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This essay looks at three of Brendan Behan’s main works which most critics agree are his best. These three main works are; ‘The Quare Fellow‘ (1954), ‘The Hostage’ (1958) and ‘Borstal Boy‘ (1958).The essay begins with a brief biography of Behan’s life and reveals some of the reasons how his younger years influenced his later works. The essay also gives a brief synopsis of these three works and explores some of the re-occurring themes within these works. It finally examines some of the ways that he has shaped and influenced the Irish national identity.
Brendan Behan was born in Dublin on 9 February 1923 into an educated Dublin working class family. He grew up in Dublin’s north inner city near Mountjoy Square. Both his parents had a big influence on the literature that he would later come to write. Behan’s father, Stephen, had been active in the Irish War of Independence; his mother Kathleen remained politically active for all life and his uncle Peadar Kearney composed the Irish national anthem ‘The Soldier’s Song‘(Amhrán na bhFiann). When Brendan was a child his father would often read classic literature to the children at bedtime and his mother would take them on walks around the city pointing out different houses of noted Irish literary figures, while also showing them where the city’s revolutionaries had been born or executed.Â When Brendan was a child he would read anything he could find and even at the age of six the head nun in his primary school had informed his mother Kathleen that ‘she was rearing a genius’ (O’ Connor, 1970 p.20). Despite his obvious ability at school he decided at the age of 14 to leave and follow his father’s trade as a painter.
Soon after leaving school Brendan joined ‘Fianna Éireann’, the youth organisation of the IRA. In 1939, at the age of 16, he went on a bombing mission to England but he was arrested and found to be in possession of explosives. He was sentenced to three years in a borstal institution in England but returned to Ireland in 1941. The following year he was imprisoned in Ireland and released as part of a general amnesty in 1946. He wrote about these years in his autobiography novel ‘Borstal Boy’. Upon his release he moved between Dublin, Kerry and Connemara, and spent some time in Paris, where he wrote in both Irish and English. Behan produced his first play ‘The Quare Fellow‘ in 1954 in Dublin. The following year he married Beatrice Ffrench-Salkeld. In 1958 Behan wrote his second play ‘An Giall‘ which was written in the Irish language and performed in the Dublin. That same year ‘The Hostage’, which was Behan’s English language version of ‘An Giall’, met with great international success following Joan Littlewood’s production of it in London. Also in 1958 ‘Borstal Boy‘ was published and it became an immediate best seller. Behan’s international success, along with the financial rewards, brought about an increase in his drinking problems. After years of heavy drinking he had developed diabetes and it was due to this that he died, aged 41, on 20 March 1964 (O’Connor, 1970).
This part of the essay shall examine, and give a brief synopsis of, Behan’s three main works; ‘The Quare Fellow‘ (1954), ‘The Hostage’ (1958) and ‘Borstal Boy‘ (1958). His first play ‘The Quare Fellow‘ is set in a Dublin prison on the eve of the execution of the ‘quare fellow’, a colloquial term for someone on death sentence. One of the condemned prisoners, who has murdered his wife, has been recently pardoned; while the other prisoner, the ‘quare fellow’ who has murdered his brother, has not. Although the ‘quare fellow’ is the centrepiece of the play, it is not about him and he never appears or utters any words. There is no question of his guilt and he is not a likeable figure. The only sympathy for him is that he is going to be executed the following day. The play does not explore the effect of the execution on the ‘quare fellow’ but looks at the effect on the prisoners, wardens and the hangman himself. The hero in the play is ‘Warden Regan’ who is a devoted Catholic while also being a humanist. Although he accepts the system of the Church and Society, the humanity in him can see the hypocrisy in this system. The play ends the following morning with the ‘quare fellow’ being executed. The play is based on Behan’s own experiences in Mountjoy prison, and it questions the right of any society to inflict or carry out the barbarous act of capital punishment which was still then in use in Ireland. It also attacks some of the false piety in attitudes in 1950s Ireland to sex, politics and religion (Russell,)
