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Shamrock Rovers, the Down footballers and bullfights - remembering Brendan Behan

Thursday marks the 100 year anniversary of Irish playwright’s birth

The Aer Lingus Irish International Airlines Lockheed Constellation took 14 gruelling hours to journey from Shannon to Idlewild Airport on September 2nd, 1960. Enough time for a soda water-sipping Brendan Behan to entertain fellow passengers, one minute belting out The Auld Triangle, the next denouncing a party of “f**king nuns”.

Three weeks before his play The Hostage was due to open at the Cort Theater on 48th Street, a phalanx of paparazzi, all flashbulbs, trilby hats, and proffered microphones, gathered on the tarmac to capture his eagerly awaited arrival in New York.

“Appearing on Broadway is like an athlete running the four-minute mile!” he told them. “It is something whether the play is a success or not. It’s exciting and thrilling. I’m not a good enough actor to be blasé about it. I’ve been asked to be civil to the critics, those butchers of Broadway. I intend to step out of their road and see what happens. It [Broadway] is a place of legend, like Killarney or Montmarte, in different ways. One confidently expects to see Damon Runyon’s Harry the Horse and the girls banging the drums and blowing the trumpets for the dolls.”

In the middle of a bout of sobriety during which he shed two stone and lost 11 teeth, his dark brown, two-tone suit had an “Up Down” rosette in the right lapel, the badge worn by supporters of the county’s Gaelic footballers during their All-Ireland semi-final victory over Offaly at Croke Park a couple of weeks earlier. No evidence exists that Behan attended the game but the item caught the eye of journalists.


“The idea of having a badge marked ‘Up Down’ appealed to me as much as the political situation,” he explained, before correcting one writer who reckoned it was orange in colour and disposition.

On this, the 100th anniversary of his birth, it’s timely to remember just how big Behan was in America during his multiple sojourns here in the early 1960s. Pursued through the streets of Greenwich Village by a starstruck Bob Dylan. Doling out much-needed cash to a hard-up Allen Ginsberg. Trying to stave off Jackie Gleason’s sustained efforts to haul him off the wagon. He emceed a jazz revue starring Nina Simone, hung with Harpo Marx, feuded with Steve McQueen and sat in on Mel Brooks and Carl Reiner recording a comedy album.

Before returning to the bottle and slowly drinking himself to death, he touched the stars and he twinkled too, attaining enough celebrity wattage to become a staple of gossip columns from Hollywood to New York. One account of him singing Mack the Knife in Trude Heller’s appeared in between updates about the activities of Jimmy Hoffa and Marlene Dietrich. Another morning, his escapades at a lunch were reported next to the antics of the great New York Yankee Mickey Mantle. The company he kept.

None of the papers thought it newsworthy that Behan slipped into the Polo Grounds on June 25th, 1961. There, he was among a crowd of more than 12,000 that saw a Shamrock Rovers selection, including Frank O’Neill, Liam Tuohy and Tommy Farrell (uncle of Colin), draw 2-2 with Petah Tikva from Israel in the International Soccer League, a short-lived summer competition run over several weeks in the US. In contrast, a more high-profile trip to Mexico with his wife Beatrice and his friend/sometime lover Peter Arthurs garnered serious column inches and a press pack in tow.

“Brendan danced the blackbird, sang a medley of bawdy Dublin ballads, told tall tales, played his harmonica, joked and regaled his beholders with a host of very entertaining impressions that included Mussolini, Churchill, Toulouse Lautrec, the babushka-clad old woman of Connemara, Hitler and others,” remembered Arthurs of one impromptu performance in the bar of Caesar’s Hotel and Restaurant on Avenida Revolucíon in Tijuana. “When Brendan had finished his Hitler impression, he stepped to the centre, snapped his suspenders against his chest, winked and quipped, ‘Aye, but there’s a thing or two to be said about us aul house painters.’”

Seeking more cabaret of that nature, journalists accompanied the Behan entourage to the bullfighting ring where Jaime Bravo of Mexico City and Jose Ramon Tirado of Mazatian (two preeminent matadors of the era) topped the bill. If the scribes were excited at the prospect of what he might get up to in the venue, Beatrice and Arthurs had more serious concerns on their minds. Brendan had told them he fancied getting into the ring with the bulls. A ludicrous threat but, of course, this was somebody for whom ludicrous carry-on was something of a default setting.

Beatrice couldn’t quite relax during the contests for fear her husband was stupid enough to try to join in. Once he saw the animals up close, however, he was suitably cowed and stayed put. There was no Heminwayesque “Death in the Afternoon”. It turned out to be a disappointing spectacle in any case, an “inferior corrida” in which neither bulls nor matadors seemed overly interested in the fray. Eventually, the locals had seen enough. They began jeering and firing the cushions from their seats down into the arena.

“Brendan, now you have seen your first bullfight, what do you think?” asked Don Freedman of the San Diego Tribune.

“It could have been worse,” said Behan as the cushions flew past his head. “It could have been folk singing.”