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Brendan Behan’s papers are in New Jersey. Surely they belong in his native city?

Working-class Dublin was intrinsic to the creative output of a highly individual writer who was born a century ago this week

It says much about the neglect of Brendan Behan in his own country that his papers ended up in Princeton University Library, New Jersey. Those looking to research the collection there are told Behan, born in Dublin a century ago this week, “was an acclaimed 20th century Irish poet, short story writer, novelist and playwright, who wrote in both English and Irish”. That summation does not contain the qualifications that seem to cloud the legacy of Behan; that along with being all those things, he was a very public alcoholic, troublemaker and one-time incompetent IRA volunteer.

Dead at 41, with his potential unfulfilled, it is more the tragedy than the creativity of Behan that seems to attach to his legacy. John McCourt, who along with John Brannigan has written on Behan in recent times, notes that his archive was sold in London in 2017 for the relatively modest sum of £200,000, but even at that price it was not bought by an Irish cultural institution.

Surely Behan’s papers belong in his native city? His Dublin identity was intrinsic to his creative output. Giving voice to Dublin working class culture was also about emphasising the complexity of its heritage. When, in 1997, he introduced a collection of Behan’s Evening Press columns published between 1954 and 1956, Anthony Cronin, while acknowledging Behan’s inconsistency, suggested that overall, they displayed “an extraordinary mélange of cultures and cultural cross references”.

The British army culture and its impact on Dublin, for example, loomed large, as well as the republican tradition. Behan, proud of his family’s intense engagement with Irish republicanism, was also critical of the Irish cultural revival of the early 20th century, which he believed had excluded the folk-culture of working-class Dubliners.


In 1951, Behan presented himself, accurately, as occupying his own, quite lonely ground: “Cultural activity in present-day Dublin is largely agricultural. They write mostly about their hungry bogs and the great scarcity of crumpet. I am a city rat. [James] Joyce is dead and [Seán] O’Casey is in Devon.” He did not have the discipline or the emotional stability of O’Casey and he struggled to come to terms with his sexuality, but he did overcome some of the disadvantages of his early years, including poverty and his induction in to Na Fianna, the junior wing of the IRA, at the age of eight that ultimately led to his incarceration as a teenager. He laboured on what became the novel Borstal Boy from 1941 to 1958.

The staging of The Quare Fellow at the Pike Theatre in Dublin in 1954 began a journey that took his work to London and then Broadway in the US, helped by the championing of his work by English director Joan Littlewood and because the play addressed capital punishment, a matter of much contemporary discourse and debate.

The delicateness Behan was capable of was easily lost when he gave too many audiences what they seemed to want and that was, as he acknowledged, the ‘broth of a boy’

Behan was an earnest student of the Irish language and the staging of An Giall (The Hostage) in Dublin’s An Damer in 1958 was a measure of his seriousness about the language, though with the bawdier English language version in London, it became something quite different. These connections across the sea underlined a hybridity that made Behan such an interesting artist, but the focus that produced this work in the 1950s was not sustained, diluted by his insecurities and fragilities and, of course, his excessive drinking.

Spiky interventions

There was both defiance and humanity running through the work along with the reality of class and social divisions, physical and mental confinements, the costs of conflict and the marginalisation of Irish speakers. For all the bravado and blather, Behan was capable of spiky and pertinent interventions. When taoiseach Seán Lemass complained of Irish playwrights promoting the stage Irishman in England, Behan, as highlighted by Kevin Rafter, responded by referring to the mass emigration of Irish workers to England in the 1950s and observed that the taoiseach “must now be as expert on emigration as he is in dramatic criticism, so, marrying his dual talents, he may produce an answer to this question – why Irish playwrights leave home”.

The delicateness Behan was capable of was easily lost when he gave too many audiences what they seemed to want and that was, as he acknowledged, the “broth of a boy”. He also had harsh words for the version of Catholicism that prevailed in Ireland, suggesting there was too much deference and a need for considerable scepticism about the role of priests.

Behan’s relationship with Irish nationalism and identity was layered, and as John Brannigan sees it, his writings in both Irish and English enabled him to “articulate dissident and critical perspectives on cultural nationalism in mid-century Ireland”. It is telling that one of his early champions was Seán Ó Faoláin, who shared with him a resistance to narrowly defining Irishness. Behan carved out his own literary space and we should remember him primarily for that.