Brendan Behan

Brendan Francis Aidan Behan[1] (christened Francis Behan)[2] (/ˈbən/ BEE-ən; Irish: Breandán Ó Beacháin; 9 February 1923 – 20 March 1964) was an Irish poet, short story writer, novelist and playwright who wrote in both English and Irish. He is widely regarded as one of the greatest Irish writers of all time.[3]

Brendan Behan
Behan in 1960
BornBrendan Francis Aidan Behan
(1923-02-09)9 February 1923
Dublin, Ireland
Died20 March 1964(1964-03-20) (aged 41)
Dublin, Ireland
GenrePoet, novelist, playwright
SubjectIrish Republican struggle, often autobiographical
Notable worksThe Quare Fellow, The Hostage, Borstal Boy

An Irish republican and a volunteer in the Irish Republican Army, Behan was born in Dublin into a staunchly republican family becoming a member of the IRA's youth organisation Fianna Éireann at the age of fourteen. There was also a strong emphasis on Irish history and culture in the home, which meant he was steeped in literature and patriotic ballads from an early age. Behan eventually joined the IRA at sixteen, which led to his serving time in a borstal youth prison in the United Kingdom and he was also imprisoned in Ireland. During this time, he took it upon himself to study and he became a fluent speaker of the Irish language. Subsequently released from prison as part of a general amnesty given by the Fianna Fáil government in 1946, Behan moved between homes in Dublin, Kerry and Connemara, and also resided in Paris for a time.

In 1954, Behan's first play The Quare Fellow, was produced in Dublin. It was well received; however, it was the 1956 production at Joan Littlewood's Theatre Workshop in Stratford, London, that gained Behan a wider reputation. This was helped by a famous drunken interview on BBC television with Malcolm Muggeridge. In 1958, Behan's play in the Irish language An Giall had its debut at Dublin's Damer Theatre. Later, The Hostage, Behan's English-language adaptation of An Giall, met with great success internationally. Behan's autobiographical novel, Borstal Boy, was published the same year and became a worldwide best-seller and by 1955, Behan had married Beatrice ffrench Salkeld, with whom he later had a daughter Blanaid Behan in 1963.

By the early 1960s, Behan reached the peak of his fame. He spent increasing amounts of time in New York, famously declaring, "To America, my new found land: The man that hates you hates the human race."[4] By this point, Behan began spending time with people including Harpo Marx and Arthur Miller and was followed by a young Bob Dylan[5]. He even turned down his invitation to the inauguration of John F. Kennedy. However, this newfound fame did nothing to aid his health or his work, with his medical condition continuing to deteriorate: Brendan Behan's New York and Confessions of an Irish Rebel received little praise. He briefly attempted to combat this by a sober stretch while staying at Chelsea Hotel in New York, but once again turned back to drink.

Behan died on the 20th of March, 1964 after collapsing at the Harbour Lights bar in Dublin. He was given a full IRA guard of honour, which escorted his coffin. It was described by several newspapers as the biggest Irish funeral of all time after those of Michael Collins and Charles Stewart Parnell.[6]


Early life

Behan was born in the inner city of Dublin at Holles Street Hospital on 9 February 1923 into an educated working-class family.[7] He lived in a house on Russell Street near Mountjoy Square owned by his grandmother, Christine English, who owned a number of properties in the area. Brendan's father Stephen Behan, a house painter who had been active in the Irish War of Independence, read classic literature to the children at bedtime from sources including Zola, Galsworthy, and Maupassant; his mother, Kathleen, took them on literary tours of the city. If Behan's interest in literature came from his father, his political beliefs came from his mother. She remained politically active all her life and was a personal friend of the Irish republican Michael Collins. Brendan Behan wrote a lament to Collins, "The Laughing Boy", at the age of thirteen. The title was from the affectionate nickname Mrs. Behan gave to Collins. Kathleen published her autobiography, "Mother of All The Behans", a collaboration with her son Brian, in 1984.

