Who was Brendan Behan?
One of the most influential Irish literary figures of the 20th century, Brendan Behan was known for his rugged, earthy satire and powerful political commentary. He was raised in a family that was revolutionary active against the British and as a result, his childhood and early days were steeped in rich Irish history, culture and literature. Many of his works reflect his patriotism which is largely influenced by the sort of literature he chose to indulge in and the patriotic ballads that he was made to listen to. This sort of nationalism grew on him and he joined the Irish Republican Army. As a result of his revolutionary activities, he was sent to prison in both England and Ireland and after a number of jail terms, he learnt to speak Irish fluently and wrote two of his most illustrious plays; ‘The Quare Fellow’ and ‘The Hostage’, the latter one was made into a Broadway production and vaulted him onto the world dais. Despite professional success, his personal life was laden with serious alcohol problem, which resulted in high-risk diabetes and his eventual death.
Childhood & Early Life
Brendan Francis Behan was born into a working-class family in Dublin, Ireland. His parents, Stephen Behan and Kathleen were ardent supporters of the Irish War.
His love for literature and his political views against the British can be attributed to his mother’s political beliefs and his father’s love for Irish works.
He started drinking from the age of 8, which took a serious toll on his body later on. At the age of 13, he left school and decided to become a house painter.
In 1937, his family moved to a new local authority housing scheme in Crumlin. He then joined the youth organization of the IRA and published his first set of poems and prose in the magazine, ‘Fianna: The Voice of Young Ireland’.
At the age of 16, he joined the IRA and was sent on a mission to London where he was asked to blow up Liverpool docks. He possessed explosives and as a result was arrested and sentenced to three years of prison in a borstal.
Upon returning to Ireland in 1941, he documented his experiences at the Borstal in an autobiography, which was released much later.
Later on, he was tried for the attempted murder of the detectives of the Garda Siochana. He was incarcerated and sentenced to fourteen years in prison. He recollected all these experiences in another book titled, ‘Confessions of an Irish Rebel’.
In 1946, he tried to put a stop to his rebellious activist side but not before serving a short term in jail for trying to get a fellow IRA member out of Manchester jail.
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Brendan Behan’s prison experiences became the central theme for his writing career. While at Mountjoy Prison, he wrote his first play, ‘The Landlady’ and also began to dabble with other short-stories and prose.
In 1950s, he left Ireland to settle in Paris. It was there that he indulged in alcoholism and started to earn a living by writing pornography.
By the time he returned to Ireland, he ahd attracted a lot of negative attraction due to his drinking habit. However, he soon realized that in order to succeed, he would have to discipline himself.
He started to contribute religiously to ‘The Irish Times’ and other newspapers. Additionally, his work, ‘The Leaving Party’ was even broadcast on radio.
In 1954, he earned his first major breakthrough with his play, ‘The Quare Fellow’. The play became so popular that it ran for 6 months. Two years later, it opened at the illustrious, Theatre Royal Stratford East.
In 1957, his Irish play, ‘An Giall’ (The Hostage in English language adaptation) debuted in the Damer Theater, Dublin. The following year, after much commercial success, he chronicled his life in Bsorstal in his autobiography titled, ‘Borstal Boy’. The same year, ‘The Big House’, a one-act play, was commissioned for the radio.
Towards the end of his life, he found it very difficult to manage his fame coupled with his drinking problem and this took a serious toll on his career, which spiraled downwards.
The last two books of his career; ‘Brendan Behan’s Island’ and ‘Brendan Behan’s New York’ were published in 1962 and 1964, in turn. ‘Confessions of an Irish Rebel’, ‘The Scarperer’ and ‘After the Wake: Twenty-One Prose Works including Previously Unpublished Material’, were published posthumously.
‘The Quare Fellow’, produced in 1954, was his first play set in Mountjoy Prison, Dublin. It was a critical success and premiered at a number of theaters around Europe, running for six weeks. It also debuted at the Circle in the Square Theater in New York in 1958.
‘Borstal Boy’, an autobiographical book, published in 1958, enjoyed immense success. The work recounts his experiences at Borstal as a boy. Later, it was also adapted by Frank McMahon and was staged in the Abbey Theatre in Dublin. A film adaptation, ‘Borstal Boy’ by Peter Sheridan was also made in 2000.
Personal Life & Legacy
He married Beatrice Salkeld in 1955 and they had a daughter, Blanaid.
He struggled with alcohol all his life, which led him to suffer from uncontrollable diabetes and a number of seizures. In March 1964, he collapsed at the Harbour Lights bar and died at Meath Hospital, aged 41.
Many of his works have been mentioned time and again in popular culture. He has been mentioned in songs by ‘The Pogues’ such as, ‘Thousands Are Sailing’ and ‘Sea Shanty’. A pub named after Behan is also located in an Irish locality in Boston.
He is also a popular subject of the famous Irish painter, Brian Whelan. A number of books have been written on his life including, ‘Brendan Behan’, ‘My Brother Brendan’ and ‘My Life with Brendan’.
This famous Irish writer and playwright’s favorite drink was a combination of champagne and sherry, which he would always have in excess. This affected his health, which in turn, took his life.