Brendan Behan – My Flawed Hero

Brendan and Jackie Gleason (Wikimedia Commons)

Brendan Behan is one of my heroes, and he was a flawed human just like me. It is probably because of him that I wanted to become a writer. I first became aware of Brendan’s work during my early teens. Somebody put a copy of Borstal Boy in my hands and nothing was ever quite the same afterwards. This memoir completely captivated me from the first page. It played with my emotions in a way that I had never experienced with any other book.

Brendan Behan forced me into a world that existed decades before my birth. He made me endure every feeling along with him. I cried and laughed, and when I reached the end of the book he made me go right back to page one and begin the story all over again. Brendan didn’t tell you how he felt but instead made you feel it with him – something only a truly talented writer can achieve.

Growing Up In Brendan Behan’s Dublin

Of course, I had heard of Brendan Behan before I read his books. I grew up in Dublin, so it would be impossible to avoid hearing about him. My grandfather had worked for Johnston Mooney & O’Brien’s in Ballsbridge. He would entertain me with stories of meeting Brendan in the local pubs. The writer would often turn up to the bar with his typewriter and rarely left without making a drunken scene. I laughed at this. I liked the idea of Brendan writing his books while also spending the day getting stupid-drunk.

The more I read of Brendan Behan the greater his affect on me. His way with words was just so special. He could come across as a right git one minute, but have you almost crying for his misfortune the next. He would be rebel-rousing in one chapter, and acting like the most hardened-Republican, but the next he would be pointing out our common humanity. His story of going to bomb the Brits because of his early hatred of them developed to an understanding that we were all deep down suffering from the same common condition. Brendan taught me at the age of thirteen that things weren’t simply black and white – especially people.

I remember reading his biography and stories of how he was such a voracious reader as a child. One day there was no books nearby so he started reading bus tickets – I was like that too. My father worried that I read too much as a child and would chase me out of the house.

Brendan Behan Has a Lot to Teach Us about Terrorism

When he was sixteen years old, Brendan tried to plant bombs in England. He was caught and sent to borstal. Despite his earlier terrorist activities his work was later well received in the UK. In fact, many of the old enemy fell in love with this drunken Irishman. His books and plays provided a more complex view of the human race – it wasn’t simply about good and evil. His play ‘The Quare Fellow’ showed capital punishment for what it was – a barbaric act. Borstal Boy showed how we can all be driven by our cultural or religious influences but at a deep level we are still the same. This message is something that is so sorely needed in an age when so many people are trying to demonize other groups. To simply call our enemies evil didn’t work back then and it doesn’t work now.

Brendan the Drunken Irishman (Wikimedia Commons)

Brendan Behan and Me

Of course, there was no ignoring Brendan’s alcohol addiction, but in my teens this just made him all the more glamorous. I loved the story of how he was sent to England by the IRA to fetch an escaped prisoner and bring him back to Ireland. Even though Brendan had been banned from entering the UK he got hopelessly drunk on the ferry over. The escaped republican had to carry Brendan onto the boat and the two of them nearly got caught. It was only the fact that Brendan was starting to become famous that he wasn’t shot by his own people. As a teenager this just made Brendan seem more of a hero. I didn’t realize that it just meant he was out of control.

I followed Brendan Behan into addiction. I stayed there for almost two decades, but unlike him I escaped. All these years later and Brendan’s alcoholism no longer seems like a sign of great artistic depth. I can now see the reality. Addiction stole everything from him. His talent didn’t come from a bottle but instead that is where he lost it -such a waste. Brendan was 41 when he died, and this is the same age that I’m now.

In some ways my early fascination with Behan was naive. He wasn’t quite the great man that I thought him to be. All the same though, he sure had a way with words. He had a talent that only a few people possess – not only the ability to write, but the ability to see human nature at its core. For a tragically short period. he could put his observations in written form and they still remain for us to enjoy – the drink couldn’t steal that from him.