Behan's uncle Peadar Kearney wrote the Irish national anthem "The Soldier's Song".[7] His brother, Dominic Behan, was also a renowned songwriter best known for the song "The Patriot Game";[8] another sibling, Brian Behan, was a prominent radical political activist and public speaker, actor, author, and playwright.[9][10][11] Following Brendan's death, his widow had a child with Cathal Goulding called Paudge Behan; the two men were described as "good friends".[12]

A biographer, Ulick O'Connor, recounts that one day, at age eight, Brendan was returning home with his granny and a crony from a drinking session. A passer-by remarked, "Oh, my! Isn't it terrible ma'am to see such a beautiful child deformed?" "How dare you," said his granny. "He's not deformed, he's just drunk!"

Behan left school at 13 to follow in his father's footsteps as a house painter.[7]

Republican activities

In 1937, the family moved to a new local council housing scheme in Crumlin. Behan became a member of Fianna Éireann, the youth organisation of the IRA. He published his first poems and prose in the organisation's magazine, Fianna: the Voice of Young Ireland. In 1931 he also became the youngest contributor to be published in the Irish Press with his poem "Reply of Young Boy to Pro-English verses".

At sixteen, Behan joined the IRA and embarked on an unauthorised solo mission to England to blow up the Liverpool docks. He was arrested and found in possession of explosives. Behan was sentenced to three years in a borstal (Hollesley Bay,[13] once under the care of Cyril Joyce[14]) and did not return to Ireland until 1941. He wrote about these years in his autobiography, Borstal Boy. In 1942, during the timeframe leading to the IRA's Northern Campaign, Behan was tried for the attempted murder of two Detectives of the Garda Síochána. The assassinations were to take place in Dublin at a commemoration ceremony for Wolfe Tone, the father of Irish Republicanism. Sentenced to fourteen years in prison, Behan was incarcerated in Mountjoy Prison and the Curragh Camp. These experiences were recalled in Confessions of an Irish Rebel. Released under a general amnesty for IRA prisoners and internees in 1946, his activist career was over by the age of twenty-three. Aside from a short prison sentence he received in 1947 for his part in trying to break a fellow IRA member out of a Manchester prison, he effectively left the IRA, though he remained great friends with Cathal Goulding.[15]

Behan the writer

Behan's prison experiences were central to his future writing career. In Mountjoy he wrote his first play, The Landlady, and also began to write short stories and other prose. It was a literary magazine called Envoy (A Review of Literature and Art), founded by John Ryan, that first published Behan's short stories and his first poem. Some of his early work was also published in The Bell, the leading Irish literary magazine of the time. He also learned Irish in prison and, after his release in 1946, he spent some time in the Gaeltacht areas of Galway and Kerry, where he started writing poetry in Irish. He left Ireland and all its perceived social pressures to live in Paris in the early 1950s. There he felt he could lose himself and release the artist within. Although he still drank heavily, he managed to earn a living, supposedly by writing pornography. By the time he returned to Ireland, he had become a writer who drank too much, rather than a drinker who talked about what he was going to write. He had also developed the knowledge that to succeed, he would have to discipline himself. Throughout the rest of his writing career, he would rise at seven in the morning and work until noon—when the pubs opened. He began to write for various newspapers, such as The Irish Times, and also for radio, which broadcast a play of his entitled "The Leaving Party". Additionally he cultivated a reputation as carouser-in-chief, and swayed shoulder-to-shoulder with other literati of the day that he had got to know through Envoy and who used the pub McDaid's as their base: Flann O'Brien, Patrick Kavanagh, Patrick Swift, Anthony Cronin, J. P. Donleavy and artist Desmond MacNamara whose bust of Behan is on display at the National Writers Museum. For unknown reasons Behan had a major falling-out with Kavanagh, who reportedly would visibly shudder at the mention of Behan's name and who referred to Behan as "evil incarnate".[16]

