Brendan Behan 50 Years Gone Today


50 years ago today Ireland lost one if its great literary talents, when Brendan Behan died on the 20th of March 1964.

As a young boy, Behan was surrounded by Irish republicanism, as members if his family were involved in the republican movement of the time. At the time of his birth, his father was in prison for his actions during the uprising. His uncle Peadar Kearney was the author of Amhrán na bhFiann. As a teenager, Behan joined the Irish Republican Army’s youth wing, Fianna Éireann. Even at the young age of 14, he was published in the organisation’s magazine, with his poem “Reply of Young Boy to Pro-English verses”.

In 1939, while still a teenager, Behan travelled to Liverpool with the intention of setting explosives, but he was arrested before he could do any damage. As a result he was sentenced to spend three years in a borstal – which would later give him the title of his autobiography, Borstal Boy. During this period, his extreme allegiance to the republican movement seemed to quell, as he wrote:

“I’d sooner be with Charlie and Ginger and Browny in Borstal than with my own comrades and countrymen any place else. It seemed a bit disloyal to me, that I should prefer to be with boys from English cities than with my own countrymen and comrades from Ireland’s hills and glens.” (Borstal Boy, 1958)

Sentenced to 14 years in jail for the attempted murder of members of the Garda Síochána in 1942, Behan was released just four years later due to an amnesty for members of the IRA. During his internment, he had kept his mind active by learning Irish and by writing plays, poems and prose. While none of these went any further than national radio broadcast in Ireland, in 1954 his play The Quare Fellow was to be his biggest break yet. Heavily influenced by his days in prison, this play ran in theatres in England and Ireland for the next two years. By this time his drunken antics were renowned, and one infamous interview with the BBC raised his profile among the English population enough to make a West End run of The Quare Fellow a success.

As a legendary storyteller, who embodied the stereotype of the merrily-drunken Irish person with the gift of the gab, many myths surround the man. One such story revolves around a time that Guinness asked Behan to come up with a new slogan for their product. He agreed, but on the condition that they would furnish him with a crate of the black stuff. Upon arriving at his home the next day, they found a very drunken Behan with an empty crate, surrounded by scraps of paper. The slogan that Behan is said to have offered them was “Guinness makes you drunk!” Another tale claims that in 1954, he took advantage of the Marian Year by claiming to be an Irish pilgrim and hitch-hiking across France on the kindness of strangers.

He married Beatrice Salkeld in Donnybrook Church in 1955, and they had a child together eight years later. However, Behan’s addiction to drink – which had caused him to develop diabetes – was soon to be his downfall. In 1964, at the young age of 41, Brendan Behan collapsed and died.

Image: Brendan Behan with Jackie Gleason in Gleason’s dressing room at show Take me along, photo by Walter Albertin, 1960. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

By Aimée Mac Leod