From spending time behind bars to bringing down the house on Broadway, Thomas Myler recalls meeting writer and playwright Brendan Behan – the ‘wild man of Irish literature’.
‘The Behans make it a royal progress coming into town. Brendan, the curls low on his forehead, like a cheerful Julius Caesar bestowing the accolade of friendship on innumerable acquaintances. Beatrice, slender, like a gentle nun.’ The Irish Press
Brendan Behan is rated among the likes of O’Casey, Wilde, Shaw, Kavanagh, Joyce, Beckett and that kind of exalted company as a giant of Irish literature.
Playwright, novelist, poet, short story writer, satirist, newspaper columnist, showman, IRA activist, drinker, wit, folk singer, housepainter, Gaelic speaker and inveterate talker, Behan was all of these and more.
Yet Brendan is something of a forgotten figure today, over fifty years since his death.
His plays are very rarely performed at The Abbey, our national theatre, or any other theatre for that matter.
‘Behan was decades ahead of his time,’ says John McCourt, Professor of English Literature at the University of Macerata, Italy and editor of a recent book on Brendan, Reading Brendan Behan, published by Cork University Press.
‘He fully deserves to have his voice heard in the Ireland of today, which is always in need of voices like his.’
Brendan charmed the critics and the critics charmed him. ‘He has more than charm,’ said the Sunday Times. ‘He has instinctive kindness and charity, a verbal grace, an unforced assertion of a strong personality.’
O’Casey described Brendan as a ‘genius’ while Kavanagh referred to him as ‘evil incarnate,’ the reason for which has never been fully explained.
The problem, indeed the tragedy, with Behan was that he allowed himself, perhaps unwittingly, to be turned into a caricature of the drunken, brawling Irishman at home and abroad. He was in many ways a victim of his own success.
He admitted that he found fame difficult, and his was not merely fame in Ireland but worldwide, particularly across the United States. He said it paid to be drunk.
‘People expect this boisterous Irishman to be the life and soul of the party, the broth of a boy, downing whatever kind of drink that was put in front of him,’ he confessed.