He was a man admired and admonished. He represented an age and a culture that many could relate to, yet just as many wished to forget. To some he was the epitome of the rebel, born to the poverty of a Dublin slum, who rose to become an international literary figure. To others he was the opposite of all that was noble about the Irish.
In reality, he was a product of his environment, born in working class Dublin to Stephen and Kathleen Behan on Feb. 23,1923. His mother’s extensive repertoire of Irish ballads served him well in later years. At age 16, Irish Republican principles led him to participate in a bombing campaign in England. He was caught, tried, and sentenced to three years in Borstal detention. In jail, he became an avid reader, continuing the education he had quit at 14. Within two months of his release from jail, in April 1942, he shot at two policemen during an Easter Rising commemoration and found himself back on the road to incarceration – this time to Mountjoy for 14 years. In 1946, a general amnesty put him back on the streets of Dublin, but he was not the boy they had arrested six years earlier. His jail time had been filled with study; not only of the classics, Irish language, and poetry, but of his fellow inmates and their colorful pasts. He had also begun to take up writing seriously, and had contributed to such notable publications as Sean O’Faolain’s ‘The Bell.’
After another brief spell behind bars in 1948 for republican activities, Behan headed for Paris and artistic freedom. After two years of being published on a regular basis, he returned to Ireland. His first work after returning home was a dramatic masterpiece, ‘The Quare Fellow.’ An international success, he followed it with an even more successful work, `The Hostage’.
A tireless worker, during the 50s he wrote a weekly column for the `Irish Press’, appeared on radio shows and musical programs, published several short stories, wrote some superb poetry in the Irish language, completed two plays for radio, wrote a serialized novel for the `Irish Times’ and wrote his first major book, `The Borstal Boy’ which became an immediate international success; all the while he managed to keep busy with illegal smuggling activities.
He was now a well-known and loved character on the Dublin scene, entertaining listeners with songs, stories, and impersonations on his frequent all-night sojourns to the local pubs. His reputation preceded him wherever he went, and depending on the interpretation of that reputation, he was received accordingly. A cultured, yet simple man, international fame thrust him into a spotlight he may not have been ready to handle. He had created an image to live up to, and the success of his works on the major stages of England, Paris and America demanded his presence as a wild and boisterous Irish rogue. The audience did not know that he was a serious diabetic, nor did he let them know, for he was the Borstal Boy, and anything less would have damaged his pride, not to mention the box office appeal of his works which were playing to packed houses and rave reviews. By the time he reached America, `The Quare Fellow’ and `The Hostage’ were roaring successes, and his novel `Borstal Boy’ had sold 20,000 copies in New York in just two months. In spite of his literary successes, the New York Irish were less than enthused with this personification of what they considered to be the `Stage Irish’, appearing ‘drunk’ at the curtain call of his play at a major Broadway theater, and on prime time TV. Further, the New York press – never friendly to the Irish – wasted no time in lambasting him as a talented, but typical drunken Irish hooligan. More in reaction to the press that he was generating, than to his literary achievements, the New York St. Patrick’s Day parade refused him permission to march in their annual procession, saying that he did not represent the true Irish. He scorned their rebuff and headed for Boston, where he was denied again. He didn’t understand. The character he created was in demand on the stage and in books, but when that image appeared in the flesh, he was rebuked. It must have been a sad realization for a true Irish Republican son of Dublin to encounter such prejudice from people who weren’t even born in Ireland, yet claim to be the true defenders of Irish tradition. It certainly showed the distance that had grown between the now distinct cultures of Ireland and Irish America. Behan never acknowledged his hurt at the rebuff delivered by Irish American leaders; instead he made grand displays of gratitude to those who did appreciate him by hosting the cast of his plays and numerous friends to his legendary all-night parties. In the end, time is the only victor, and Brendan Behan died at the early age of 41 on March 20, 1964. Today he is acclaimed as one of Ireland’s premiere novelists, playwrights, and poets. His plays are part of the regular curriculum in many schools in Ireland, where they were once banned.