Behan's fortunes changed in 1954 with the appearance of his play The Quare Fellow—his major breakthrough at last. Originally called The Twisting of Another Rope and influenced by his time spent in jail, it chronicles the vicissitudes of prison life leading up to the execution of "the quare fellow"—a character who is never seen. The prison dialogue is vivid and laced with satire, but reveals to the reader the human detritus that surrounds capital punishment. It was produced in the Pike Theatre in Dublin. The play ran for six months. In May 1956, The Quare Fellow opened in the Theatre Royal Stratford East, in a production by Joan Littlewood's Theatre Workshop. Subsequently it transferred to the West End. Behan generated immense publicity for The Quare Fellow as a result of a drunken appearance on the Malcolm Muggeridge TV show. The English, relatively unaccustomed to public drunkenness in authors, took him to their hearts. A fellow guest on the show, Irish-American actor Jackie Gleason, reportedly said about the incident: "It wasn't an act of God, but an act of Guinness!" Behan and Gleason went on to forge a friendship. Behan loved the story of how, walking along the street in London shortly after this episode, a Cockney approached him and exclaimed that he understood every word he had said—drunk or not—but had not a clue what "that bugger Muggeridge was on about!" While addled, Brendan would clamber on stage and recite the play's signature song "The Auld Triangle". The transfer of the play to Broadway provided Behan with international recognition. Rumours still abound that Littlewood contributed much of the text of The Quare Fellow and led to the saying, "Dylan Thomas wrote Under Milk Wood, Brendan Behan wrote under Littlewood". Littlewood remained a supporter, visiting him in Dublin in 1960.[17]

In 1957, his Irish-language play An Giall (The Hostage) opened in the Damer Theatre, Dublin. Reminiscent of Frank O'Connor's Guests of the Nation, it portrays the detention, in a teeming Dublin house in the late 1950s, of a British conscript soldier seized by the IRA as a hostage pending the scheduled execution in Northern Ireland of an imprisoned IRA volunteer. The hostage falls in love with an Irish convent girl, Teresa, working as a maid in the house. Their innocent world of love is incongruous among their surroundings—the house also serves as a brothel. In the end, the hostage dies accidentally during a bungled police raid, revealing the human cost of war—a universal suffering. The subsequent English-language version The Hostage (1958), reflecting Behan's own translation from the Irish, but also much influenced by Joan Littlewood during a troubled collaboration with Behan, is a bawdy, slapstick play that adds a number of flamboyantly gay characters and bears only a limited resemblance to the original Irish-language version.

His autobiographical novel Borstal Boy followed in 1958. In this vivid memoir of his time in St Andrews House, Hollesley Bay Colony Borstal near Woodbridge, Suffolk, England. (The site of St Andrews House is now a Category D men's prison and Young Offenders Institution). An original voice in Irish literature boomed out from its pages. The language is both acerbic and delicate, the portrayal of inmates and "screws" cerebral. For a Republican, though, it is not a vitriolic attack on Britain; it delineates Behan's move away from violence. In one account an inmate strives to entice Behan in chanting political slogans with him. Behan curses and damns him in his mind, hoping he would cease his rantings-hardly the sign of a troublesome prisoner. By the end the idealistic boy rebel emerges as a realistic young man who recognises the truth: violence, especially political violence, is futile. Kenneth Tynan, the 1950s literary critic said: "While other writers hoard words like misers, Behan sends them out on a spree, ribald, flushed, and spoiling for a fight." He was now established as one of the leading Irish writers of his generation.

He learned to speak Irish at the home of the Nolan family in the Gaeltacht area of County Galway in the late 1940s. Drs Sinead and Maureen Nolan (daughters of the house) never heard a disrespectful word or a hint of obscenity from him during that time. He was much loved and revered by their deeply religious parents, who recognized his genius for language early. They saw his theatrics for what it was: a device to conceal an exquisitely sensitive nature.

Decline and death

Behan found fame difficult. He had long been a heavy drinker (describing himself, on one occasion, 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 developed diabetes in the early 1950s but this was not diagnosed until 1956.[7] 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's favourite drink (a lethal combination for a diabetic) was champagne and sherry.

