In Defence of Brendan Behan

Who Killed Brendan Behan?

by Feicreanach (C. Desmond Greaves)

Irish Democrat, May 1964.

Listen first to Rene McColl of the “Daily Express”:

“I mourn the death of my friend Brendan Behan… If ever a man did himself in as surely as though he picked up a revolver and blew his brains out, it was Brendan.”

The explanation? He was “enslaved by the alcohol that has now killed him,” and suffered from “what seemed to amount to a compulsive death wish.” So he “committed hari kari the liquid way.”

Around the obituary written by his mourning friend the art staff had grouped pictures of Behan in various stages of intoxication.

It is as well therefore to pay attention to the medical report. Leaving aside for the moment who killed Behan, what killed him were jaundice and diabetes.

Diabetes is one of the most dreadful burdens a man can carry. Owing to the degeneration of certain special cells in the pancreas, the sufferer cannot digest sugar. Consequently energy foods do him no good. He grows so weak that he passes out unless constantly injected with insulin (taken from the pancreas of an animal) and if he takes too much of that he passes into a coma. There is no relaxation for such people; they must always be watching themselves. And one of the symptoms can be an overpowering desire to eat, or to drink – the body is craving the sugar that it cannot digest.

So when we talk of hari kari, let us think for a moment of the medical report. And there may be those who will ask further, where did Brendan get diabetes, where did the degenerative changes begin that placed his health on this constant needle-edge of jeopardy? They may be tempted to answer – in a British jail.


The Irish literary movement began in earnest in the ‘eighties with the aristocracy and upper middle class, and drew its most typical representatives successively from the bourgeoisie, the white-collared workers and the proletariat, as the centre of gravity of the national struggle moved from Parnellian Home Rule to the I.R.B. and Connolly Socialism.

Behan was its latest, and probably last, child, for things will now presumably take another course. He was steeped in the literary tradition. His uncle Peadar Kearney composed the national anthem, “A soldier’s song,” which appeared in the separatist journals early this century. He belonged to the popular ballad tradition which long preceded but was temporarily outshone by the sophisticated brilliancies of Yeats and his well-off friends.

Another uncle, P.J. Bourke, ran the Queen’s theatre, which was in roughly the same relationship to the Abbey as the songsters of the O’Sullivans’ Irish Nation were to Yeats and Russell. He staged old Irish melodramas for a largely working-class audience, which nearly always included Behan’s parents. And in this working-class family there was much of that independent cultural tradition which brought into Dublin as no other city something of the natural life of the countryside.

But what must be remembered, and it is something forgotten or ignored in the psycho-analytical ingenuities of Yeats and Joyce exegetists, is that the history of the literary movement was part and parcel of the history of the national movement. The skill of Yeats did not diminish when the terrible beauty was born, but his primacy in the literary movement did. In the days of war the compromiser found no place. And then in the days of civil war the clear trumpet calls of the ballad-writers in turn sounded false. The flickering, questing, unsatisfied humanism of O’Casey, pessimistic, offering no easy way out, served the purpose of liberating an age suffering the confusion of defeat from its dogmatic consciousness of itself. Thus O’Casey freed the mind and left the body where it was.


Throughout O’Casey’s work, from the time that in his “History of the Citizen Army,” he condemned Connolly’s stand in 1916 as a betrayal of socialist principles, is the conception that the national struggle leads only into a blind alley of hatred and division.

The events that formed his outlook were the Home Rule Party’s betrayal of national unity and its alignment with the employers in 1913; the Sinn Fein attitude to the working class summarised in De Valera’s curt “Labour must wait”; and the tragic events of 1922 when, at the behest of a British politician, Irishmen drew swords on their brothers for continuing to claim what they themselves had claimed before.

For all O’Casey’s artistic genius it seems to this writer that his was the wrong political conclusion. It was not that Connolly was wrong in going right in to give working-class leadership to a national revolution. It was that the respectable trade unionists, above all the Belfast men who supported the imperialist war, were wrong in not supporting him. The working class through Connolly claimed its position. Through Tom Johnson, himself likewise a man of great personal integrity, it relinquished it. And all the rest followed. Labour had to wait, because it had voluntarily gone outside the door where the decisions were being made.

