Brendan Behan died 50 years ago this week, He was as famous for his drinking as for his undoubted talents, says Ryle Dwyer
KATHLEEN BEHAN used to tell the story of being given money by Michael Collins while she was pregnant with her son Brendan in 1922. Her brother, Peadar Kearney, was the author of the ‘Soldier’s Song’, later adopted as the national anthem.
Brendan Behan, who was born on February 9, 1923, made many waves during his comparative short life. He quit school at 13, but was already showing literary prowess because at that age he wrote the ‘Laughing Boy’, a lament for Michael Collins.
In 1939, at the age of 16, he was arrested while on a solo mission to bomb the Liverpool Docks during the IRA’s bombing campaign in England. He spent most of the next three years in an English borstal, and was jailed following his return to Ireland, for the attempted murder of two gardaí, in 1942.
During the 1950s, Behan frequented pubs in Dublin, where he got to know literary figures such as Flann O’Brien, Patrick Kavanagh, Anthony Cronin, and JP Dunleavy.
His own literary talents blossomed in 1954 with the production of his play, The Quare Fellow, which was greatly influenced by his time in jail. The play ran for six months in the Pike Theatre, Dublin. This was followed by a run at the Theatre Royal, Stafford East, before moving on to the West End.
Behan with his wife Beatrice in New York
Behan got notorious publicity after appearing drunk on Malcolm Muggeridge’s Panorama programme on the BBC in 1956. Most of what he said was incoherent, other than crude remarking about needing “to take a leak”.
“One drunken, speechless television appearance brought more of the things he wanted, like money and notoriety and a neon glory about his head, than any number of hours with a pen in his hand.” Muggeridge later wrote.
“The sad thing about Behan is that far, far more has been written about him than he managed to write himself.”
THe playwright relaxes with Lucian Freud in Dublin
He tended to attract attention anywhere he went. On arriving in Spain, he was asked what he would most like to see in the country. “Franco’s funeral,” he replied.
Behan was obviously drunk when he went on Edward R Morrow’s television show Small World on November 8, 1959. He was yanked off the show at the halfway point. Jackie Gleason, the comedian, was also on that night. “Behan came over 100 proof,” Gleason quipped later. “It wasn’t an act of God, but an act of Guinness.”
Making a spectacle added to his notoriety, because it was what people had come to expect. He became the stereotypical drunken Irishman.
On arriving in New York on September 2, 1960, for the opening of his play, The Hostage, Behan got off the plane waving his package of five bottles of duty-free whiskey. He had been on the wagon for the past five months, and actually drank a glass of milk before reporters at the airport.
When photographers asked him to repeat the process, he declined. “I’m not a politician,” he explained. “I’ve only got one face.”
Following further bad press in the US, he drank his way to Toronto, where he regaled reporters with expletive-laden wisecracks and other witticisms. “Drama critics,” he said, “are like eunuchs in a harem; they see the tricks done every night, they know how it’s done, but they can’t do it themselves.”
He staggered on stage at the premiere of Impulse obviously drunk. After mumbling some of his lines, he broke into song.
“Long before the performance ended I knew it was a disaster,” his wife Beatrice recalled. “My husband, the writer, was making a fool of himself for a couple of thousand dollars. It was a cruel dissipation of his talent.” She noted that he was the type of person “who can’t drink in moderation”.
“One drink is too many for me,” Behan lamented, “and a thousand not enough.”
Behan’s drinking in Canada landed him in hospital for over two weeks. He had already been diagnosed with diabetes and his favourite drink of sherry and champagne was a lethal cocktail that was virtually killing him.
One night he collapsed in a diabetic coma on a Dublin street, and passers-by just thought he was drunk as usual. He was eventually brought to a doctor, who took a cardiograph and explained that its needle was writing down his heart pulses. “I suppose, in its own way, it is probably the most important thing you have ever written,” the doctor said.
“Aye,” Behan replied, “and it’s straight from me heart, too!”
In the end he was more famous for his drunken antics than his writings.
It was a pitiful way to go, because he was a talented playwright. He died 50 years ago this week at the age of just 41.
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