I sometimes wonder what my hero might think of me. Maybe he would see me as a bit of a traitor because I don’t share his Irish Republican sympathies (those ideas didn’t make it past my teens). He probably wouldn’t have even considered me a real Dubliner because I grew up in the suburbs. Most of all though I wonder what Brendan would have thought about my adopted home – Thailand. He wrote two travel books; Brendan Behan’s Island and Brendan Behan’s New York. Imagine if there had been a Brendan Behan’s Thailand – now that would be a cracking read.

Buy Borstal Boy in Amazon US

Buy Borstal Boy in Amazon UK

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14 thoughts on “Brendan Behan – My Flawed Hero

  1. Paul a wonderful write up about Brendan Behan, I’m sure the great man could have found little fault in it. I’m also sure Thailand would have been perfect for Behan’s love of the social life, although he may have passed on a couple of years earlier if he’d made Thailand his home.

    We all have our heroes from our younger days and mine was a writer of sorts. Rock star Steve Harley was the person I looked up to mainly because I thought his song lyrics were outstanding.

    “Judy Teen, the queen of the scene, she’s rag doll amore
    Verbal slang, American twang, you dare not ignore
    In from New York, prompted her to talk of superballs
    Judy Teen grew sick of the scene, just bragging to fools”

    Thanks for taking me down your memory lane and dropping me off at mine.

      1. Paul, maybe one day but I’m more liable to post about my favourite Thai rock star Loso, I really do like his songs even though I can’t understand many of the words. I’ve got three of his CD’s at the village house and sometimes I put one on, open the front windows and go sit in the garden with a beer. Happy days.

        1. I remember a few years ago coming across a blog about Sek Loso created by a westerner. It was quite well done as far as I remember. I look forward to your blog post on this subject.
          When I was a teenager I’d buy fanzines for different punk and indie bands. They were always made from cheap paper and badly typed and full of spelling mistakes. At the time though they seemed impressive; they cost about a quid – we really are spoiled these days. Maybe you but such a fanzine for Steve Harley?

  2. Paul, I love reviews such as these. I hadn’t heard of Brendan Behan, but I now have my page open so if you could advise which of his many books to purchase, I’d love to read his work.

    Seems you looked up to Brendan as a roll model same as I did my wild grand mother. On a recent trip home, my straight-laced mother was horrified to learn how her own mother had influenced my wicked ways.

    1. Hi Catherine, I’d recommend ‘Borstal Boy’. They made a movie out of this a couple of years ago but it was nowhere near as good as the book – not that I’m the first person to ever make such an observation. His later books weren’t so good because the booze had taken much of his talent by then.

  3. I find this short article with your reference to “Brendan – Borstal Boy” the best piece I have read of your short works. It is clear and the deep personal influence of Brendan seen through your eyes is conveyed “Heartfelt;” I feel the sensation that must have pulsated through your veins when you found your “HERO.” And the road you traveled with him and at the time when the road forked you chose to pursue a higher mission in life. Our youthful heroes filled with adventures our “Wild Rovers & Playboy of the Western World,’ characters “beguiling” filled of wonderment and invincible.

    I have to admit I prefer your style of writing to Brendan’s it maybe generational I find him to “flowery,” and at times I lost he’s stream of consciousness.

    Thank you for sending me this article I greatly enjoyed reading it. You are definitely pursuing your advocation.

    1. Thanks Eul, I really appreciate your nice comment. This is actually my third attempt at writing about Brendan Behan. I wasn’t happy with the first two attempts, but I think this one is nearer to what I want to say.

  4. I like this idea. I think I will have to write about my heroes 🙂 Hmmmm. Inspirational.

    Haven’t heard of Brendan before but I’m always on the lookout for good authors.

    I used to read everything too, like things in the bathroom, shampoo bottles, you name it. English pops out in the Thai landscape like a motorbike cop so I feel like I’m forever reading.

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