A new TV documentary on Brendan Behan attempts to separate the man from the myth, writes Richard Fitzpatrick
THE big influence on Brendan Behan was his grandmother, Christine English. A formidable woman, Behan’s mother was beholden to her for money while his father was in prison, and she convinced the young Brendan he could be somebody.
Not that his family didn’t already have some claims to fame. His uncle, Peader Kearney, had written the lyrics to ‘Amhrán na bhFiann’; another uncle ran the Queen’s Theatre.
“There was a big thing in the Behan family of achieving and wanting to be something special,” says Adrian Dunbar, the presenter of a new RTÉ television documentary on Behan. “There was a big drive in the family, even though it was poor and working class, to do something important, to contribute something to Irish culture. He certainly achieved that in a spectacular way. The day he went back on the drink in New York made the front pages of newspapers on both sides of the Atlantic.
“They used to call his grandmother the ‘Empress of Russell Street’, because she owned a couple of tenement houses there. As we know from the publication of the census, you could have 100 people living in one house. Brendan talks about tenants coming up to her bedroom to pay her rent, like peasants coming up to pay the tithe, and she’d be sitting in the bed, with his Uncle Paddy in the bed beside her with his flat cap on his head. She was a very powerful figure in the local area.”
She also doted on her young grandson. “At the age of seven, she used to get him up on a pub table and ask him to recite Robert Emmet’s speech from the dock,” says Dunbar. “Part of his payment was that she would allow him to have a bit of a drink with her.
“It’s not that she turned Brendan into an alcoholic — somebody has to be born an alcoholic — but she certainly precipitated his drinking. As Jim Sheridan says quite wisely in the documentary, the fact he took so readily to drink shows he might have wanted to escape into this other world, where he was less shy and intimidated by life.”
Why a teenage Behan tried to kill two garda detectives on behalf of the IRA might be explained by his relationship with his father, and a burning rage towards authority figures. For the attempted murders, Behan was incarcerated for a second time, following time already spent in an English borstal for another IRA errand: trying to blow up Liverpool docks.
In the documentary, Dunbar teases out Behan’s republicanism, the shyness, the stammer and bisexuality. It includes contributions from the actress Cathy Burke and Behan’s old cohort, Irish-American novelist JP Dunleavy.
The first time The Ginger Man author met Behan they argued in a pub and went outside to have a fight, but when nobody followed them to watch, Behan said they might as well shake hands and they became pals. Dunbar says Behan’s most successful role was his own character — the boisterous drinker who verged on caricature.
“James Joyce was very smart about this. ‘You have to be very careful about people,’ he said, ‘and especially Dubliners, because they will turn you into a caricature of yourself.’ In the end, Brendan ended up drinking, and trying to live up to that image he created.
“Of course, that is true of a lot of people, whether they drink or not — celebrities or actors have an image they’ve created, and an image people like of them. Brendan was under pressure after a while to deliver that image.”
An enlightened borstal governor had encouraged Behan’s writing, and short-story author Seán Ó Faoláin championed him while Behan was in prison in the Curragh during the Second World War. Behan’s relationship with the pioneering theatre director Joan Littlewood shot him to prominence when she staged his play, The Quare Fellow, at London’s Theatre Royal in 1956. It’s argued in the documentary that the play, which was ground-breaking and anti-hanging, was the making of Littlewood’s theatre company.
Britain’s theatre set loved Behan — this wild, witty, working class hero in their midst.
The love was largely reciprocated. In a television interview with an English broadcaster, who marvelled that Behan could go into the West End to one of his own plays and “take over from the buskers outside”, Behan, chuckling, put the odd love affair in context: “In my case, as you might say, the Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath. In the same way, the West End was made for me, not me for the West End.”
Fame was undoubtedly of no use in Behan’s battle with alcoholism. When he hit the United States in 1960, the literary establishment lionised him. Champagne and money flowed his way.
At one stage, he was getting $3,000 a week to compere a jazz-singing contest in New York (a young Nina Simone participated). In Los Angeles, he cavorted with Montgomery Clift and James Dean. New York, where he repeatedly returned, had a mixed response. Novelist Norman Mailer — who had earlier said that Behan made him, Allen Ginsberg, Jack Kerouac and the beatniks down in Greenwich Village respectable uptown — said of his boorishness that he was the kind of guy that would “suck the life out of anybody he was around”.
Behan died in 1964. One of the myths Dunbar explodes is that Behan was only a drunkard who effortlessly churned out some early, landmark works. He worked hard at his writing and witticisms. He got off the drink at times and put his head down for long stretches, like a diligent academic.
One of Dunbar’s favourite Behan yarns is an episode from the writer’s time living in France. “Himself and a few fellows in Paris decided to get a car and go to Spain in the 1950s, when it was a closed-off, fascist country. Franco was the dictator there.
“By the time they got down to the border with Spain, they all had a few drinks on them. They rolled up to the border checkpoint, and the border guard came over and established that Brendan was speaking English, and asked him, ‘Can you tell me the reason for your visit?’
“Brendan said: ‘We’re here for General Franco’s funeral.’ The border guard said, ‘But the Generalísimo isn’t dead.’ And Brendan said, ‘Ah, you’re alright — we’ll wait.’ Needless to say, they didn’t get into Spain.”
© Irish Examiner Ltd. All rights reserved