Brendan Behan entered the world’s stage on the 9th of February 1923. As the Irish Civil War was raging Behan was born in the heart of Dublin city to a family steeped in the Irish Republican tradition. Being born into a staunch family of Republicans meant that it was a natural progression for young Brendan to join the IRA like many in his family had done before him.
Behan’s involvement in the Republican movement led to a stint behind bars, but for the time he spent in jail it opened the door to a career in writing.
His roots were firmly working class but they were far from impoverished, in the cultural sense. Behan’s father spoke French and Latin and instilled a love of fine literature into his children. Republican ideals flowed from his mother who introduced her children to the Irish language and rebel ballads.
Another influential family member in Behan’s life was his maternal grandmother who was known to have intense political beliefs. It is said that she had pictures of Marx and Lenin hanging on the wall in her house alongside pictures of the pope and the bishop of Dublin. Brendan would hold similar political contradictions in his life.
More often than not he found himself at odds with the Catholic church. While a schoolboy, he received a beating from a Christian Brother when he answered yes to the question: Can Ireland become a Communist country? The trashing he received at the hands of the holy man resulted in Behan’s first foray into the world of letters. In November 1937, the young Behan sent a public letter to the left wing Irish Democrat newspaper telling how “for giving a very definite answer in the affirmative, I got a kick in the neck!”
Throughout his life Behan proclaimed to be a Catholic and a Communist and he found no problem blending both together. When asked about this he easily remarked “I’m a Communist by day and a Catholic as soon as it gets dark!”
Behan’s conflicting spiritual and political beliefs resulted in mixed emotions about the land of his birth. At one point during the peak of his fame Behan quipped, “I regard Ireland in the same way as Sean O’Casey, it’s a great country to get a letter from!”
Like O’Casey, Behan wrote for and about the working class, the class of people that were usually overlooked in mainstream literature. And like O’Casey, who he looked up to, Behan considered himself a Communist. He often proclaimed his political position in public but, as he grew into the caricature of a drunken lout, Behan’s politics were not taken seriously. Although he had spent time in prison for IRA activities in his youth, by the time he gained fame through his writing MI5 had deemed Behan ”too unstable and drunken” to be considered a serious threat.
Behan may have talked the talk with regards to left wing politics but he was never a card carrying Communist, unlike his younger brother Brian. Brendan’s brother Brian was also a writer and he went to England where he joined the British Communist Party. He rose to an executive position within the party and even met with Joseph Stalin while on a trip to Russia. By the 1950s he left the party after becoming frustrated with the oppressive regime of the Soviet Union.
Brendan was not particularly close to his brother Brian and he laughed off the notion that his younger brother was planning on writing his memoirs by stating “you could get that fellow’s memoirs on the back of a postage stamp and still have room for the Koran!”
Behan may not have been a signed up member of the Communist party in Ireland or Britain but his mother and brother Dominic are listed as members of the Irish party in 1956 and just two years previously Brendan himself signed the nomination papers of Michael O’Riordan, a Spanish Civil War veteran and founding member of the Irish Communist Party. O’Riordan stood as a candidate in the 1954 General Election but clerics vehemently condemned the candidate from the pulpit and warned anyone who voted for O’Riordan as mortal sinners. O’Riordan polled just 295 votes and in the aftermath of the election Behan greeted the defeated candidate – “well done on the 295 mortal sinners!”
Ironically it was the left wing politics of the Behan family that led to Brendan’s rise to fame. In 1955 the Olympia Theatre in Dublin refused to stage Behan’s play The Quare Fellow because his brother Sean who was working as an usher in the theatre had been caught selling The Daily Worker to audience members during intervals.
Behan sent his play to Joan Littlewoods Theatre Workshop in London where, as they say, the rest is history.
Tragically, Brendan Behan collapsed with pint in hand at Harkins Harbour Bar in Dublin city in March 1964 and days later at the age of 41 he exited the world stage.