‘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 me–for 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 licence–but 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.
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”
“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.
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
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 Hostage–the 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 drama–his 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.
- 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
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