Reading Brendan Behan: Penetrating essays on the Dubliner’s writing

Book review: New collection of essays aims to look beyond larger-than-life personality

Brendan Behan. Behan’s infamy, the cult of personality which makes it almost impossible to look at his work without seeing him. Photograph: Eddie Kelly

Brendan Behan. Behan’s infamy, the cult of personality which makes it almost impossible to look at his work without seeing him. Photograph: Eddie Kelly

In July 1956 Myles na gCopaleen (aka Brian O’Nolan, or Flann O’Brien) wrote one of his satirical Irish Times columns, this one entitled “Behanism” and dedicated to his friend Brendan Behan. In the column, Myles asks, “is he a human Behan at all[?]”.

Sixty-three years on, and we are still grappling with this question – with Behan’s infamy, the cult of personality which makes it almost impossible to look at his work without seeing him. IRA man, drunk, media celebrity, bohemian: Behan’s life was so big that it overshadows his art. Behan plays with these personas and stereotypes in his work, not just in the autobiographical Borstal Boy, but elsewhere too. In The Hostage, Behan inserts himself into the always-topical dialogue of the play:

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