Renowned playwright and raconteur Brendan Behan died prematurely 50 years ago, aged only 41. He is being commemorated in Ireland by stamps which bear his prophetic utterance “there is no such thing as bad publicity except your own obituary.” Yet despite the evidence to the contrary the Irish Tourist Board and others perpetuates the myth that literary creativity and alcohol go together, sadly the opposite is the case and we can only imagine what greater work Brendan Behan would have produced if he had lived 20/25 years longer. Behan described himself as “a drinker with a writing problem” and claiming “I only drink on two occasions—when I’m thirsty and when I’m not” and he developed diabetes in the early 1960s. As his fame grew, so too did his alcohol consumption. This combination resulted in a series of famously drunken public appearances, on both stage and television.
Behan was one of the many people whose life has been shortened and creativity stunted by alcohol, an alcoholism which also had dreadful effect on family and friends and for which there has been far too much toleration and ambiguity in Ireland. When I was an Irish Civil Servant there were a number of colleagues who were alcoholics simply because they could be, there was toleration and lack of intervention. The poignancy of his early death is illustrated by the commemorative stamp in his honour launched by his daughter Blanaid Walker who was only four months old when her father died. Ms Walker was joined by her husband Matthew and her 13-year-old son Rupert for the unveiling at the GPO. She told this newspaper that her father would be “amused and honoured” that he has been remembered in such a way.
“I think it’s a fitting tribute to his talent and to his short life. If he had lived for another 20 years, who knows the fantastic work he could have achieved?” Behan first came to prominence with his play ‘The Quare Fellow’ and later achieved success with his autobiography ‘Borstal Boy’. His daughter Blanaid grew up on Anglesea Road, Dublin, and left Ireland at the age of 21. “I was only a baby when he died, but I was very aware of him growing up. He was still a well-known figure, whereas now he’s more a historical figure,” Ms Walker said.
Born in Dublin in 1923, Brendan Behan spent his youth painting houses, writing poetry and attempting to blow up the Liverpool docks. A known member of the IRA since his teenage years, he spent his early 20s behind bars. Upon release, and after a short stint in Paris, he began writing full time. Behan’s breakthrough came with his play The Quare Fellow, which arrived in London in 1956. In this review dated 27 May, Kenneth Tynan of the Observer proclaimed that the playwright was fulfilling the Irish duty to “save the English theatre from inarticulate glumness”; and that the play was a “supreme dramatic achievement.”
The attention that accompanied the play’s success shone light on another aspect of Behan’s character, one that would come to define him almost as much as his work. An infamous drunken Panorama interview with Malcolm Muggeridge led to the Guardian’s Radio critic noting Behan’s inability to say anything intelligible. Behan’s formative years behind bars provided inspiration for his best known work. Borstal Boy, published in 1958.
Yet alongside the critical acclaim, there is evidence that Behan’s notorious wild lifestyle, fuelled by his insatiable appetite for drink, was slowly getting the better of him. His death on 20 March 1964 after months of ill health made the front page of the Guardian. In his obituary, Brian Inglis described him as a “decent man” and exceptional raconteur, for whom gregariousness and drink were an escape.
Brendan Behan and Patrick Kavanagh were well known fixtures in these same Dublin Pubs the Tourist Board wrongly credits with our literary genius but had a serious falling out. Indeed my father once met Kavanagh but in truth it was not too difficult to meet him as he was always being “introduced” in pubs if you looked like you might buy him a drink.
Patrick Kavanagh did not take kindly to literary rivals and as the star of Brendan Behan began to rise, the relationship between the two writers degenerated into unforgiving hatred, particularly on Kavanagh’s part. For a time, Behan had everything that Kavanagh craved: literary success, money, international fame and women fawning over him. Kavanagh, who considered himself the superior talent, was not amused. Behan, considering himself to be a city slicker, dismissed country people as “culchies”. As far as he was concerned, the sooner “the fu#ker from Mucker” returned to his “stony grey Monaghan hills” the better. Kavanagh, weary of the obvious rhyme since childhood, was not amused. (Mucker means “place of the pigs”). Kavanagh retaliated by refusing to stand for the National Anthem, because, he said, it was written by “Behan’s oul granny”! (It was in fact written by Behan’s uncle Peadar Kearney).
When the two first met, they had been on friendly-enough terms and Behan, a painter by trade, volunteered to decorate Kavanagh’s Pembroke Road apartment. Later, Behan would joke that it was the only flat in Dublin, ankle deep in empty soup tins, old newspapers, beer and whiskey bottles, that you had to wipe your feet after leaving!
The story of Kavanagh’s life and his feud with Behan is told here: On Raglan Road
Brendan Francis Behan, Irish: Breandán Ó Beacháin; 9 February 1923 – 20 March 1964
Today, powered by its readers and contributors, from its cyber eyries in Ireland and the centres of the Irish Diaspora The Eagle casts its Cold Eye on Life and Death and much in between.