In 1973 the old Arts Council was abolished, and as Fr O’Sullivan buttoned up his waistcoat and left by the back door, in through the front came John Behan, a member, along with Seamus Heaney, of a reformed council.

The neatness of this reverse was classical, but there is a contradiction in it: the establishment wasn’t really established; the barbarians had been within the gates since 1922; they just hadn’t bothered their barney about the state of the place.

Another contradiction Frazier faces up to is the woman question. This, too, has its funny side, but it is also piquant, and current. As recently as last December in this newspaper's series Modern Ireland in 100 Artworks, Dr Roisín Kennedy, writing about the magazine Structure, edited by Behan's fellow rebel Michael Kane, said that a "dubious understanding of sexual politics emerged in the proliferation of female nudes". The piquancy arises from the fact that much of the rebelliousness of male artists then was a raspberry against the repression of sexuality by the Catholic Church and her ally, Mother Ireland. But while it could be argued that their soldered prudery validated the striptease acts, female and male – Brian Bourke, for example, made profound fun of his own "nudieness" – what ironist would also argue that the Mother Ireland who rocked the cradle became the Mná na hÉireann who rocked the system?

Behan, in fact, rarely sculpted the sexual body, and when he did so, for example in the magnificent Iron Venus of 1987, the woman is less an object of desire than a force of primeval fecundity. Frazier also claims that one of Seamus Heaney's best-known poems, Punishment, was altered radically after the poet saw a Behan drawing with the same title. The drawing expresses Behan's "hatred of violence", which was one reason why he emigrated to Galway. In Dublin, the bohemian pubs were being invaded by "hard men from the North . . . demanding a show of commitment . . . Service to Sinn Féin was presented as the utmost duty of an Irish artist." (There is a book in how most, but not all, of those artists who shared Behan's republican socialist sympathies changed their minds about duty during the Troubles.)

Behan's private life is handled with tact by Frazier, though it is hard to understand how confining to a footnote the wish of the artist's ex-wife not to be named in the book could fail to draw attention to it. That puzzle is compounded by quotations from Harvest of Chains, a novel (unpublished but available online) by an eccentric American polymath, Dr Roy Lisker, in which the couple are characters.

All in all, for a short book, this is a satisfyingly long read, challenging, entertaining, poignant, full of art and life, like the man himself.

The cover of Brian Lynch and Paul Durcan’s first book, Endsville, published in 1967, was drawn by John Behan