In a Word ... Complaint

A story about Brendan Behan’s lighthouse painting days is amusing enough to be true

A favourite Brendan Behan story concerns a lighthouse. It might even be true. But what makes it appealing is that it is so believable. Behan was a house painter before he became distracted by writing. He even painted poet Patrick Kavanagh’s flat in Dublin when they enjoyed a brief friendship.

It would be the undoing of Kavanagh’s famous libel action against the Leader newspaper in 1952, which he claimed portrayed him very poorly. He believed (wrongly) Behan was behind it and, in court, denied they were ever friends.

A copy of Kavanagh’s novel Tarry Flynn was produced, inscribed and dedicated by the author: “For my friend Brendan, poet and painter, on the day he decorated my flat.” Kavanagh’s credibility was shot and he lost the case.

But that would be later.


In 1946 Behan was released from borstal in the UK, where he was jailed for IRA membership, and began painting with his father, Stephen. This meant a stint as lighthouse painter at St John’s Point in Co Down. It did not go well.

According to a letter of complaint sent in August 1950 to the Irish Lights office in Dublin by Mr D Blakely, principal keeper at the lighthouse, Brendan was "the worst specimen" he had met in 30 years' service.

“His language is filthy and he is not amenable to any order” and had been “absent from his work all day yesterday, not returning to station until 1.25am this morning.”

He was “wilfully wasting materials, opening drum and paint tins by blows from a heavy hammer, spilling the content, which is now running out the paint store door.”

He “mixes putty, paint etc with his bare hands and wipes off nothing. The spare house, which was clean and ready for painters, has been turned into a filthy shambles inside a week. Empty stinking milk bottles, articles of food, coal, ashes and other debris litter the floor of the place which is now in a scandalous condition of dirt.”

On top of all this, the painter’s attitude was “one of careless indifference”. Blakely urged Behan’s dismissal “before good material is rendered useless and the place ruined”.

The letter, it seems, didn’t work as Behan was retained for a second summer as painter at the lighthouse.

Complaint, from Old French complainte, "to lament, express anguish".