Behan saw that it paid to be drunk; the public wanted the witty, iconoclastic, genial "broth of a boy", and he gave that to them in abundance, once exclaiming: "There's no bad publicity except an obituary." His health suffered terribly, with diabetic comas and seizures occurring regularly. The public who once extended their arms now closed ranks against him; publicans flung him from their premises. Although Behan cried out that he was a writer, inside he knew his fears had materialised—he was unable to generate another classic. His books, Brendan Behan's Island, Brendan Behan's New York and Confessions of an Irish Rebel, published in 1962 and 1964, were dictated into a tape recorder because he was no longer able to write or type for long enough to be able to finish them.[18]

Behan had married Beatrice Salkeld (daughter of the painter Cecil Salkeld) in 1955. A daughter, Blanaid, was born in 1963.[7] Love, however, was not enough to bring Behan back from his alcoholic abyss. By early March 1964, the end was in sight. Collapsing at the Harbour Lights bar, he was transferred to the Meath Hospital in central Dublin, where he died, aged 41.

It is believed that Behan had a one-night stand in 1961 with Valerie Danby-Smith (who was Ernest Hemingway's personal assistant and later married his son [19]), nine months later Valerie gave birth to a son she named Brendan. Brendan Behan died two years later having never met his son.[20]

Behan is frequently mentioned in works of popular culture. His work has been a significant influence in the writings of Shane MacGowan, and he is the subject of "Streams of Whiskey", a song by The Pogues. The Pogues song "Thousands Are Sailing" features the lyric "and in Brendan Behan's footsteps / I danced up and down the street". Behan is also referenced in Damien Dempsey's 'Jar Song'. Behan's version of the third verse of "The Internationale", from Borstal Boy, was reproduced on the LP sleeve of Dexys Midnight Runners's debut album, Searching for the Young Soul Rebels.

The Mighty Mighty Bosstones 2000 album Pay Attention features the song "All Things Considered", which contains the lyrics "Most of what he tells us no one's verified / He swears he was there the day that Brendan Behan died".

Chicago-based band The Tossers wrote the song "Breandan O Beachain", found on their 2008 album On A Fine Spring Evening. Shortly after Behan's death a young student, Fred Geis, wrote the song "Lament for Brendan Behan" and passed it on to the Clancy Brothers, who sang it on their album Recorded Live in Ireland the same year. This song, which calls "bold Brendan" Ireland's "sweet angry singer", was later covered by the Australian trio The Doug Anthony All Stars, better known as a comedy band, on their album Blue. "Brendan" is Seamus Robinson's song-tribute to Behan. Behan's prisoner song "The Auld Triangle", (which featured in his play The Quare Fellow—this term being prison slang for a prisoner condemned to be hanged), has become something of a standard and has been recorded on numerous occasions, by folk musicians as well as popular bands such as The Pogues, the Dubliners, the Dropkick Murphys and The Doug Anthony All Stars. He is also referenced in the opening line of the Mountain Goats song “Commandante” where the narrator proclaims that he will "drink more whiskey than Brendan Behan".

Behan's two poems from his work The Hostage, "On the eighteenth day of November" and "The laughing boy" have been translated into Swedish and recorded by Ann Sofi Nilsson on the album När kommer dagen. The same poems have been translated in 1966 to Greek and recorded by Maria Farantouri on the album "Ένας όμηρος" ("The hostage") by Mikis Theodorakis.

A pub named for Behan is located in the historically Irish Jamaica Plain section of Boston, Massachusetts. A bronze sculpture of the writer stands outside the Palace Bar on Dublin's Fleet Street.[21]

According to J.P. Donleavy's History of The Ginger Man, Behan was instrumental in bringing Donleavy in contact with M. Girodios of Olympia Press (Paris) to help Donleavy's famous first novel, The Ginger Man, be published despite its having been ostracised by the world literature community for its "filth" and "obscenity".

In the season 4 Mad Men episode "Blowing Smoke", which premiered on October 10, 2010, Midge Daniels introduces Don to her playwright husband, Perry, and says, "When we met, I said he looked like Brendan Behan."

In May 2011, Brendan at the Chelsea, written by Behan's niece Janet Behan, was the first play performed in the Naughton Studio at the new Lyric Theatre in Belfast. The production tells the story of Behan's residence at New York's Hotel Chelsea in 1963. It was a critical success and is being revived for a tour to Theatre Row in New York in September 2013 before returning to the Lyric in October 2013.

