Brendan Behan

‘Streams Of Whiskey’ – The Pogues

“Last night as I slept
I dreamt I met with Behan
 Shook him by the hand and we passed the time of day
When questioned on his views
On the crux of life’s philosophies
He had but these few clear and simple words to say

I am going, I am going
Any which way the wind may be blowing
I am going, I am going
Where streams of whiskey are flowing

I have cursed, bled and sworn
Jumped bail and landed up in jail
Life has often tried to stretch me
But the rope always was slack
And now that I’ve a pile
I’ll go down to the Chelsea
I’ll walk in on my feet
But I’ll leave there on my back

Oh the words that he spoke
Seemed the wisest of philosophies
There’s nothing ever gained
By a wet thing called a tear
When the world is too dark
And I need the light inside of me
I’ll go into a bar and drink
Fifteen pints of beer”

written by Shane MacGowan

If there was ever a writer who could symbolise celtic-punk it would be Brendan Francis Behan. The man who, along with Luke Kelly, our very own Shane MacGowan seems to taken most inspiration from. Today is the 91st anniversary of his birth so we thought we’d enlighten those of you who do not know him or his works.

Most famous for his earthy satire and political opinions. While he was not in jail, or the pub, Behan worked odd jobs and wrote plays and stories that depicted the life of the working classes. Several of his books were banned in Ireland and he spent most of the years from 1939 to 1946 in English and Irish penal institutions on political charges. However, his writings are lively, full of humour, and, somewhat surprisingly, do not show signs of anger or bitterness toward the world at large.

“… it was not really the length of sentence that worried mefor I had always believed that if a fellow went into the I.R.A. at all he should be prepared to throw the handle after the hatchet, die dog or shite the licencebut that I’d sooner be with Charlie and Ginger and Browny in Borstal than with my own comrades and countrymen any place else. It seemed a bit disloyal to me, that I should prefer to be with boys from English cities than with my own countrymen and comrades from Ireland’s hills and glens.”

Born into inner-city Dublin he lived his childhood in the slums of the city. In spite of the surroundings, he did not end up becoming an unlettered slum lad. Much of his education was owed to his family, well-read, and of strong Republican sympathies. Behan’s family on both sides was traditionally anti-British. His uncle Peader Kearney was the author of the Irish national anthem, ‘The Soldier’s Song’. Another uncle, P.J. Bourke, managed the Queens Theatre in Dublin, and one of Bourke’s sons was the dramatist Seamus de Burca. Brendan’s brother Dominic became a dramatist, too, and gained also success and a balladeer and singer.

At Behan’s birth his father, a housepainter and Republican activist, was in a British compound because of involvement in the Irish uprising of 1916-1922. Behan’s mother had been married before to another Republican, who had died during the influenza epidemic of 1918. Brendan attended Catholic schools until the age of 14, when he abandoned studies and then worked as a house painter. From the age of nine he had served in the Fianna, a youth organization connected with the IRA, and in the late 1930s he was a IRA messenger boy. In 1939 Behan was arrested on a sabotage mission in Liverpool, following a deadly explosion at Coventry. He was sentenced to three years in Borstal in a reform school for attempting to blow up a battleship in Liverpool harbour. After release, he returned to Ireland, but in 1942 he was sentenced to 14 years for the attempted murder of two detectives. He served at Mountjoy Prison and at the Curragh Military Camp. In 1946 he was released under a general amnesty and resumed work at his father’s trade of housepainting. During this period he also joined the Dublin literary underground, which included figures such as Patrick Kavanagh, Anthony Cronin, J.P. Donleavy, and Sean O’Sullivan. Brendan was imprisoned again in Manchester in 1947, serving a short term for allegedly helping an IRA prisoner to escape. Ironically Behan once observed, that the man with a big bomb is a statesman, while the man with a small bomb is a terrorist.

Brendan Behan

During his years in prison, Behan started to write, mainly short stories in an inventive stylization of Dublin dialect. The Landlady was written at the Curragh. Gretna Green, about the execution of two Irishmen, was produced at the Queen’s Theatre as a part of a Republican commemorative concert. In 1955 Behan married Beatrice ffrench-Salkeld, a painter and the daughter of noted Dublin artist, Cecil Salkeld. The marriage did not stop him from continuing his self-destructive life-style, even after he was diagnosed as diabetic.

