Brendan Behan: Rebel, Writer, Penitent

The name of Brendan Behan—rebel, hell-raiser, and writer—is rarely linked with the word “Catholic.” This is an oversight, for he was by birth and upbringing very much a Catholic writer, if that is to be judged by his culture and social background. Nevertheless, it was more than just that. Its omission, or deliberate negation, is to leave aside a part of the writer’s genius that shaped, more than anything else, both his world-view and, more importantly still, his view of himself.

Behan’s family background is something of an enigma. Not so much who they were—that is well documented—as to who they really were. Later in life, especially in London and New York, Behan enjoyed playing up to the role of the artisan poet, the working man who not only spoke plainly but, also, at times in rhyme. All true enough, but not quite the whole truth.

The Behan household was in Dublin’s North Side slums, there by virtue of a relative who owned the house they rented—a surer footing than many of their neighbors. Granted, Mr. Behan Sr. was a house painter, but his family home was a veritable artist’s colony—filled most evenings with music, song, and poetry. This was a talented family, evidenced not only by Brendan, but, also, by his brother, Dominic, who would achieve fame as a songwriter. This household produced creative artists, but, more than anything else, it produced personalities.

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In working class Dublin homes, such an array of creative endeavors was far from the norm. That said, the words “Behan” and “normal” rarely appear in the same sentence. Other words come more readily to mind: “larger than life,” “a character,” “legendary.” In such words lie the core of the life lived by Brendan Behan, publicly at least. They also hint at what was to destroy him, the seeds of his own self-destruction that, in 1964 at the age of 41, laid him in his grave.

Behan’s rise was meteoric. Once, that is, he became tired of the other major theme in the Behan household: militant nationalism. To the end he remained an Irish Republican and a socialist, but after 1950, these words tripped off his tongue all too easily with increasingly little evidence to support them. This was in contrast with his more discreet musings on his faith—even if he described himself as a “bad Catholic,” it was as a Catholic nonetheless.

His early years were blighted by prison. At just 16-years-old, he decided—seemingly with little authorization, but with much youthful ardor—to initiate a bombing campaign in England. As matters turned out, he proved more of a danger to himself, and was, in any event, quickly and easily apprehended. The young revolutionary was soon in a detention center for teenagers, a borstal. It was a formative experience, and later provided the basis for his autobiography, Borstal Boy.

In that book, and what is often overlooked, is young Brendan’s attachment to his Catholic faith. Convinced as Behan was of the political legitimacy of his actions, he resented bitterly the ad hoc excommunication for not renouncing this visited upon him by the then resident English chaplain. His anguish at not being able to receive Holy Communion is described poignantly. Interestingly, it is in Borstal Boy we find the only explicit reference in his writing to the Irish priest whose heroic example and sacrifice had already made a deep impression on the young prisoner.

Fr. Willie Doyle S.J. was a military chaplain who died in 1917 on the Western Front. Soon, thereafter, a cult developed around his memory. In 1920, a full, if idiosyncratic, biography was published of the slain Jesuit. Behan was to come across this biography whilst still young, and was to devour it. So much so, relatives would later describe it as his favorite reading. It was a curious choice. It is, of course, a story filled with battles and heroics, but it is also the story of a soul: one centered on mysticism, prayer and penance. When it was first published, many devout souls found it off-putting; to the young idealist on Dublin’s North Side it struck a chord. Whilst some mocked Doyle’s witness, it left its mark on Behan. Perhaps, that “mocking” was in the writer’s mind when asked about his faith in a later interview. He said he may have been a “bad Catholic,” but he was adamant: he never “mocked” the faith.

For the young Behan, prison life dragged on—first in an English borstal and later in an Irish jail. Nevertheless, as the revolutionary flame grew lower, a new spark came into his life. He found that learning, as well as an aptitude for words and their expression, came easily. This was equally true whether vocally or on the written page; and, as with any writer, all the while he was collecting material that later formed the basis of his work. And, if frustration and delay characterized these years, they were also the catalyst for what was to come next. When public recognition did come, it was at a thundering pace, one that never slackened, until, that is, the man being driven on by it could take no more.

