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Friday, 28 March 2014

Brendan Behan

This week, you probably noticed many references to Brendan Behan in the media. It was 50 years since his death, and many newspapers published columns on how Behan’s literary talents, and the man himself, were destroyed by alcohol.
Brendan Behan leaves the High Court, 1961

It is undeniable that Behan’s literary legacy stems from his early work – The Quare Fellow, The Borstal Boy, An Giall/The Hostage. Yet, he always had a way with words and his witticisms never dried up. Behan became internationally notorious when he appeared drunk on the Malcom Muggeridge show. He realized that people wanted to see the drunken Irishman stereotype, and he delivered this persona in public for most of his life.

Sadly, Behan developed diabetes as a result of his drinking, and when he collapsed in a diabetic coma on the street in Dublin, people assumed he was just drunk again and left him them. When he was finally taken to hospital, there was little that could be done for him and the news of his death came as little surprise to his friends.

Although Behan’s early death at the age of 41 could have been foretold, his passing still caused a great deal of sorrow. People lined the streets as Behan’s coffin made its way to Glasnevin cemetery, and it was described as one of the biggest funerals in Ireland since that of Michael Collins. In later years, a bronze likeness of Behan’s face was stolen from the headstone at his grave, which can be seen as a rather misguided token of respect for the man.

Behan had married Beatrice Salkeld in 1955, and they had a daughter together, Blanaid, just two years before Behan’s death. Beatrice had seen the effect fame and alcohol were having on Behan, but it proved impossible to keep him away from drinking. However, it was through her quiet influence that Behan managed to write as much as he did. Without Beatrice, it is doubtful we would have the small body of work left by Behan.

Beatrice and Brendan Behan in Connemara, with friends, 1959

 But a reading of Borstal Boy or The Quare Fellow will show the natural literary talent Behan had. They are works with a unique voice and that have stood up to the passage of time. The memories of the man haven’t faded much either over the past half century.