Janet Behan was ten years old when her famous Uncle Brendan passed away.
She remembers the famed Irish literary figure as a generous loving human being with a high level of intelligence, as well as a man with many faults.
As a child, she recalls being more infatuated with his lovely kitten during a visit to his Beersbridge residence than having an awareness of Behan’s contribution to Ireland’s literary heritage, but as the years past she grew increasingly infatuated with the life and talents of her father Brian’s exceptional older brother.
A successful actress in her own right, Janet was commissioned to write a play on the life of Brendan Behan around six years ago. Although she had little contact with him while he was alive, she felt that she had listened to enough stories and anecdotes about him from family members to sufficiently qualify her to take on the project.
The result was the acclaimed “Brendan at the Chelsea”, which was first staged in London, in 2008. The play is set in the famous hotel in 1963, during his second trip to New York, and a short time before his death, in March 1964, at the age of 41.
“The play was very well received, much to my relief,” says Janet. “It made audiences laugh and cry but also let me see what he means to the Irish people; Brendan belongs to everyone after all. He was a very well read young man. His dad used to read from many literary greats, including “The Pickwick Papers”, to the children at bedtime. They inherited a vast literary education while being brought up in a very culturally rich household. Having said that he was quite a precocious child and often ran into trouble with the nuns.”
“He read a lot while in Borstal and the Curragh and I think it was while there that he found his own voice. He became a wonderful figure to represent the working class and his ability to succeed was an inspiration to many that had obstacles to overcome in life.”
Brendan Francis Behan was born in Dublin’s Holles Street Hospital on February 9, 1923.
He was part of a family of five children including brothers Dominic, Brian and Seamus and sister, Carmel. His parents were Stephen and Kathleen and they lived at number 13, Russell Street, near Mountjoy Square, in a house which was owned by his grandmother, Christine English. It was very much a republican family and his father played an active role in the War of Independence.
At the age of 13, Brendan wrote a lament to Michael Collins called ‘The Laughing Boy’ which was how his mother referred to the Corkman, a personal friend of hers.
His mother is reported to have acted as a courier to James Connolly during the Easter Rising, she also took her children on literary tours of Dublin. His uncle, Peadar Kearney, wrote the original English words of the Irish national anthem, “The Soldier’s Song”.
Also at the age of 13, Brendan left school to follow in his father’s footsteps and work as a house painter. In 1937, the family moved to Crumlin. Around this time he became a member of Fianna Eireann, the youth organisation of the Irish Republican Army, and began to contribute work to “The United Irishman”.