It would not be exaggerated to say that in O’Casey is seen the outlook of the “Labour Left” of 1922-27. But there was also a Republican left. Its foremost representatives were Mellows and Peadar O’Donnell. These wanted Labour to take back the position claimed by Connolly and relinquished by Johnson. Whereas some, for instance that fine patriot Sean Russell, tried so to speak to remain in 1922 and re-enact the last scene of the tragedy nearer to the heart’s desire, which meant merely fighting harder with more men and better organisation, there were others who tried to reconstruct the front Connolly and Pearse built up in 1916.

Within the Republican movement these trends continued over the years, the left steadily gaining influence until the ill-fated year of 1934 when the left Republicans felt they must choose between the friendship of the Republican right and that of the Labour movement, whence the short-lived Republican Congress.

It was just before the split, in the crisis year of 1932, that Brendan Behan, then a chirpy little boy of ten, joined the Republican youth movement, Na Fianna Eireann.

The hero of the Fianna was its first organiser, Liam Mellows.


In these early years, according to one of the leaders of the Fianna, Seamus G. O’Kelly, Brendan Behan began to write.

Writing was part of his political life as a Republican. The Fianna published a monthly magazine to which Behan contributed regularly from the age of twelve. At this time he so impressed his teachers at the school run by the French Sisters in North William Street, that they told his mother, “You are rearing a genius.”

These were days of heavy unemployment in Dublin, not perhaps involving the mass poverty of 1913, but something less universal and harder felt by those who suffered it. They were days of tension. De Valera came to power in 1932 and the opposition were not long organising a right-wing physical force organisation for toppling him over. These eventually became notorious as the blue-shirt organisation of General O’Duffy. It must be said definitely, since it is not appreciated in Britain, that the Irish Republican Army, whether it was a question of the left wing who wanted the working-class alliance, or the right wing who wanted more effective military organisation, was unanimously anti-fascist. Perhaps if fascism had not been so quickly defeated in Ireland its opponents would have thought longer before dividing among themselves. That is for future historians to argue out.

What must be understood is that political tensions give rise to personal tensions. The strain of a social dilemma on young people who naturally want a quick solution explains the sudden shifts of allegiance which appeared, the turnover of personnel, and the recriminations which followed.

O’Kelly states that the first time Behan was found guilty of taking too much drink was just before he left the Fianna. Its strict romantic discipline and vague social aspirations were insufficient for him now. He joined the seemingly manlier I.R.A. where he could “do something for Ireland” now. His future biographer may seek a connection.


In the I.R.A. Behan acted as messenger for the Chief of Staff, Sean Russell. Even after the withdrawal of some of its best members, including Frank Ryan, when the Republican Congress was formed, there still remained a substantial “left” in the I.R.A. It was impossible for it to be otherwise. The intertwining of the national and working-class struggle is the essence of the politics of modern Ireland. By the same token there were always in the Labour movement, even among Belfast Protestants, those who stood for the precedence of the struggle for national independence, so confidently proclaimed by Connolly.

In 1939 the I.R.A. announced its intention of carrying the war against British imperialism into British territory with a campaign of violent destruction, first of military and strategic objectives, later of non-military property.

It is widely believed among republicans today that this campaign was ill-conceived and did more harm than good. But it is necessary to understand that those who took part in it were Irish patriots who believed that what they were doing would help to free Ireland from British imperialism.

Among them some of the most educated and sensitive spirits in Ireland, to whom violence in any other cause would be anathema. The howl of fury in the British Press came not from a sense of the unprovokedness of the attack, but from a guilty conscience.

The picture of Brendan Behan who came over to Liverpool at the end of 1939 with a suitcase of explosives is of a lively, irrepressible youngster of sixteen, whose mercurial impressionable manner concealed a real depth of purpose. Impressionable would be the word. In “Borstal Boy” he gives a fine picture of the Belfast Republican whose self-discipline was perfect and who held himself apart from all the distractions of life in an English jail till he was ready to go home and resume the struggle. Behan was not like this. Companionship he craved above all else. His writing is a dazzling mirror of the world; and he, like a mirror, was only alive through facing it. He was roughly manhandled in Liverpool jail, threatened by fellow-prisoners whose own peccadilloes were as nothing in comparison with an Irishman’s patriotism, but in time he became popular through sheer rumbustiousness of personality, and a dash of physical courage whose connection with its opposite he analysed with sharp insight.


