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Brendan Behan in 1964 PA

Analysis Behan wrote his columns like a garrulous, gregarious personality commanding attention

Professor John Brannigan of UCD says the late writer’s column for The Irish Press showed a Dublin marked by distinctive speech patterns and cultural habits.

THIS YEAR MARKS 100 years since Brendan Behan was born and almost 60 years since his death. Yet he remains a controversial figure in the history of Irish literature. He is often remembered more for his revelry than his art, and the success of his writings abroad seemed to inspire suspicion, rather than admiration, at home.

‘The Irish are not my audience; they are my raw material’. Brendan Behan made this statement for a television interview in 1960, by which time he had become an international celebrity following the success of his plays, The Quare Fellow and The Hostage, and his autobiographical novel, Borstal Boy.

It is perhaps a surprising statement from a writer so closely associated with the Dublin of his upbringing. When asked if he would like the Irish to be his audience, he replied, ‘No, I don’t care. I don’t care’.

Success of a writer

By 1960, perhaps he didn’t need to care. He was lauded in theatres, on radio and television, and on the streets of cities around the world. Yet these words were the result of wounds which Behan felt all the more keenly as he rose to fame in London and New York.

His plays had been rejected by the Abbey and the Gate and appeared first in small, experimental theatres in Dublin. They were performed in the Abbey only after Behan had become too famous to ignore.

Borstal Boy was banned in Ireland when it was published in 1958, despite Behan’s and his publisher’s efforts to mollify the censorship board. At the same time, Behan was entertaining crowds of theatregoers, selling thousands of copies of his books, and appearing on TV quiz shows and interviews, and at concert halls and bookshops around the world. His reception in Ireland from theatres and the censorship board stung him as a rebuke.


There was a time, however, when the Irish were Brendan Behan’s audience, and it was perhaps the happiest period of his life. Between 1953 and 1956, Behan wrote over one hundred articles for The Irish Press in a weekly column that appeared, almost without fail, every Saturday.

In these articles, he was evidently at home, addressing his readers, sharing stories and songs, and touching on the icons and customs of national life.

It coincided with a period of relative stability and tranquillity in his life. For the first time, he was earning at least a meagre living from writing. He married a young artist, Beatrice Ffrench-Salkeld, in 1955, and they settled into a home life which afforded Behan the habit of regular periods of concentrating on his work. Beatrice recalled that he would write the articles with ease, rarely missing a deadline and that he would rise early and write until it was time to bring her breakfast in bed.

Brendan Behan Mural202302110531 11/02/2023 Dublin Ireland. A mural by Shane Sutton of Brendan Behan at Richmond Cottages in Dublin. Leah Farrell / Leah Farrell / /

The articles were commissioned by the new editor of The Irish Press, Jim McGuinness. Behan and McGuinness had both been interned as Republican dissidents in the Curragh prison camp in the 1940s, and Behan’s emergence as a young writer coincided with McGuinness’s desire to bring more literary talent to the newspaper for features and columns.

The commission meant that Behan was paid five pounds a week, and invited to write about whatever he chose.

Behan’s newspaper articles are worth reading now partly because they remind us of a once warm relationship that he enjoyed with his Irish readers. His stories and anecdotes are peppered with allusions to notable local events and people, as well as good-natured regional and urban rivalries and are interrupted by occasional replies to his readers’ correspondence.

Now, for the first time, all of those articles will be available in a complete edition, published by Lilliput Press, and entitled A Bit of a Writer: Brendan Behan’s Collected Short Prose. The collection arranges the articles in chronological order so that the reader can follow the themes, journeys and stories as Behan developed them over time. It also contains an introduction, notes and translations from the Irish to help readers understand the contexts of the articles.

9912 Brendan Behan statue Pictured is Brendan Behan statue along the Royal Canal in Dublin today. Leah Farrell / Leah Farrell / /

The effect of the narration in these writings, unsurprisingly, is of a garrulous and gregarious personality commanding the attention of his listeners in a pub, as he entertains them with tales, jokes, and songs.

Yet, although Behan is ever the showman, the personality behind the articles is never a show-off – his literary pretensions are regularly undercut with self-mockery that he is merely a ‘hack’, his knowledge of the twinkling lights of Paris or London is mocked by the ordinary Dublin characters he invented in his columns to remind him of his more modest roots and surroundings.

