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A Bit of a Writer: a significant contribution to Brendan Behan’s centenary year

Brendan Behan’s Complete Collected Short Prose is stuffed with jokes and comic set pieces, with a serious political undertow.

A Bit of a Writer: Brendan Behan’s Collected Short Prose
A Bit of a Writer: Brendan Behan’s Collected Short Prose
Author: Brendan Behan, edited by John Brannigan
ISBN-13: 978-1843518594
Publisher: Lilliput Press
Guideline Price: €25

It is shocking to realise that it’s a hundred years since Brendan Behan was born. His writing still has a freshness and modernity about it. And yet he has been dead for more than half of that time. The roaring boy stereotype has begun to fade and his writing can now be assessed on its own merits. He had considerable achievement in various genres: in a play like The Quare Fellow, in his poems in Irish and in that masterpiece of autobiographical fiction, Borstal Boy. Here, editor John Brannigan has gathered together the two years of the weekly column the 31-year-old Behan had in the Irish Press from 1954 to 1956 to make more than a hundred separate items of approximately 1,250 words each. As this number makes clear, Behan scarcely missed a single deadline. The drinking had not yet taken over and these were years of great literary productivity.

The columns are a testimonial to Behan’s fluency in, and knowledge of, Irish poetry and song. Although in English, scarcely a column goes by without the cúpla focal and frequently there is more. Poems and songs are quoted verbatim. Behan provided no translation; they were offered without apology in the original Irish. But Ceithleann Ní Dhuibhne Ní Dhulacháin has supplied a series of translations into English which editor Brannigan puts in the impressive footnotes, keeping the Irish Press text as it originally appeared. The legacy of music is deep within the Behan family. His republican father was a fiddle player, his mother a singer and his uncle Peadar Kearney wrote The Soldier’s Song.

Many of the columns take place in the company of, and with, the salty repartee of three regular inner-city pub denizens

All of this serves to enhance the intimacy which is key to Behan’s writing in the column, the sense that you are sitting beside him in the pub. Many of the columns take place in the company of, and with, the salty repartee of three regular inner-city pub denizens: Maria Concepta, a very old woman who produces a wonderfully mangled English which becomes well nigh incomprehensible when she attempts the odd Irish phrase; Mrs Brennan, who adds her own characteristic flourish to the English she speaks; and the wonderfully named Crippen, who secretly nurtures his own literary aspirations. Behan emerges in a great many of the pub scenes as a writer. In one pub, his friend bigs him up to another drinker as a writer who writes “books and all, […] with hard covers and all”. As Behan remarks, “this was a lie” but he decides to brazen it out. When challenged to provide the evidence, he produces from his pocket a battered paperback copy of George Orwell’s Down and Out in Paris and London. The stranger responds with: “George Orwell. That’s not a terribly Irish name, is it?” Behan flashes back with: “It’s not my real one. But it suited the English market.”

The impression the columns convey is of someone continually on the move. After traversing Dublin, he travels the length and breadth of Ireland, as far south as Wexford and as far north as Belfast. In the latter, he displays a particular interest in contemporary writers like Forrest Reid or Joseph Tomelty; and when he gets stuck among a group of Ulster Protestants, wades lustfully into Orange ballads. Behan doesn’t bother much with the west of Ireland, with the singular exception of the Aran Islands. He had been taught Irish in Borstal by Seán O Briain, an Aran Islander, and frequently travelled there to renew his contact with the language. Prison served as a kind of university for Behan, with ideal working conditions and no access to alcohol. Trips to England are infrequent, memories of prison predominated and he was frequently under an expulsion order for his republican activities. Forays to the continent are all to France, home of republicanism. They offer him a cosmopolitan breadth not available in Dublin.

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Behan married Beatrice ffrench-Salkeld on February 16th, 1955. They were from entirely different classes and the families were horrified

Several significant events occurred in Behan’s life during these two years which scarcely get mentioned in the columns. He married Beatrice ffrench-Salkeld on February 16th, 1955. They were from entirely different classes and the families were horrified. Behan didn’t even mention it to his own family until after the ceremony. We only learn of it late in the day in the column when he says he makes his latest journey to France in the company of his wife. The account of their conversation shows that Beatrice gives as good as she gets in exchanges with her quick-witted husband. On November 19th, 1954, The Quare Fellow was premiered at the little Pike Theatre by Alan Simpson and Carolyn Swift. The sole reference here to that event is when Behan offers two free tickets to the opening night as a prize.

The success of The Quare Fellow, especially in London, may well have brought the Irish Press columns to an end. But they show what a natural and gifted writer Behan was. Stuffed with jokes and comic set pieces, they nevertheless have a serious political undertow. A Bit of a Writer makes a significant contribution to Brendan Behan’s centenary year.