In the swim – An Irishman’s Diary on that time I nearly killed Brendan Behan
Brendan Behan: a running jump off the slipway and into the water. Photograph: Eddie Kelly
As a teenager in the 1950s I used swim every summer at Seapoint, Co Dublin. It was a simple and happy time which I look back on with great joy.
Another regular swimmer was a fat, red-faced jolly man whom we all looked on as a real “character”. Everyone enjoyed him and his amusing antics. His usual party piece was to take a running jump off the slipway into the water, shouting at the top of his flat Dublin accent “Here goes nuttin ...” We used laugh and give him a round of applause.
He obviously enjoyed the notoriety. He was such a cheerful person.
I hadn’t a clue who this happy madman was. He never crossed my busy teenage mind. He was just another member of the public who enjoyed all the lovely summers back then. You know the old adage: it never rained in the summers when you were young and carefree, your whole life before you.
It was only sometime later I learned that our resident comedian was none other than Brendan Behan, a writer of sorts at the time but who went on to become a very famous writer. All I know is that he loved to swim and he was fun to watch. A decent auld skin, you might say.
Then we all know what happened next. He became more renowned for his drinking than his writing. He was a global literary star with a major alcohol problem. He was very ill in his final year and the last time I saw him was on a Sunday morning in the South County hotel in Stillorgan. He looked very pale and ill and moved slowly. He was nothing like the stocky guy who used to shout “Here goes nuttin ...” in Seapoint years earlier. No, he was a wreck and the end was close.
Later that morning I went into the toilet. There was Brendan over at the washhand basin throwing water on to his face, moaning heavily and talking to himself. I was shocked. It was such a sad sight. I said nothing and left quickly. This was a very sick man.
That was the only time I had seen him in the hotel – my local at the time – as he usually drank in Ballsbridge, which was near his home, or went into town where there were plenty of hostelries to meet Dub friends and get into mischief. He lived in a fine house on Anglesea Road.
The number of the house was five, which had as a result been cleverly named in Irish, Cúig (Brendan was fond of the Irish language and had done a lot of fine writing in his ancestral tongue).
Funnily enough, I was nearly responsible for killing him a year earlier. Yes, you can read that sentence again, slowly. It’s true, I did nearly kill him. He walked out in front of my second-hand, green Mini car at the junction of Anglesea Road and Ballsbridge. He rolled against the bonnet and fell down. Luckily, I was almost fully stopped at the junction at the time. Otherwise I might have been prominently starring in his many glowing obituaries which appeared all over the world. My name would have been mud.
He picked himself up, uninjured, shook his fist at me, and unleashed an impressive avalanche of four-letter words at the car window. I must confess proudly that I held my own in the argument. I gave him as good as I got.
Just because he was world famous at that time did not mean he had the right to walk out in front of my little vehicle and frighten the bejasus out of me.
A faster driver would have blitzed him into the big library in the sky. I let him know that he was a lucky man and warned him to look where he was sleepwalking in future, drunk or sober. That was the nearest I ever got to having a conversation with the great man.
He then trundled down the road to his nearby house, still mumbling about capitalists in cars not giving a s**t about the working man. It was a long time ago and I still shiver when I think I nearly went down in history as the man who killed poor Brendan.
No, he died in hospital suffering from diabetes, kidney and liver complaints. There was also a great Dublin rumour at the time that some so-called friend smuggled a bottle of whiskey into the hospital and that that finished him off. I don’t believe it, but you know Dubliners for the tall stories. He was only 41 years old when he died. His great saying was: “I’m a drinker with a writing problem.”
Dublin was only a village back then in those simple, innocent days when nobody knew what a pandemic was and the only people wearing masks were bank robbers.