Saturday 25 February 2023

Brendan Behan Revisited


Brendan Behan would have celebrated his 100th birthday a couple of weeks back if he’d stayed alive. But that was hardly on the cards for a hell-raising, working class writer from Dublin with a drinking problem.


Rarely has legend so obscured an artist; you have to wonder why? Well, Behan was larger than life, and in the incestuous, competitive world of Dublin letters he was considered to have jumped the queue. 


The fact that he had left school at 14 to become a house painter didn’t help, for Ireland in the 1950s was more class conscious than Calcutta, and Brendan was most definitely from the wrong side of town.


From this distance it’s often hard to distinguish the man from the fumes of alcohol that seem to swirl around him.


Drinker he was, but one who dealt with undiagnosed diabetes for much of his life. It’s also conveniently unmentioned that he often went “on the dry” for long stretches. 


But make no mistake Brendan Behan was a first class writer who turned out two successful Broadway plays and one of the best coming of age memoirs in literature. Try achieving what he did in his 41 years either on or off the bottle – it’s close to impossible. 


Oddly enough, Mr. Behan is now far more appreciated in the world of music than theatre. He was an authentic rebel in word and deed, and that counts for a lot in the realm of Celtic Rock - not to mention he wrote The Auld Triangle.


While Shane MacGowan never aped Behan, the Dubliner’s influence informed the Pogues singer. And why not, North Side Brendan learned his Gaeilge in jail and delved deep into the “hidden Ireland” of seanchaĆ­ and bard long before Shane.


It’s hard to understand the man without an appreciation of his Republican roots and beliefs. Behan was an actual rebel who longed for a 32-County Gaelic Republic, hence his attempt to blow up the Liverpool docks during World War II. 


He spent 7 years of his short life in British jails and Irish internment camps for his troubles. Those lost years undoubtedly damaged the man and his psyche. 


I first heard of him while listening to the BBC news with my grandparents. Brendan had been arrested for outrageous behavior in Toronto. To which my granny muttered, “That fellah should be ashamed of himself, making a show of the country abroad.”


Though I wasn’t even a teenager I took note of his name. Anyone who could shake up a calcified Ireland ruled by the church and de Valera was fine by me.


His two successful plays, though enormously influential in their day, are rarely performed now. Though there can be a slap-dash quality to them, yet a mighty heart beats within. Set in Mountjoy Jail, The Quare Fellow played a major part in the banning of capital punishment in Ireland and the UK.


While The Hostage (adapted from his own An Giall) was way ahead of its time, as was Behan. In those puritan days of the 1950s Behan dealt openly with homosexuality - his flamboyant Princess Grace in The Hostage was undoubtedly the first black queer character to grace Irish theatre.


Although barely a footnote in Broadway history now, Brendan was a friend and rival of Arthur Miller, Tennessee Williams, and Norman Mailer. He is often credited with introducing the hip Alan Ginsberg to uptown audiences, and a young Bob Dylan was so enamored he trailed the Irishman around Greenwich Village hoping for a word.


Though drink and diabetes delivered the fatal blow, fame killed Brendan Behan. His need for it was deep-seated and originated in a deprived working class Dublin background. Anything to stand out from the crowd was acceptable to Behan; the fact that critics wrote about him was more important than what they said.


A proud man, and the voice of his class and political faction, he was never less than aware that in his later years his talent for writing was slipping away, yet he still longed to be the center of attention.


Now that we have passed the centenary of his birth, perhaps we’ll be able to re-evaluate this ever-popular poet of the people, and excavate the man and writer from the shambles of his myth and legend.

Monday 13 February 2023

Eleanor Rigby and all the lonely people

 Eleanor Rigby changed it all for The Beatles. Up until then they had rarely strayed far from the conventions of pop music: boy meets girl, girl dumps boy, boy gets over her, and meets his true love.

“Ah, look at all the lonely people.” Paul crooned, changing the way The Beatles looked at lyrics and the way we looked at The Beatles.

Like everyone else, I assumed that Eleanor was a widow or a spinster of a certain age. It never occurred to me that Ms. Rigby might be a teenager. Loneliness lay far ahead in the dark and distant future.

How things have changed. A recent poll found that up to 60% of Americans suffer from loneliness. What happened?

I can tell how things changed in Ireland, for I grew up there before television became the beaming god in the corner that has entranced, and even enslaved, whole generations.

Wexford was a small but vibrant town of 12,000 back then. One was at least on nodding acquaintance with 3,000 of those bustling souls, and they knew everyone else.

Loneliness would have been almost impossible in such a setting. Unless you were in a fierce hurry, a walk the length of Main Street could take over an hour, between stopping to chat, sharing a laugh, or wondering aloud would our hurlers ever make it to the All Ireland again.

At home it was much the same, whatever gossip you had picked up on your stroll would be shared, parsed, and interpreted, while there was always an excellent chance that a friend or relation would drop by bringing more tidings.

There was no such thing as age demographics: you were expected to hold your own with aged grandfather and terrible two-year old without discrimination.

As for pubs – there were no young pubs or old pubs, age was not a factor; company –good or bad – was prized above everything.

Wexford, though still a friendly town, has changed. There are probably 50% fewer pubs than in my youth, and as I gazed out my hotel window on a recent visit, Main Street was deserted at 8pm. There were no people to be seen – lonely or otherwise.

Over here in the US, I can chart the growth of loneliness a lot easier. New York, contrary to popular opinion, has always been one of the friendliest of cities and I can say that with some certainty, having spent time with Black 47 in every major US city, and many a minor one too.

Now, it is true that you not only don’t speak to people on New York subways, you don’t even look at them unless you’re sure they’re unaware of the attention. But on the streets there is much interaction, often gruff, but rarely threatening.

And yet, it’s a very different city than the one I first came to in the 1970’s, and it’s hard to ignore the growing wave of loneliness that has seeped into our concrete canyons.

What’s different? Well, two New York institutions are fast disappearing.

Dive bars are going under because of rents. There used to be so many of these homey holes in the wall, with a jukebox to die for, low prices, much laughter, and little in the way of a television.

The neighborhood saloon is also in decline. Remember them, family owned joints where people came to talk over a few beers, replaced now by soulless sports bars with deafening music, and wall-to-wall mesmerizing screens beaming endless games that no one seems to care about.

The real catalyst for loneliness however is the smart phone. Why waste time conversing or making friends when a Kardashian or a flashing ad is just a touch away.

You don’t even have to go in person to the track or a casino anymore – you can gamble your life away without jostling with humans, or interacting with bookie or dealer.

Our circles continue to get smaller, friendship always took effort, we just weren’t aware of it when we were out on the town; there were so many opportunities to exchange a few words or just smile at a stranger.

Instead, we hunker down at home with our phones and don’t even notice that Paul may be crooning in our direction, “Ah, look at all the lonely people.”