PETER FROST remembers an Irish revolutionary poet and writer who was arrested 75 years ago this month.
Sixteen is a pretty young age to be arrested for being an IRA bomber but Brendan Behan was an early starter in all things.
He became a member of the IRA’s youth organisation Fianna Éireann at the age of fourteen. His writing career started at about the same time with articles published in The United Irishman and other publications.
He got a taste for literature from his father and an understanding of revolutionary and republican politics from his mother
Sadly he also started drinking at an early age. The drink problem would eventually lead to diabetes and his premature death.
75 years ago this week Behan was arrested in a flat in Everton, Liverpool.
In his possession were bomb making chemicals and plans of targets in the Liverpool docks and shipyards.
The IRA launched their S-plan bombing campaign in England in 1939, Behan was trained in explosives, but was arrested the day he landed in Liverpool.
He would describe his first arrest in his best known autobiographical book Borstal Boy:-
Friday, in the evening, the landlady shouted up the stairs: “Oh God, oh Jesus, oh Sacred Heart, Boy, there’s two gentlemen here to see you.”
I knew by the screeches of her that the gentlemen were not calling to inquire after my health, or to see if I’d had a good trip.
I grabbed my suitcase, containing Pot. Chlor., Sulph Ac, gelignite, detonators, electrical and ignition, and the rest of my Sinn Fein conjurer’s outfit, and carried it to the window.
Then the gentlemen arrived. A young one, with a blond Herrenvolk head and a BBC accent shouted “I say, grab him the behstud!”
In February 1940 Behan was jailed for three years. He spent two years in a Borstal in Suffolk, making good use of its excellent library.
The IRA S-Plan campaign continued throughout the summer of 1939 with almost daily attacks on power lines, canals and other industrial targets.
However in August a bicycle bomb exploded prematurely in
Coventry killing five bystanders.
This proved a propaganda disaster for the IRA with criticism from sympathisers in Ireland and a falling away of support from Irish republicans in the United States. Two men linked with this bombing were convicted and executed.
Soon it would be Luftwaffe bombs that would be of much more concern to the British public.
In 1942, back in Dublin, Behan shot at a detective during an IRA parade. This time he got fourteen years. In jail he became a fluent Irish speaker.
During his first months in prison, Sean O Faolain published Behan’s description of his Borstal experiences in The Bell.
Behan was released in 1946 as part of a general amnesty. He would serve other prison terms, sometimes for republican activity sometimes simply for being drunk.
Behan would become one of Ireland’s most important short story writers, novelists, and playwrights. He wrote in both English and Irish.
Behan’s play The Quare Fellow was produced first in Dublin and then in 1956 at Joan Littlewood’s Theatre Workshop in Stratford, London.
It was at this time he made headlines with a famous drunken interview on television.
In 1958, Behan’s play in Irish An Giall had its debut in Dublin. Behan adapted it into English as The Hostage with worldwide success.
His autobiographical novel, Borstal Boy, also came out in 1958 and became a global best seller. It would be the start of many more books, poems and newspaper columns that would make him a household name.
Among Behan’s closest IRA comrades was Cathal Goulding who as its Chief of Staff moved the politics of the Official IRA towards the left and to embrace Marxism.
Goulding believed the British state deliberately and cynically divided the Irish working class on sectarian grounds. He would later help form the Workers’ Party of Ireland.
Brendan Behan died in 1964 aged just 41. He was given an IRA military funeral (pictured below). One newspaper described it as the biggest since those of Michael Collins and Charles Stewart Parnell.
The above article first appeared in the Morning Star 23 January 2014.
In a strange footnote to Brendan’s life, after his death his good friend and political mentor Cathal Goulding and his widow Beatrice got together and had a child. They called him Paudge Behan. After a short stint following in Brendan’s footsteps as a journalist Paudge is now a sucessful actor.