Behan first wrote for The Irish Press in 1951 on an irregular basis as the beginning of a series which appeared to involve Behan travelling around Ireland, and reporting on his adventures.

This was to be no simple travel diary, however: Behan’s first article opens with a scene in which he is dismissed from his job as a housepainter, and announces, albeit with some self-mockery, the beginnings of his new calling as a writer.

brendan-behan 1963: Returning from his visit to USA is Irish playwright Brendan Behan with his wife, Beatrice Ffrench-Salkeld. PA PA

Behan worked hard to create the illusion that he was just ‘a bit of a writer’, but his newspaper columns display a writer deeply knowledgeable about the art and history of literature. The articles abound in literary references, but more notable is Behan’s stylistic range, and his capacity for comic writing.

Changing world

Travel forms a key strand in his newspaper articles – he takes his readers to Wexford, Aran, Belfast, Paris, and London. An endearing facet of his tales of travel, however, is that Behan makes himself at home wherever he goes. The closest he comes to feeling like a stranger is when he strays beyond Drumcondra into ‘the country’.

lilliput-brendanbehan-bitofawriter-coverideas-indd Lilliput Press Lilliput Press

The heart of Behan’s writings for The Irish Press lies in Northside Dublin, and specifically in the small cluster of streets between the Royal Canal and Croke Park where Behan spent the most formative years of his childhood and youth. ‘I was reared a strict Dubliner’, writes Behan.

Behan’s column reproduced Dublin as a ‘knowable community’, marked by distinctive speech patterns and cultural habits.

It was a community that was dissolving, however. The familiar rivalries, between ‘Monto’ and the ‘Coombe’, for example, were passing into legend, as the tenements were torn down, and the working-class people of the Northside were moved out to what Behan called ‘the new breathing spaces of the Dublin people – Cabra, Crumlin, Kimmage and Ballyfermot’. His own family’s move to Crumlin when he was 14 perhaps made Behan especially aware of the lost sense of community in Russell Street.

It is here that we see Behan as an attentive and sensitive collector of urban folklore. Behan’s newspaper articles are a treasury of the songs and stories of the people, republican rebel songs taking turn and turnabout with stories of the Boer War or the First World War. The drama of the games in Croke Park is frequently upstaged by the antics of the children who offer to ‘mind’ the cars of the spectators.

Behan frequently returns to what it was like to live in such a community as a child – overhearing the fraught disputes between adults, peeping out from under the tables of pubs.

It was a culture which centred around pubs, not just for drink, but also for warmth and company. ‘I like pubs because I like people’, Behan once told Beatrice; that the pub was associated for Behan with humour, song, and belonging is evident throughout his newspaper articles. The comic sketches he created in The Irish Press, with his unforgettable characters, Mrs Brennan, Maria Concepta, and Crippen the poet, are set in one of the pubs frequented by market traders. The only selection of the articles published in Behan’s lifetime was titled, by him and his editor, Rae Jeffs, Hold Your Hour and Have Another, to reflect this sense that the reader should feel as if they are in Behan’s company in the jovial surroundings of a city pub.

It should be remembered, however, that this was an effect, carefully created and sustained by a writer who was, for some time at least, managing to stay away from drinking long enough to exercise his literary talents. Behan used to say that for the people of Russell Street, getting enough to eat was a struggle, so getting drunk was an achievement. As he became successful as a writer, sobriety became the more difficult achievement for Behan. Yet when he achieved this, as he did regularly in those happy years of the mid-1950s, he produced work which sparkles with wit, humour, and warmth.

As he declined into illness, Brendan Behan insisted, more and more desperately, that he was, above all, ‘a writer, a man of letters’. The articles collected in A Bit of a Writer remind us of what he could achieve when he was able to devote himself to that profession. They testify also that he was at his best as a writer when he was immersed in the city of his upbringing, revelling in the attention of the readers he craved most to entertain.

Professor John Brannigan is a professor of English and head of the UCD School of English, Drama and Film. A Bit of a Writer will be launching on 27 April in Museum of Literature Ireland and will be tied into the Brendan Behan exhibition there. 

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