On his release in 1942 he returned home and immediately resumed his Republican activities.

Lest any think this is a small matter it should be said that there were many who did not. The life of one Borstal institution where he had spent the intervening years is of course not to be compared with that of a prison. The grey, sadistic monotony and senselessness of the British prison system has been frequently exposed, but it goes on. If a man does ten years for his political beliefs and comes out to resume the struggle, then he is a hero. Some do it. More do not. What Behan did is not to sneezed at – especially when one recalls that the twenty-six counties during “the Emergency” as it was called was not a very safe place for militant republicans.

Within a week of his release he was working once more for the I.R.A. and owing to a misunderstanding pulled a revolver on a policeman.

He was sentenced to fifteen years’ penal servitude, and indeed, he stated recently that he would probably have suffered the death sentence but for the influence of his father with Oscar Traynor, then Minister for Justice.

He remained in prison until the amnesty of 1945.

Again he took up his work for the I.R.A. In 1947 he was engaged on a delicate mission in the North of England and was captured after a brief struggle in Manchester and sentenced to three months.

On his return he worked at his trade of house-painter for a while and then began the task of transferring to paper some of the varied experiences of fifteen years.


Behan began to write seriously while held in Mountjoy, Arbour Hill and the Curragh. Characteristically, what became his first play was written as a service to the Republican movement.

O’Kelly recalls that it was written in two nights for a Barnes and McCormack memorial concert held on February 23rd, 1947. The effect of the execution of these men on Behan when he was in prison in Liverpool is told touchingly in “Borstal Boy”. He knew they were innocent, for he knew that those who had caused the explosion were safe back in Ireland. They died because they refused to give up their Republican status as prisoners-of-war, for which while we may regret their unyielding dogmatism, we must admire their courage. The new play by an unknown author did not attract a good audience in the arctic winter of 1947, but it seems to have confirmed Behan’s faith in himself as a writer.

But what was the task before the Irish writer? What were his duties? Where did the vocation lead?

In the early hours of the century when “Cathleen na Houlihan had the march of a queen” there was little problem. Here was Ireland, there was British imperialism, and the sooner the one got to grips with the other the better.

Now all had changed. England had not imposed on Ireland her culture – yet- but she was increasingly imposing her great lie, the lie that Ireland was freed by the alleged settlement of 1922, and that all the disappointments of her people were in the nature of any national revolution that could lead only to disappointment.

A regular school of self-denigration was beginning to emerge in Ireland.

Behan never joined it.

His next play was written in Irish.

Behan was not only a fine prose-writer but a fine poet in Irish. His fondness for Dublin slum-boy’s wit notwithstanding, he never offered insults to things that matter.

Among the things that mattered to him was the Irish language, and in this he was a true son of the Republican movement.

But how many people would attend a play in Irish? How many knew it well enough to read it in the language?

Enough to keep the playwright’s breeches whole in the rear and buy him a pint of porter?

Hardly. Here was the dilemma of so many unestablished Irish writers. The language might be healthy enough to support writers on the basis of the old economics of the nineteenth century, with cheap paper and cheap printing. Today editions must be large. Performances must be many. This was the day of the gramophone, radio, television and art was as mass-produced as anything else.

Not only was an Irish writer dependent for his living on the English-speakers in Ireland. He was dependent on the British market.

Behan translated his play and called it “The Quare Fellow.”

The Abbey rejected it. It was first played at the small Pike Theatre in Baggot Street and about 2,000 people saw it over a few weeks.

Then the manuscript was sent to Joan Littlewood at Stratford.


The “Daily Telegraph” wrote: –

“There will always be a certain amount of doubt about how much Brendan Behan’s play masterpiece ‘The Quare Fellow’ owes to Joan Littlewood… it took her some months to knock it into shape for the stage.”

But it had been on the stage in Dublin.

Of his second play, ‘The Hostage,’ the “Manchester Guardian” wrote in the same vein: –

“The second play, ‘The Hostage’ began as a commissioned work in Irish for the small theatre run by a Gaelic organisation at the Damer Hall, Dublin. Altered, adapted and dressed for the table by Joan Littlewood, it went on at Stratford and appeared to be just what the jaded palate of the London critics was waiting for.”

