A quare fellow indeed

Brendan Behan was "copy" for much of his rather short life, and apparently he still is copy today, one of those personalities…

Brendan Behan was "copy" for much of his rather short life, and apparently he still is copy today, one of those personalities destined to be talked about not only by friends and enemies, but by thousands of people who never met or even saw him.

He himself was fond of saying that the only bad publicity was no publicity, and he received a lot of the former kind, both early and late in his career. A myth had already formed about him when he was still barely 30, and which arguably helped to kill him at only a month past his 40th birthday.

I met Behan numerous times, but I cannot claim to have known him, in any real sense; at most he was a friend of friends or an acquaintance of acquaintances, or simply a figure sitting loquaciously on a barstool a few feet away. In fact it was difficult, in the Dublin of 35odd years ago, not to meet him since he often seemed ubiquitous in the area of Grafton Street and Fleet Street and the quays, either alone or with a "tail" of generally scruffy people who looked as if they had been picked up in low pubs along the way, and were there for free drink rather than old friendship. When Behan went in search of good company and didn't find it, seemingly he took almost anything he could get as a substitute.

Behan's new biographer, Michael O'Sullivan, appears to have done his homework well, though he has rather a jaundiced view of the period in which his subject flourished - a much better and more vigorous one, in various ways, than it is fashionable to admit in the present climate of opinion.


"Literary Dublin" still existed, which it no longer does in the old sense. It was a relatively small area, bounded by Baggot Street Bridge at one extreme and by the Gate Theatre and Groome's Hotel to the north. In between were the newspaper offices, the literary pubs, Radio Eireann in Henry Street, the universities, the coffee bars and tea shops such as Roberts of Grafton Street, the Abbey, Gaiety and Olympia Theatres, the offices of the great literary magazines such as the Bell and Envoy.

It was possible to get a great deal of literary and journalistic business done in this confined space, inside a few hours, and an amount of drinking too if necessary - which, to Behan, it generally was.

When Behan became internationally famous, as he did while still in his early or middle 30s, he coloured his early life in a way which was not so much self-flattering as simply misleading. In the 1950s it became intellectually fashionable to be working class, especially among London middle-class intellectuals, and as Michael O'Sullivan shows, Behan claimed to have been born in the tenements of Dublin's Northside. In fact he was born in Holles Street Hospital, respectably to the south of the river, and he was never a simple member of the Lumpenproletariat (indeed, he was never a simple anything).

His father, Stephen Behan, was a house-painter - in other words, a member of the Dublin artisan class, a man "with a trade", and this class traditionally considered itself socially above the mere working-class bowsies who did the rough, unskilled jobs. Stephen had fought on the Republican side in the Civil War, but Behan's intemperate, lifelong republicanism seems to have been mainly inspired by his mother, Kathleen.

Secondly, Behan's uncle was Peadar Kearney, author of the National Anthem and other (and much) better songs. He was also connected with the Bourke theatrical dynasty and in fact had strong theatre and music hall links generally. This was a potent factor in his makeup and behaviour, since from early youth he liked to "perform" and to put himself across to an audience - a trait which was often dismissed as sheer exhibitionism, though in fact it was an inherited temperament and talent.

It is not difficult to imagine him, in a slightly different era such as the 1890s, developing into a professional comedian and entertainer in the old Queen's Theatre. The stage was in his blood, in fact, and this urge took the dual form of writing plays and of performing in person whenever and wherever he could, either publicly or privately.

Thirdly, Behan was not an untutored man coming to writing almost by accident, or out of sheer financial need. There were books in his Crumlin home - his father used to read aloud from Pickwick Papers, his favourite work - he had a relative who was a playwright, he read omnivorously even in Borstal, and he wrote a good deal of verse as a boy.

In Borstal, too, he won a prize for essay-writing. When, a few years later, he was sent to prison in Dublin for shooting at two policeman in Glasnevin, he wrote steadily and though the authorities stopped him publishing the results, author-critics as shrewd as Sean O'Faolain and Peadar O'Donnell took a special interest in him and his writings.

However it was as a journalist that he first attracted attention - through his column in the Irish Press in the early 1950s, which happened to come at a time when Myles na Gopaleen's unique column for this paper had begun to show signs of battle fatigue. Up to that, Dublin knew him mostly as a man-about-thepubs and former IRA fringe activist who was periodically involved in scrapes.

His marriage to Beatrice Salkeld, the daughter of a painter, bohemian, broadcaster and dilettante writer, surprised just about everybody except the bride's remarkable and indomitable grandmother, the poet Blanaid Salkeld. Beatrice's father, Cecil (himself a habitual drinker), warned her that Behan was a confirmed pub-goer who would not change his ways after marriage. She went into it with her eyes open.

Behan was basically unsuited to domestic life; he was naturally gregarious and unorganised, he lived from hand to mouth (especially if the hand held a pint), and he had also inherited the working-class ethos that a man's home is for eating, sleeping and procreation, while the centre of his social life is the pub. It was probably thanks mainly to his wife that for a while the marriage worked so well, and for periods Behan got up at seven and brought his wife breakfast in bed, then pounded his typewriter until noon, before heading out to do some serious drinking. It was largely during this domestic interlude that he wrote his two best works, the play The Quare Fellow and the autobiographical Borstal Boy.

