On the anniversary of the novelist’s death (February 9), Clare McCormick recalls possibly his most popular short-story
Every child preparing for Confirmation at this time, I feel sure would have been given the classic ‘The Confirmation Suit’ to read. The author – Brendan Francis Behan – an Irish republican and a volunteer in the Irish Republican Army, was a novelist, an Irish poet, short story writer, and a playwright.
He was born on February 9, 1923, and he died March 20, 1964.
When Brendan wrote ‘The Confirmation Suit’ which was published in 1962 in ‘Brendan Behan’s Island: An Irish Sketch Book’, he drew on his own experience. I happened to read it again recently and it gave me as much pleasure as when I happened on it many years ago.
It is the story of the preparations a boy of twelve is making for his Confirmation. Those involved include a grandmother, who has a nest-egg she can dip into, unlike many in the neighbourhood. In the boy’s eyes she can afford luxuries – canned meats, malt, snuff and drink porter.
Grandmother’s neighbour, a Ms McCann, who is a tailor, and who makes the confirmation suit out of the goodness of her heart, and to the consternation of the boy. It’s not at all what he had in mind.
The vibrant language used for each character reflects Dublin working class, and yet each character has a unique delivery and individual style of speech. It is easy to imagine the characters and environment, it puts me in mind of Frank O’Conner’s ‘First Confession’, a story also narrated by a young boy with similar characters who might also reside over the road in Mountjoy Square around that time.
The story reflects everyday tenement life where neighbours shared every hiccup and affliction that came their way. There was little choice on that score for families living in large rooms in such close proximity to one another.
It is very easy for the reader to have empathy with the protagonist in this story for everyone in life has had a time where they have reflected, with shame or regret, on their behaviour or response to some event, and while the story is fiction or ‘faction’, we can easily identify with the narrator.
The best short stories are those that play on the wide spectrum of emotions. In life, comedy and tragedy are closely linked, and are in the telling of many great stories. Brendan was a natural master on captivating the reader in his tales of everyday life and events of a particular time…
We have all known a Ms McCann and there is an Aunt Jack somewhere in every extended family. How we all had a fear of what the Bishop might ask us on the day, and how we remember that green Catechism and the fear that our mind would freeze and we would have no tongue in our head to respond to the Bishop, and oh! the relief at the end when we answered correctly or, as in my own case he passed over me, as I stood small between my taller comrades, leaving me momentarily with mixed feelings of disappointment and relief.
In my own case, my maternal grandmother was also a tailor and I had a very similar experience as with the boy and the suit. One August, when I was nine-years-old, I was called indoors, away from play on a scorching day, for to have a ‘fitting’ for a coat my gran was making from an adult coat.
It was Cherry red. I was a right little miss then, complaining and refusing to stand still while it was pinned and I did not hide my bad temper. My grandmother called me ‘a right little madam!’
Came September, first day back at school, how I loved that coat to bits; the warm snug fit, the feel of the silky lining, the collar. And every time an admiring remark was make about the coat my cheeks burned with shame and regret remembering my bad, ungrateful behaviour.
Flann O’ Brien called Mr. Behan “a fearless denouncer of humbug and pretense.” To me, he was a great writer reflecting Irish life without frills. ■