In Morrissey's 2014 song "Mountjoy", he references the writer: "Brendan Behan's laughter rings / For what he had or hadn’t done / For he knew then as I know now / That for each and every one of us / We all lose / Rich or poor, / We all lose / Rich or poor, they all lose".[22][23]

The pop song Brendan Behan's Blues was written about the subject.



  • The Quare Fellow (1954)
  • An Giall (The Hostage) (1958)
    • Behan wrote the play in Irish, and translated it to English.
  • Richard's Cork Leg (1972)
  • Moving Out (one-act play, commissioned for radio)
  • A Garden Party (one-act play, commissioned for radio)
  • The Big House (1957, one-act play, commissioned for radio)


  • Borstal Boy (1958)
  • Brendan Behan's Island (1962)
  • Hold Your Hour and Have Another (1963)
  • Brendan Behan's New York (1964)
  • Confessions of an Irish Rebel (1965)
  • The Scarperer (1963)
  • After The Wake: Twenty-One Prose Works Including Previously Unpublished Material (posthumous – 1981)


  • Brendan Behan Sings Irish Folksongs and Ballads Spoken Arts Records SAC760 (1985)'
  • "The Captains and the Kings"


  • Brendan Behan – A Life by Michael O'Sullivan
  • My Brother Brendan by Dominic Behan
  • Brendan Behan by Ulick O'Connor
  • The Brothers Behan by Brian Behan
  • With Brendan Behan by Peter Arthurs
  • The Crazy Life of Brendan Behan: The Rise and Fall of Dublin's Laughing Boy by Frank Gray
  • My Life with Brendan by Beatrice Behan
  • Brendan Behan, Man and Showman by Rae Jeffs


  1. Brendan Behan: A Life, Michael O'Sullivan, pg 23
  2. Brendan Behan: A Life, Michael O'Sullivan, pg xi
  3. "From James Joyce to Oscar Wilde, top ten Irish novelists in history". Retrieved 27 October 2015.
  4. "NYC – Chelsea – Hotel Chelsea – James Schuyler, Brendan Behan". Flickr. Retrieved 25 May 2017.
  5. "Brendan's tragic voyage: Behan in the USA: The Rise and Fall of the Most Famous Irishman in New York". The Irish Times. Retrieved 25 May 2017.
  6. "Remembering the literary legend Brendan Behan with some of his top quotes". 20 March 2017. Retrieved 25 May 2017.
  7. Joan Littlewood, ‘Behan, (Francis) Brendan (1923–1964)’, Brendan Behan. Oxford Dictionary of National Biography on line ed., Oxford University Press, 2004. Retrieved 14 June 2014 (subscription or UK public library membership required)
  8. Patriot Game, lyrics. Brobdingnagian Bards. Retrieved 14 June 2014
  9. Brian Behan obituary
  10. Brian Behan obituary
  11. Brian Behan obituary
  12. Ed Moloney (2003). A Secret History of the IRA. Penguin. p. 51.
  13. Behan, Brendan (1990). Borstal Boy (New ed.). Arrow. ISBN 978-0099706502.
  14. O'Sullivan, Michael. "Brendan Behan: A Life". Google Search. pp. 61–68. Retrieved 14 August 2014.
  15. A tribute to The Lost People of Arlington House, The National Archives, London 2004
  16. Cavendish, Dominic (31 January 2008). "Brendan at the Chelsea: less large than life". The Daily Telegraph. It hints at Behan's bisexuality without getting explicit and never paints him, as Patrick Kavanaugh (sic) once described him, as "evil incarnate".
  17. "Irish Times" archives, 4 August 1960.
  18. Jeffs, Rae, Brendan Behan, Man and Showman (1966)
  21. Nihill, Cian. "Palace of inspiration: Sculptures of writers unveiled", The Irish Times, 6 October 2011.
  22. "Mountjoy Lyrics". Retrieved 30 July 2014.
  23. Kirkpatrick, Marion. "Morrissey's 'World Peace is None of Your Business': What the Critics are Saying". The Hollywood Reporter. Retrieved 30 July 2014.
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