Book Review: Brendan Behan’s Island

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Brendan Behan happily in the element that ultimately proved too much for him.

The wonderful thing about having lots of books is that every now and again you stumble across a book you’ve never read, forgotten you had, and can’t even remember where you originally got the thing.

The book I stumbled across was a first edition of the American printing (Bernard Geiss Associates, distributed by Random House) of Brendan Behan’s wild, undisciplined, very personal, frequently very funny tour of his beloved native Ireland. I use the word “tour” loosely; think of stumbling from pub to pub, with occasional bouts of sobriety to lure you on to a new pub, a new conversation, or a quasi-legal—I’m being charitable—escapade. The book is entitled Brendan Behan’s Island: An Irish Sketch Book, a title that must have amused him to come up with, because the book is profusely illustrated with marvelous sketches by the artist Paul Hogarth, member of the Royal Academy, OBE, and a distant descendant of the famed late-Jacobean-early Georgian artist and engraver William Hogarth.

Brendan Behan is largely forgotten today outside of Ireland, primarily because he is best known for two wildly original plays (The Quare Fellow and The Hostage) which were very well received when they were first produced. Both plays were, in fact, good enough to have multiple productions, starting in Dublin, then migrating to London and thence on to New York. Sadly, the qualities that made them so original and unique back during Behan’s lifetime (1923-1964) have made them dated today in ways that Sean O’Casey’s plays (The Shadow of a Gunman, Juno and the Paycock, The Plough and the Stars, and others) and J. M. Synge’s (Riders to the Sea, The Playboy of the Western World) seem to have avoided. O’Casey’s plays and Synge’s are both revived fairly regularly in repertory, summer stock and college (The Irish Repertory Theater is currently doing the three O’Casey plays mentioned above in New York), but I’ve never seen or even heard of a production of either of Behan’s plays. That’s a shame because, as Stanislavski said, we don’t go to the theater to see what the playwright has written; we got to the theater to see what the playwright has not written. My imagination is pretty good, and God knows I’m used to reading scripts, but I would love to see Behan’s words come alive on the tongues of some good actors.

Both of Behan’s plays are hard and unsentimental looks at the inevitable effects of violence and war. But those hard, unsentimental looks are portrayed against a counter point of comedy that ranges from clever verbal pyrotechnics to slapstick. Both plays are very funny, irreverent, and include an unusual—for their time—and completely unique style of breaking the fourth wall. In The Hostage, the wild assortment of disparate characters (gays, transvestites, whores, hard-bitten IRA soldiers, a naïve young farm girl, the equally naïve young British hostage, and one or two who are just plain crazy) all periodically stop the action to perform song and dance routines. In The Quare Fellow, double-tough convicts waiting for an unseen fellow convict to be executed (the quare fellow, “quare” being an Irish corruption of “queer,” which was the slang term given to any prisoner sentenced to death) trade very funny insults with each other and their guards, and two of them do a Samba at one point. (I know, I know, but trust me, it works.)

Behan’s closest living dramatic relative today is probably Martin McDonagh, author of some wickedly wacky and darkly funny plays, and—less fortunately—the author and director of the movie, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, which I emphatically detested ( in part because it didn’t work as a coherent and believable artistic whole, and in part because I’ve had all I can take of intellectually and morally superior elites sneering at smelly deplorables in fly-over country, and I especially don’t like it when that particular elite isn’t even an American.

Brendan Behan’s Island is the antithesis of that hoity-toity attitude. Behan was from a tough, brawling, alcoholic, working-class, republican (think IRA revolutionary) family, albeit an educated one, and he clearly both liked and respected the impoverished laborers, farmers, fishermen, racetrack touts, scruffy artists and writers, fellow revolutionaries, and ne’er-do-wells he knew and wrote about. In fact, The Quare Fellow, set entirely in a prison, shows Behan liked and respected most of the convicts with whom he spent too many years of his too short life (a result of his own IRA activities). His father was a house-painter and he was born in the Mountjoy area of Dublin, and to give you an idea of what that area was like, I’ll quote, in its entirety, J.M. Synge’s poem, The Curse, subtitled, To a sister of an enemy of the author’s who disapproved of “The Playboy” [of the Western World]:

Lord, confound this surly sister,

Blight her brow with blotch and blister,

Cramp her larynx, lung, and liver,

In her guts a galling give her.

Let her live to earn her dinners

In Mountjoy with seedy sinners:

Lord, this judgement quickly bring,

And I’m your servant, J.M. Synge.  

Synge didn’t want her to live in Mountjoy because it was classy and elegant, hence what is possibly the most perfect response to a critic ever penned, though Behan himself came close with his famous aphorism:

“Critics are like eunuchs in a harem; they know how it’s done, they’ve seen it done every day, but they’re unable to do it themselves.”

And that quote gives you a small taste of what his book is like: funny, pugnacious, irreverent, and frequently rambling haphazardly from thought to thought. One gets the impression Mr. Behan’s pub visits frequently interrupted his intended itinerary, or possibly just erased it from the hard drive altogether.

He starts in Dublin, proceeds logically to Killarney, in County Kerry, then County Cork (birthplace of one half of my own ancestors), on to Galway and what he calls “The Bleak West,” and then up to “The Black North,” only the journey is frequently interrupted with asides in the forms of poems, songs, reminiscences of IRA heroes and activities, a full-length one-act play, and more anecdotes than you could shake a whiskey at.

Much of Behan’s writing involves considerable use of Irish patois, slang, and local vernacular—hell, some of it’s written in Irish—so it takes a little patience to figure out what certain terms and phrases mean, but the journey is well worth the effort. I’ll give you a taste of Behan’s writing and his penchant for anecdotes as a small appetizer of what you can expect in the unlikely event you’re ever able to lay your hands on a copy of Brendan Behan’s Island, an Irish Sketch-Book:

“As I said, it’s a very affluent city, Cork, with a good reputation for work, and it was there that Henry Ford in 1920 established their first European factory. Some time thereabouts the Cork Brigade of the IRA were conducting some operations against the British that necessitated the use of motor transport—lorries—which the Brigade didn’t have. Fords, of course, had plenty, so a few of the IRA went down and held up the staff and the manager and demanded some lorries in the name of the Irish Republic.

“The manager of the works, being a very clever and quick-thinking man, announced, ‘I’m sorry,’ he said, ‘you can’t have any in the name of the Irish Republic because these works,’ he said, ‘are the property of a citizen of the United States of America with which the Irish Republic is not at war.’

“But the commanding officer of the IRA was what the times demanded of him, a quicker-thinking man, and he turned away and wrote something on a piece of paper. He turned back to the manager and, ‘Here,’ he said, ‘read that.’

“And the manager read out: ‘In the name of the Irish Republic, I solemnly do as from this moment declare war on the United States of America.’

“‘Now,’ says the commanding officer, ‘hand over them bloody lorries quick.’”

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1 thought on “Book Review: Brendan Behan’s Island”

  1. Several video and audio recordings of him on the internet. Entertaining and sad. Amazing that as inebriated as he so often was he could communicate and write so well (seems to be a talent especially amongst certain Irish, Scott’s and Welsh men).. There is an old radio show from the 50’s of the play you mention online.

    The Wikipedia entry for him says his latter books included the one you review were dictated by him rather than written down or typed by him. Don’t see that available to listen to…that would be something.


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