Behan, Our Literary George Best; Brendan Behan: One Writer Who Would Never Tone Down for the Censors

Daily Mail (London), November 13, 2008 | Go to article overview

Behan, Our Literary George Best; Brendan Behan: One Writer Who Would Never Tone Down for the Censors


Byline: Dermot Bolger

IN 1979, the Pope came to Ireland and as a 20-year-old working-class poet, knowing nobody and trying to find my bearings in Dublin I attended my first book launch. It marked the publication of an anthology published in honour of John Paul II.

Its editor had been Irelands most brilliant theatre director but by then chronic alcoholism had taken its toll on him. Some of the contributors present who generously welcomed me into their company seemed not far behind him in their drinking.

When the wine ran out at the reception, I recall us cramming into a car, which did not park outside Grogans Pub, but simply halted in the middle of the road, with everyone including the driver rushing into the pub and leaving the vehicle there.

I was enthralled to find myself drinking in the company of people who drank like Brendan Behan, told stories like him and were writers themselves although they expressed a distrust of writers like Seamus Heaney or Brian Moore, who quietly got on with producing books.

The evening then became a blank until I woke next morning wrapped in a papal flag which I must have scaled a flagpole to steal as a joke, with a terrible hangover, and an odd (and, in retrospective, infantile and stupid) sense of pride that I had been initiated as a true Dublin writer in the tradition of Behan not by actually writing something but by getting outrageously pissed in Bohemian company.

This is unfair to Behan because he did do far more than get drunk in pubs: he wrote a number of great works and did so in difficult circumstances that writers today can barely conceive of.

Ninety years ago this week, the First World War was declared over. But 50 years ago, the war in Ireland against ideas and free expression was still being waged when the Censorship of Publications Board banned Brendan Behans memoir, Borstal Boy, on November 12 1958.

In 1958, Ireland seriously needed to hear the honest self-truths of Behans journey from unthinking hatred (which saw him dispatched on a bombing mission to Liverpool by his IRA masters at the age of 16) to learning to think for himself during three years spent in a Suffolk borstal.

BUT the Irish authorities were determined that no fresh ideas from Irish writers like Brendan Behan or Kate OBrien (and later Edna OBrien and John McGahern) or foreign writers Nabokov, Orwell, Sartre or Iris Murdoch would disturb the intellectual torpor imposed upon this state.

Irelands stifling intellectual climate 50 years ago meant that many writers like Beckett and OCasey followed Joyce into exile, but other people stayed and fought against censorship.

Few did so with more courage (and at greater cost) than Alan Simpson and Carolyn Swift of the tiny experimental Pike Theatre, who in 1954 staged Behans first play, The Quare Fellow, which had been rejected by the Abbey and the Gate.

This proved a huge success and helped create the momentum which 50 years ago saw Borstal Boy published (and immediately banned in Ireland) and Behans most famous play, The Hostage, launched to international acclaim in London in the same year.

These two huge successes should have proved the launchlaunchfor a wondrous career as a writer, because, 50 years on, they are still classic works for which he deserves to be honhonThe tragedy was that, by 1958, Brendan Behan had already become known as much for his drinking as for his writing, for being the ultimate dangerous television guest, for the unprintable soundbite, for the missed deadline, for riotous scenes in hotels and pubs and airports, for the fact that before the age of celebrity was invented he had become a worldwide celebrity. …

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