Behan’s best-known novel, Borstal Boy (1958), drew its material from his experiences in a Liverpool jail and Borstal. The young narrator progresses from a rebellious adolescent to greater understanding of himself and the world:

“There were few Catholics in this part of the world and the priest had a forlorn sort of a job but Walton had cured me of any idea that religion of any description had anything to do with mercy or pity or love.”

Behan also sailed intermittently on ships, he had become a certified seaman in 1949. At the beginning of his career, Behan had difficulties in getting his plays performed in his own country. The Quare Fellow, based on his prison experiences, was turned down by both the Abbey Theatre and the Gate but eventually was produced at the Pike Theatre Club in 1954, gaining critical success. Reviewers began to talk of a new Sean O’Casey and the tragi-comedy was subsequently transferred to London’s West End for a six months’ run. The events were set during the twenty-four hours preceding an execution. This work is thought to have hastened the abolition of capital punishment in Britain. Brendan also attacked false piety behind public attitudes toward such matters as sex, politics, and religion.

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 1960s. 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.

Brendan Behan

Among Behan’s other dramas are The Big House (1957), a radio play written for the BBC, and The Hostage  (1958), written in Gaelic under the title An Giall and set in a disreputable Dublin lodging house, brothel!, owned by a former IRA commander. This play, perhaps Behan’s most enduring work, was first produced in Irish at the Damer Hall in Dublin and then in London, Paris, and New York. It depicts events that surround the execution of an eighteen-year-old IRA member in a Belfast jail. The audience never sees him. He has been accused of killing an Ulster policeman and sentenced to be hanged. A young British soldier, Leslie Williams, is held hostage in the brothel. After the IRA prisoner has been executed, Leslie is eventually killed in a gunfight, when the police attack the place. Before it a love story develops between Leslie and Teresa, a young girl, who promises never to forget him. In the finale Leslie’s corpse rises and sings:

The bells of hell
Go ting-a-ling-a-ling
For you but not for me.
Oh death, where is thy sting-a-ling-a-ling
Or grave thy victory?

In his dramas Behan used song, dance, and direct addresses to the audience. Occasionally the author himself would appear in the audience and criticize the actors and shout instructions to the director. Several of Behan’s works were staged at Joan Littlewood’s Theatre Workshop, which left deep impact on modern theatrical style. Littlewood viewed the theatre as a collective and revised much of his script for The Hostagethe author himself approved all changes.

Notoriety and critical attention came to Behan in the mid-1950s and contributed to his downfall, fuelled by his prolonged drinking bouts and belligerent behaviour.

“An Anglo-Irishman only works at riding horses, drinking whisky and reading double-meaning books in Irish at Trinity College”

Behan once wrote. The Hostage was Behan’s last major dramahis last books were compilations of anecdotes transcribed from tape recordings. Like Dylan Thomas, he was lionized to death in the United States. A lifelong battle with alcoholism ended Behan’s career in a Dublin hospital on March 20, in 1964, at the age of the young age of 41. He was given an IRA guard of honour which escorted his coffin and it was described by several newspapers as the biggest funeral since those of Michael Collins and Charles Stewart Parnell. According to the United States Library of Congress, Behan is one of the most important Irish literary figures of the 20th century. He left behind him a solid legacy but but you’d have to wonder what else he could have achieved if he’d just laid off the bottle a bit!

‘BRENDAN BEHAN’S DUBLIN’: RTE documentary from 1966.

Brendan Behan


  •  The Quare Fellow,1954 – Film adaptation in 1962, dir. Arthur Dreifuss, starring  Patrick McGoohan.
  • Borstal Boy, 1958
  • Brendan Behan’s Island – An Irish Sketchbook, 1962
  • Hold Your Hour and Have Another, 1963
  • The Scarperer, 1964
  • Brendan Behan’s New York, 1964
  • Confessions of an Irish Rebel, 1965
  • After The Wake, 1981
  • The Letters of Brendan Behan, 1991
  • The King of Ireland’s Son, 1997
The Auld Triangle…
A hungry feeling, came o’er me stealing
And the mice they were squealing in my prison cell
And that auld triangle, went jingle jangle
All along the banks of the Royal Canal.
Oh to start the morning, the warden bawling
Get up out of bed you, and clean out your cell
And that auld triangle, went jingle jangle
All along the banks of the Royal Canal.
Oh the screw was peeping and the lag was sleeping
As he lay weeping for his girl Sal
And that auld triangle, went jingle jangle
All along the banks of the Royal Canal.
On a fine spring evening, the lag lay dreaming
And the seagulls were wheeling high above the wall
And that auld triangle, went jingle jangle
All along the banks of the Royal Canal.
Oh the wind was sighing, and the day was dying
As the lag lay crying in his prision cell
And that auld triangle, went jingle jangle
All along the banks of the Royal Canal.
 In the female prison there are seventy women
And I wish it was with them that I did dwell
And that auld triangle, went jingle jangle
All along the banks of the Royal Canal.

