Born in the glory of Russell Street
You grew up humming Amhrán na Bhfiann
Your auld lad did time in a Free State jail
For Republican activities beyond the pale
You were your Granny’s best boy, your Mammy’s best chap
You loved to butter the old ladies up
But your soul had been scorched with the orange, white and green
You were the one and only Brendan Behan
I often wonder about biographies. Can you really get to the truth of someone you’ve never met?
I was an avid reader of biographies until I happened on one about a friend, Lester Bangs, the iconic rock critic. It was well written and researched, and captured the public image of the man to a T but had scarce little to do with the troubled, insecure person that I often encountered late at night in the Bells of Hell.
Turned out the writer had only met Lester once, and obviously on an occasion when Mr. Bangs was in top myth-making form.
I was very aware of this when writing The Ballad of Brendan Behan for Last Call, the final Black 47 CD. What was the man really like, and when exactly did he morph from the dynamic, socially conscious writer to the pugnacious, often-inebriated public figure of his later years?
One thing for sure, Brendan Behan packed a lot of living into a short life before succumbing from drinking and diabetes 50 years ago. Even back then, few had seen his plays or read his books and yet he was the most infamous Irishmen of his time.
Did the fame kill him or was he always on a one-way track to destruction? One thing I do know, you have to shovel aside a lot of media exaggeration and infatuation to get to the heart of the man. That being done, you come face to face with a force of nature and a very original voice.
For Brendan Behan was the proud, unfettered spokesman for working class Dublin. True, Sean O’Casey had already paraded vital inner-city characters across the world’s stages; but the abstemious O’Casey wrote about other people, Behan rarely wrote about anyone but himself. And therein, lay the seeds of his downfall. For you need a cool head and a pragmatic disposition to navigate the reefs that separate the private from the public personae.
Brendan possessed neither. He was all passion and heat, with no little interest in self-promotion and celebrity. It’s interesting to contrast him with his spiritual heir, Shane McGowan, another singular voice of the people.
Shane has never hidden Behan’s influence, and why should he? He’s one of the many who benefited from Brendan’s proletarian trailblazing. And yet the gap-toothed London singer from day one has had a healthy disregard for the media. Perhaps, that’s what has kept him alive.
“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.”
Despite the defiance of this quote, Brendan – unlike Shane - was deeply wounded by criticism, especially in his final years when it became obvious that he had wasted his talent in endless pub-crawls.
But could his fate have been any different given that he spent so much of his youth in prison, sometimes in solitary confinement? Undoubtedly an alcoholic, he rarely drank at home but was always in need of the warmth of a pub, the liberating effect of gargle, and an audience.
Without fame and publishing advances he would have been just another garrulous drunk who would eventually stagger home and deal with the hangovers and empty pockets. Instead there was always someone who wanted to bask in his glory or a press photographer with an eye for a juicy story.
In the end though Brendan opened the door for so many who didn’t have the proper accent, background or education, but like him had the burning desire to tell the unalloyed story of their lives. And that’s why the “laughing boy” still matters 50 years after his death at the age of 41.
You left us your poetry, your soul and your dreams
You’ll always be our one and only Brendan Behan