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Brendan Behan (Dublin, February 9, 1923 – March 20, 1964) was an Irish playwright, poet and writer who wrote in English and Irish. His childhood was spent in the poorest families in Dublin. He was an active member of the IRA, for which he was imprisoned for eight years.
Brendan Behan’s Biography
Brendan was born in the center of Dublin on February 9, 1923 in a working-class family, cultured and republican. The life of the Behan moved between culture and political militancy. His father Stephen fought in the war of independence and his mother Kathleen was a personal friend of Michael Collins. Both read their children classic literature at night. His uncle Peadar Kearney was the author of the lyrics of ‘The Song of the Soldier’ (Soldier’s Song / Amhrán na bhFiann), the Irish national anthem. His little brother Dominic was also successful writing songs like ‘The Patriot Game’. The middle brother, Brian, as well as an actor and playwright, was a leading trade unionist, first communist and later Labor activist (disagreeing politically with Brendan, especially on the national issue).
Brendan simultaneó his first literary pints with the republican militancy: he joined the Fianna Éireann, youth organization of the IRA, in whose magazine «Fianna: the Voice of Young Ireland» published his first poems. In 1931 he was the youngest writer to publish in the Irish Press, with his poem ‘Reply of Young Boy to Pro-English Verses’.
At the age of 16, Brendan Behan joined the IRA and embarked for England on a solo, unauthorized mission that aimed to blow up the port of Liverpool. He was arrested for possession of explosives and sentenced to three years in a reformatory. He did not return to Ireland until 1941. That experience was narrated in his autobiography ‘Borstal Boy’ (1958).
In 1942, while the IRA undertook the Campaign of the North, Behan was judged by the assassination attempt of two policemen in Dublin who had attended the anniversary commemoration of Theobald Wolfe Tone, father of Irish Republicanism. Sentenced to 14 years in prison, he was imprisoned in the Mountjoy prison and in the Curragh. This stage is narrated in his posthumous book ‘Confessions of an Irish Rebel’ [‘Confessions of an Irish rebel’, Txalaparta, 1999; translation of Maite Mujika]. Released by the amnesty of 1946, Behan gave up his armed militancy at the age of 23 and, although he left the IRA, he kept great friends there, such as the future chief of staff Cathal Goulding.
The truth is that prison experiences were the main source of inspiration for his literary work. In Mountjoy he wrote his first play, ‘The Landlady’, and his first short stories, some of which were published in the Irish literary magazine The Bell. Behan also learned the Irish language in prison and, after his release, spent some time in the Gaeltachtaí of Galway and Kerry, where he began writing poetry in Irish. He lived in Paris in the 50s, where he wanted to get lost to liberate the artist he had inside.
Back in Ireland, he was already a writer, who got up early to work from seven until twelve, when the pubs opened. He collaborated with several newspapers, such as the Irish Times, and radio stations, which broadcast his work ‘The Leaving Party’. He got a reputation as a heavy drinker, sharing partying with other literati of his time, such as Flann O’Brien, Patrick Kavanagh, Anthony Cronin and J. P. Donleavy.
The fate of Behan changed in 1954 with the appearance of his work ‘The Quare Fellow’, his main success. Influenced by her time in prison, the play, originally titled ‘The Twisting of Another Rope’, narrates the vicissitudes of prison life until the execution of ‘the quare fellow’, which is never seen. The dialogue is vivid and satirical, but reveals to the reader all the rottenness that surrounds the death penalty. After its premiere in Dublin, was represented in London, where he reaped a success, which contributed the appearance of the author, completely drunk, in a television program, which captivated the English public. When the play came to Broadway, Behan received international recognition.
In 1957 he wrote in Irish ‘An Giall’ (the hostage), where he tells of the arrest by the IRA, in Dublin in the early 50’s, of a British soldier, taken hostage pending the execution already scheduled an IRA volunteer imprisoned in Northern Ireland. History speaks of the human cost of war, universal suffering. The following year Behan himself would write the English translation, ‘The Hostage’.
In 1958 publishes ‘Borstal Boy’ (reformatory boy), an autobiographical novel of his passage through the reformatory of Hollesley. From its pages emerges an original voice in Irish literature, a language both bitter and delicate. To be a Republican, it is not a vitriolic attack on Britain. We find a Behan who moves away from violence. The rebellious idealist boy gives way to a young realist who recognizes the truth, the uselessness of violence. [Recently it has been published in Spanish (translation by Sonia Fernández Ordás): ‘Delinquente juvenil’, Ediciones del Viento, 2008].
His fame led him to walk his alcoholism through the sets of televisions, becoming a caricature of the Irish drunk. The public wanted to see the bad guy, iconoclastic and great. But his health suffered. He started suffering from diabetic comas. His latest books (‘Brendan Behan’s Island’ and ‘Brendan Behan’s New York’, 1962 and 1964) no longer had the same level as the previous ones. [This last one published in Spanish (translation of Julio Laví): ‘My New York’, Marbot, 2008].
His family (his wife Beatrice, with whom he married in 1955, and his daughter Blanaid, born in 1963) could not prevent him from continuing to move towards the ethylic abyss. On March 20, 1964, at age 41, Brendan Behan died at Meath Hospital in Dublin. He was buried in the Glasnevin Cemetery, where he received honors from the IRA.
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