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16 thoughts on “TRIBUTE TO BRENDAN BEHAN 1923-1964

  1. Walter F. Wouk February 10, 2014 at 3:39 pm Reply

    Nice piece on Brendan Behan, a woefully unappreciated Irish writer, and one of my favorite authors.

    At the end of my last visit to Dublin I found myself with more time than money, so I decided to walk to Dublin Airport. During the course of making my way to the North Circular Road I found myself on Russell Street and passed the house where he spent his early years.

  2. Pádraig Ó HOistín February 10, 2014 at 4:49 pm Reply

    Legend! The sample on The Tossers album bout him having no teeth and the story on the Ronnie Drew album bout him gong to Spain getting stopped and asked for the purpose of his visit! I am here for Franco’s funeral! But the general still lives! Then I will wait!

  3. Walter F. Wouk February 11, 2014 at 12:59 am Reply

    I neglected to mention I was on the tail end of a three day drinking session, so when I walked past Behan’s house it was a bit Karmic.
    My other favorite writer is Jack Kerouac, another drinker with writing problems.

  4. […] Original article here […]

  5. Luke Cook March 20, 2018 at 12:34 pm Reply

    last night as I slepped I dreamed I met with Behan I shook him bye the hand as we passed the time of day

  6. R.V. Rocha March 21, 2018 at 5:50 pm Reply

    Brendan Behan had a way with words and lived life very much on his own terms, much like our Shane. God bless them both.

  7. Patrick Dawson February 11, 2019 at 10:38 am Reply

    Great article ✌️

  8. Ras V Rocha January 12, 2020 at 7:13 pm Reply

    It may be time for a re-read of Borstal Boy

  9. Brian McCurry February 9, 2020 at 3:19 pm Reply

    The quare fellow❤️

  10. Joe Cameron February 9, 2020 at 5:44 pm Reply

    He had a thirst for Guinness so great, it cast a shadow.
    Brilliant writer and an all around mad bastard.

    • Máire Nig Ualghairg February 10, 2020 at 8:48 am Reply

      It is said that the IRA send him to blow up the Ship Yards in Liverpool knowing fine well he would be caught and go to prison (Borstal because of his age) as they wanted him out of the way – it is also said that when he was in Belfast on Republican Army business he got drunk and tried to go into the room of the lady of the house and was physically rebuffed – this was a major no-no. He was, despite his tendency to be drunk and wild, a very gifted writer and Irish speaker.

      • Joe Cameron February 10, 2020 at 4:11 pm

        I heard the IRA turfed him out because he was so mad. I loved Borstal Boy and Quare Fellow

  11. Harry Stringer February 9, 2020 at 9:35 pm Reply

    His comments on American healthcare still ring true today .he got injured in NYC and the hospital wouldn’t treat him with no money or insurance .wonderful man I have read all his work I know of .can always hope there’s something else .

  12. Máire Nig Ualghairg February 10, 2020 at 9:03 pm Reply

    They are extremely well written as is all his work, but then he came from a literary family – with his brother Dominic Behan having the same talent. I remember reading one of his works where he talks about going to the funeral of his uncle, Peadar Carney, the author of the Soldier’s Song and how de Valera and the rest of the senior ministers went over to shake Behan’s father’s hand and he turned away from the, the men who had his son in prison for wanting what they had wanted thirty years earlier – a very powerful scene.

  13. Richard Cahill February 12, 2020 at 12:29 pm Reply

    Still the best singer in the world to me 36 years on because his songs never died and lukes spirit still lives on. Rip my hero

  14. Bill Herring February 12, 2020 at 4:35 pm Reply

    Greatest Irish balladeer ever.

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