The second play Behan wrote was ‘An Gaill‘ which was later translated into English and called ‘The Hostage‘ (1958). The play is set in Dublin guesthouse-cum-brothel during the late 1950s. It portrays the capturing and detention of a young Cockney British soldier by the IRA in response to the planned execution, by the British, of an IRA volunteer in Belfast. The 19 year old British soldier has been kidnapped as he is leaving an Armagh Dance Hall. The IRA declares that it will shoot the hostage ‘Leslie Williams’, if their ‘Belfast Boy’ is executed at Belfast Gaol the following morning. ‘Private Williams’ is imprisoned in a lower class Dublin guesthouse-cum-brothel owned by a fanatical Gael. During the course of the play ‘Leslie’ falls in love with the young Irish convent girl, Theresa, and she also falls for him. They have both grown up in similar backgrounds, both are orphans who now find themselves in a city that they are foreign to, and neither of them cares much for any wars or battles that have been fought between Britain and Ireland in the past or the present. The play is made up of a variety of characters such as fallen rebel heroes, homosexual navvies, pimps and whores, convent girls and deteriorating civil servants who are loyal to the nationalist cause. ‘Private Williams’ is entertained by them with jigs and reels, rock ‘n’ roll dancing, rebel songs and tales about Ireland’s glorious past, and all the time the IRA guards await for news from Belfast.
It is eventually only by accident that he discovers that he is the hostage and will be executed if the IRA volunteer in Belfast is hung. Towards the end of the play the manager of the place understands the futility of continuing the ‘Old fight’ but feels powerless to intervene. At the end of the play the news arrives that the IRA volunteer has been hanged and in the ensuing armed Gardaí raid on the brothel the hostage is accidently shot and killed. At the finale of the English version of the play the corpse of the dead hostage rises up and sings “The bells of hell/ Go ting-a-ling-a-ling”.
Also in 1958 Behan released his autobiographical novel ‘Borstal Boy’. The book is based on the three years that he spent in Hollesley Bay Borstal in Suffolk, England, after being caught with explosives in Liverpool. It is a vivid memoir of the years that being spent there. Story depicts a young Behan, full of Republican fervour and idealism, softening his radicalism and warming to his fellow British inmates and the wardens known as ‘screws’. The story is not a venomous attack on Britain but instead it portrays Behan’s move away from radicalism and violence. The dialogue in the book captures the lively interactions amongst the Borstal inmates along with all their various distinctive accents from around the British Isles. As the story develops Behan skilfully demonstrates that due to their working class, whether they are Irish Catholic or English Protestant, they share a lot more in common than they had realised. Behan realises that any supposed barriers of religion and ethnicity are just superficial and are beliefs that have been imposed on him by an anxious middle class. Ultimately he emerges as a young man who is realistic and recognises the truth that violence, especially political violence, is futile. The image at end of the novel is of a young working class man, who has been stunted by crime and prison, coming right and growing into being an independent thinker, writer and playwright (Kearney, 1970).
In the three works of Behan’s that have been looked at in this essay there are a number of re-occurring themes to be found within them. The stories are written from a working class perspective with socialist leanings. In these works Behan writes in his own voice and this is most obvious in the language used in the ‘Borstal Boy‘. In this book Behan uses an engaging style of writing and incorporates the use of phonetic spelling in an interesting and creative way for an authentic effect. The narrative flow is sometimes condensed and other times heavily unhurried. All these works are based around some form of imprisonment and they are critical of both church and state, religion and the power of authority. In the ‘Quare Fellow‘ we see ‘Warden Regan’ questioning his society and battling with his conscience over the execution of even a guilty man. The theme of execution is also present in ‘The Hostage’ with both ‘Private Williams’ and the IRA volunteer awaiting possible execution. In ‘The Hostage’ the principal theme is of a young innocents being set against those with political motivations and ambitions. ‘The Hostage‘ questions the futility of patriotic fervour and political violence (Jeffs,1966)Â and this theme is also found in the ‘Borstal Boy‘ which was based on Behan’s own experiences.
