The two brothers left school at the age of thirteen to become house painters. Both ended up Irish republicans, socialists, playwrights, songwriters, memoirists, troublemakers, drinkers and many other things besides.
Brendan became a world-renowned playwright, though few today have seen his work; he is better known as an Irish boozer who lived life to the scandalous fullest.
Dominic, when recognized at all, is known best for his battle with Bob Dylan over the comparative merits of their songs, The Patriot Game and With God On Our Side.
Brendan’s star has always shone brighter but there is a case to be made that Dominic may now be the more influential.
I first became aware of this when I noticed how many versions of his songs I was playing on my SiriusXM radio show.
I was long aware that he had written Patriot Game, arguably the greatest protest song. Take a listen to Liam Clancy’s mesmerizing version from Carnegie Hall in 1962.
Yet, in a testament to his tetchiness, Dominic found fault with the fact that Liam had pragmatically omitted the verse that spoke about killing policemen – small wonder when performing before an Irish-American audience.
Dominic had a reputation for being a mean drunk and could be his own worst enemy; yet one can sympathize with him over Bob Dylan lifting the tone and character of Patriot Game and recasting it as God On Our Side. We, of course, are the winners, for now we have two magnificent songs, where once there was one.
Try telling Dominic that! For years he publicly insulted Dylan with the hope of luring him into court.
But to get back to the brothers Behan, I had always assumed that The Auld Triangle from Brendan’s powerful play, The Quare Fellah, was his own song. But, lo and behold, Dominic wrote it.
The Auld Triangle continues to improve with age – take a listen to recent versions by Swell Season and Dropkick Murphys. Dominic, indeed, etched his songs in granite. His best stand up effortlessly to time and fashion, and are the equal of anything written by the great Ewan McColl, his friend and rival.
Now you may not be overly impressed with some of his other creations, The Merry Ploughboy, Come Out Ye Black & Tans, or Take it Down From the Mast, but I had always assumed these doughty standards predated him.
Still, there are few lyrics that sum up the hardship and casual heroism of the Irish emigrant experience better than McAlpine’s Fusiliers. I would go so far to say that without that song The Pogues, and Paddy Rock in general, would have been far less authentic.
And what of Brendan? Well, if you’ve never read Borstal Boy, you have a treat in store. As a very erudite gentleman once said to me, “after reading that memoir, I felt that I had missed out on an important part of my education.”
I haven’t seen his other great play, The Hostage, since Jim Sheridan directed it at the Irish Arts Center in the 80’s. Likewise, I haven’t heard of a recent production of The Quare Fellah, one of the most damning indictments of capital punishment. I wonder how both plays are standing up to the test of time.
Writers, however, wax and wane in public estimation and it often takes a director from a different generation to discover the play’s original impetus, shake it loose from the accrued calcification, and then reinterpret it in the cool light of modernity. Hopefully, that will happen to Brendan’s work soon.
Meanwhile Dominic’s star continues to ascend. Nightly, around the world, singers raise their voices in testament to his humanity, politics, biting humor, and sheer productivity. The guy wrote more than 450 songs including, it is rumored, the beautiful middle verse of Carrickfergus that begins with “They say of life and it has been written…”
Whatever their current ranking, those Behan boys didn’t do too bad for a couple of Dubs who quit school at thirteen. True, they shamed and offended many Irish people by their outlandish behavior, but in the end they affected the very way we perceive ourselves.