Miss Littlewood had been unstinting in her recognition of Behan’s literary genius so that no belittlement of either of them should be read into these lines.

But here is apparent the unhappy fact. What was suitable to a Dublin audience was not suitable to a London one. Dare we say that the drama of Irish low life had to be transmogrified into the “protest against capital punishment” and the subtle not-quite-satire of Irish humour turned into something comprehensible to the Cockney middle-class?

How else, and from what else can the same “Guardian” write: “Then as a playwright, the short cuts began to show – the interruption of a song-and-dance routine, the corny joke. He defended them as being in the music-ball tradition, but too often they were the easy way out of a situation he had become bored with.”

He had to produce English box-office.

And like George Bernard Shaw, who knew that business far longer than Behan, he knew that a certain proportion of barbed seriousness would go down. Like Shaw also, he must stand over the proportionation of entertainer to educator.

Here was a dilemma. Here was the underlying frustration of all Irish writers compelled to appeal to an alien audience as well as their own. Like Shaw he “remained an Irishman” even at the expense of having to play Behan.


Another thing Behan thought mattered was Socialism. In “Borstal Boy” that remarkable personal document of the exotic world of early youth, he recalls his “speech from the dock” in which he declared not only for Irish Independence but for a “Workers’ Republic.”

This was Connolly’s phrase for Socialism. The issue which had split the Republican Congress in 1936 had been “The Republic” or the “Workers’ Republic”, and there is little doubt that on balance those who advocated the first were more correct. Certainly they were in better accord with Connolly who defined two “stages of freedom”. But Behan had the thoroughgoing spirit of youth, and raised his two flags at once.

Years afterwards workers on strike could always get a few pounds for their funds, and he contributed financially to the support of many good causes, both Socialist and Republican.

Asked on television whether he was a Communist he declined to answer – not because he necessarily was one, but because like the late Pope John he believed a man could co-operate with anybody in any cause that was “just and dignified” and because he hated the witch-hunt mentality which would have every mother’s son of us stuck in a strait pigeon-hole.

His sense of the fullness of life and complexity of human nature forbade the prison-like regimentation of which he had seen too much.


But of all the things Behan thought mattered the most important was the united Irish Republic.

Although when he began to concentrate on his writing he ceased to take an active part in the Republican movement, he never budged in his opinions.

When in London he would occasionally come to Hyde Park on a Sunday afternoon and listen to the Connolly Association meetings. On one occasion his invective silenced a group of Queen’s University students and then his arguments sent them away with their tails between their legs.

His insight was such that he realised that the main centre of struggle for a United Ireland must be the six counties. That was the place where British Imperialism stood condemned for the world to see.

Holding these views it was not surprising that he was frequently out of sympathy with the fashionable cult of “anti-national” brainwashing,” and despised the weak sycophantic mouthings of writers overawed by the omnipotence of British monopoly finance. But he would show enthusiasm at any vigorous defence of Republicanism in any field.

Where was this to be found? Where was the reflection of his own views? In the crowded streets of Dublin where he was brought up. As the necessities of the writers’ craft took him away, so his heart pulled him the more. Hence the increasing irregularity of his life. Flights to Paris and New York, sometimes with a seeming touch of false showmanship – and taxi-tours of the Dublin saloons drinking with the ordinary people who adored him for being a character.

Somebody will write a biography of Behan, and assess his works later when they have stood a longer test of time. By then his wit, charm and extravagance will have passed into legend.

Some of the things he said of himself give a clue to the deeper springs of his personality. He was not, he said, the psycho-analyst but the patient. Cure him and you took his living away.

And so finally we come to the question of who killed Brendan Behan? It was the false hypocritical society we live in, in which a promising writer can only develop himself at the cost of constant self-immolation, which so isolates his working life from the people that he must crash back to them in the conviviality that brings together without uniting, a society where the culture of a small nation lies so at the mercy of the commerce of a large neighbour that both sides are poisoned by the guilt of the unnatural relationship.

Whether Brendan Behan’s writing will live long it is too early to say. They will surely survive as a document of these very curious days, and perhaps serve as a challenge to young writers to find a way of combining the critical realism of Brendan Behan with the scientific optimism of Wolfe Tone.