Both became runaway successes, but the success held seeds of disaster both for Behan and his marriage. Adulation and fame went to his head, the media in many countries encouraged him (for a time, at least) to be as outrageous and "Irish" as possible, and his native exhibitionism too often ran riot and became tasteless and boring.

Money came in rapidly but went out even quicker, as journalists, hangers-on and self-seekers battened off his free-spending ways. His flattest quips were printed or circulated as examples of native wit, and crude, drunken pranks and brawls were sometimes held up as typical manifestations of the Irish artistic temperament. Old Dublin friends and cronies, who remembered the genuinely witty, spontaneous and quick-witted Brendan Behan of earlier days, sometimes found it all rather nauseating.

The allegedly avant-garde and left-wing producer, Joan Littlewood, turned The Hostage (originally written as an Irish play for the Damer Hall) into a commercial and critical success in London, but in doing so she vulgarised the work and apparently took liberties with the text which Behan should not have tolerated. At this stage, however, he seemed to care less and less about artistic standards and lived increasingly for the moment - which for the most part meant alcohol and adulation.

He had a love-hate affair with New York, which he believed was his spiritual home, until he went on too long and too far and his friends and acquaintances - who included Groucho Marx, Norman Mailer and Arthur Miller - began to back off and cold-shoulder him. Even the Irish pubs there banned him eventually, which hurt him to the core, but Behan was now on a giddy downward slide and apparently could not or would not help himself.

Behan's late books were either recycled material - for example, Hold Your Hour And Have Another, which was made up largely of his old Irish Press articles - or were spoken into a tape recorder. An attempt at a new play, Richard's Cork Leg, was thin and disappointing.

Even the devoted Saint Beatrice could not take the strain and the pace, and they began to drift apart - especially when Beatrice learned that her husband had fathered a child by another Irishwoman, Valerie Danby-Smith. Rumours circulating among his American friends claimed that he meant to divorce Beatrice; but he then discovered that she too was pregnant (with their daughter Blanaid). So instead Behan, in a brief interlude of good sense and responsibility, went straight to a New York law firm, where he made a will leaving his entire estate to her.

This was the beginning of the end, however, since he was a diabetic who should have avoided alcohol entirely, and his liver was giving way under the strain. Warnings from doctors only drew the fatalistic reply: "Alcoholics die from alcohol". On March 20th, 1963, Behan died in the Meath Hospital in Dublin, with Beatrice by his bedside. His old IRA comrades, who had remained faithful while most of his fair-weather friends fell away, gave him their equivalent to an official funeral in Glasnevin Cemetery.

His sexuality, inevitably, has for long been a subject of unbridled speculations and rumours, many of which I heard in Dublin over 30 years ago, including confident assertions that he was virtually impotent (not true, it seems). The writings of Ulick O'Connor and Anthony Cronin broke several seals in this field, and angered various people by doing so, but they have been borne out.

This biography leaves little room for doubt that Behan was bisexual and Michael O'Sullivan has talked to an Irishman domiciled in America, Peter Arthurs, who at the age of 23 was his lover in New York. Prisons and boarding schools, it has been said, are two forcing-grounds for homosexuality, and probably Behan's Borstal years were decisive in this sense. But from quite early on, a certain erotic tug towards his own sex seems to have been marked in both his behaviour and his writings - for instance, his lifelong fascination with Oscar Wilde, and the sympathetic portrait of a homosexual in The Quare Fellow.

SO sexual confusion or even guilt (given the climate of the times and Behan's rebellious but ingrained Catholicism) may have played a role in the self-destructiveness so marked in the last decade of his life. Behan, however, was inherently over-sensitive, emotional, socially insecure, at odds with his milieu yet unable to break away from it, a man with deep cracks and fissures in his psyche, always torn between histrionic self-projection and an almost paralysing shyness. Like Dylan Thomas, to whom he is often compared, he may have opted, half-consciously, for a short but concentrated span of life as a way both of self-fulfilment and self-escape.

Purely as a writer, Behan surely has a niche of his own; The Quare Fellow, in my opinion, compares with the best plays of O'Casey, while Borstal Boy is already a classic of its kind. There is also a small handful of great short stories, including The Confirmation Suit, and - a minor wonder - a few haunting poems in Irish worthy of any anthology, though his English verse amounts to nothing much.

Some of the journalism and occasional prose pieces, such as his early writings for the Irish Press, still have plenty of life. Frankly, I doubt if he would have done very much more creatively if he had lived longer - almost all Behan's best works are sublimated biography, and outside that he lacked invention or authenticity. But the personal myth lives on, fuelled by his personal colour and personal misery, as was the case with his chosen alter ego, Oscar Wilde.

Brendan Behan: A Life by Michael O'Sullivan (Blackwater Press, Dublin, £19.99).