Both ‘The Hostage‘ and ‘Borstal Boy‘ examining the Anglo-Irish relationship exploring the fact that there is very little difference between working class Irish Catholics or working class English Protestants. In Behan’s two plays he somewhat questions the Irish identity itself and the new young Irish Free State. The plays look at this new Free State and exposes that it is carrying on the same practices of their old governing colonial power. For ‘a Republican like Behan it must have seemed brutally ironic that the official hangman for the Irish Free State was often an imported Englishman’ (Kiberd, 1989, p.336). In ‘The Quare Fellow’, Behan has the lags Dunlavin put it as “the Free State didn’t change anything more than the badges in the warder’s caps”. The same olds class prejudices, which were imported from England, are still present and have not been rejected in the new Irish state. The Dublin Gaeilgeoir in the play represents this lack of change (Kiberd, 1989). John Brannigan, the author of the Behan biography Brendan Behan, Cultural Nationalism and the Revisionist Writer, questions some of the stereotypes that hang around the figure of Behan. He situates Behan amidst a generation of Irish writers in the mid-20th century Ireland having to deal with the dull, even gloomy aftermath of the previous, more heroic, age of Irish 20th century history. The promise of the earlier decades of the 20th century was not delivered and their age was of disappointment and anti-climax (Brannigan, 2002).
Unfortunately, the success that Behan received for his writing only increased his drinking problem and he played into the ‘drunken Irishman’ caricature. After translating his work ‘An Gaill‘ into English he allowed Joan Littlewood’s production of ‘The Hostage‘ to compromise and dilute the realism of the original Irish version by giving it interludes of music-hall singing and dancing (O’Connor, 1970). At the end of ‘The Hostage‘, when it finishes with the dead British soldier’s corpse rising up and singing “The bells of hell/ Go ting-a-ling-a-ling”, we are left wondering not only about Behan’s politics but also about his literary integrity. After the ‘Borstal Boy‘, Behan was unable to produce another classic. His later books like Brendan Behan’s Island and Brendan Behan’s New York could not be compared to his former works.
Whatever criticism there may be of Behan’s later works, it does not take away from what he has contributed to imagination of the Irish national identity. His work has been a significant influence to many writers and he has made his way into many Irish and international songs. “The Auld Triangle”, which is Behan’s prisoner song from ‘The Quare Fellow‘, has become something of an Irish folk standard and has been recorded on numerous occasions by groups such as The Dubliners and also The Pogues. Both of his plays, as well as the ‘Borstal Boy‘ which was first made into a play in 1967, have still remained popular with Irish audiences (Murphy, 2014) and ‘Borstal Boy‘ was also made into a film in 2000.
Word Count: 2100
Brannigan, J., (2002) Brendan Behan, Cultural Nationalism and the Revisionist Writer. Dublin, Four Courts Press.
Jeffs, R., (1966) Brendan Behan: Man and Showman. London, Hutchinson & Co.
Kearney, C.,(1976) ‘Borstal Boy: A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Prisoner,’ Ariel. VII (April, 1976), pp. 47-62.
Kiberd, D., (1989) ‘Irish literature and of Irish history’. In: Foster, R.F., (1989) (ed.) The Oxford Illustrated History of Ireland. Oxford, Oxford University Press.
Murphy, C., (2014) ‘Brendan Behan the borstal boy, boozer and bomb-maker’, Irish Independent, 07 September.
O’Connor, U., (1970) Brendan Behan. London, Granada Publishing Ltd.
Russell, R.R., (2002) ‘Brendan Behan’s Lament for Gaelic Ireland: The Quare Fellow’. New Hibernia Review. 6 (1): pp. 73-93
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