By the early 1950s, Behan was famous. Now liberated from prison, his first work was about that subject. The play The Quare Fellow proved a hit in his native Dublin, then London, before a triumph on Broadway. More plays followed, and yet more success, and with it came money. Around this time the aforementioned autobiography was published to acclaim, as well as equally lauded poems and articles. Seemingly, this new literary phenomenon could do no wrong. It was not only his literary output that was making the headlines, though. Quickly, he made good copy in other ways. His ability to talk and drink, to carouse and regale, was to have reporters searching him out. On a grander scale it was an extension of his personality already honed in Dublin pubs. Soon, it became less a personality, and more a persona, one exported now to a worldwide audience. And, as that world watched, the persona grew ever larger, whilst the man trapped within it began to diminish. Many were to consider his later drinking excesses a refuge from this. Fame for many is a pleasant daydream; at a frighteningly rapid pace it became a reality for Behan, but one that turned just as quickly into a never-ending nightmare.

Behan’s fame, and then his notoriety, grew in direct proportion to a decrease in any artistic work. In hindsight it is clear that his literary output was best whilst on his way to becoming famous. Thereafter, fame and the lifestyle it offered became yet another prison. His publishers tried to capture something of his genius in spite of the man. His last books were mostly “taped”; others recorded the raconteur as he spoke, and, then, transcribed this onto the page. Even when filtered in this way, Behan’s charm and intelligence, his eye for detail and a story, still shine through. Nevertheless, he hated the whole concept, seeing it as a cheat, which, of course, it was. But, by then, his life was largely that, with the “persona” now making a version of the work the man was no longer capable of.

At his short-lived peak, the oeuvre Behan managed to produce will be around for years to come. By 1964, however, it was clear their author would not. He had had his demons, mostly alcohol-related, and was open about his vices; but, by then, his last stabilizing factor, his marriage, was disintegrating, largely due to his drinking. As the end came into sight, however, he had one final wish: to die in the arms of Holy Mother Church.

Years earlier he had stated in an interview that when he died he wished to be surrounded by a whole host of “holy nuns” praying for him. In March 1964, as he lay in a Dublin hospital, he had to make do with the Last Rites from the hospital chaplain. One wonders, knowing he was dying, if the writer’s thoughts turned to Fr. Willie Doyle. Many years earlier the priest had written the following:

With great earnestness recommend to His mercy the poor souls who are in their agony. What a dreadful hour, an hour tremendously decisive, is the hour of our death! Surround with your love these souls going to appear before God, and defend them by your prayers.

As military chaplain, Fr. Doyle was known to ensure the Last Rites to soldiers at whatever the cost. In fact, it was this that caused the Jesuit’s death in August 1917 when he was blown to pieces by a German shell whilst anointing a dying comrade. No doubt as thankful as those in a no man’s land in Flanders, Brendan Behan had also received his last anointing.

In one of his spells in prison, Behan had written a poem in Gaelic—he had learnt the language whilst incarcerated—in English its title translates as: Repentance. It is no ordinary poem. It is of a dying man’s family gathering around him and whispering in his ear the name of the Virgin. And so, he asks for “the saving grasp of [her] hand” in his, to steady him on the “trembling voyage.” Then conscious of his sins being marshaled like an army before his eyes, or, as a baying pack of hounds come to devour him, the dying man calls upon his Mother to help him. As I said, no ordinary poem for it is a prayer.

The obituaries, especially in newspapers such as The Daily Worker, omitted any reference to the ceremony of Behan’s passing. Doubtless it did not fit with the public persona of a rabble-rousing Marxist writer. Lost in talk of an international artist was the word “Catholic,” and yet, this aspect was more significant than anything else he had picked up along the way, and, crucially, was there at the end, in sign and ritual, when all else had shattered. Secular regret over what might have been was missing the point of what had just taken place. But those commentators chose to look only at the mask—a death mask by then—rather than the man beneath it, perhaps, now more alive than ever before.


  • K. V. Turley

    K.V. Turley is the National Catholic Register’s U.K. correspondent. He writes from London.

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