In 1939, Behan was discovered in Liverpool with bomb-making materials and arrested as an IRA terrorist. Sixteen years old, he was treated as a juvenile and sentenced to three years in a Borstal. Borstal Boy is the autobiography that resulted from his experience. It belongs both to the genre of prison literature and to the long history of Irish-English relations, or animosities. It is also a coming-of-age story, similar to Mark Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1884) and J. D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye (1951). Additionally, it is a great comic work. Finally, as a work reflecting prison life it bears comparison with The Quare Fellow.
The dialogue and use of dialect in both are superb, although the longer scope of Borstal Boy allows for greater digression, sometimes too much. The book, particularly the latter part, is often episodic. Behan, associated with the IRA and in possession of explosives when he was arrested, nevertheless quickly developed friendly relations with most of his guards and the other authorities as well as his fellow prisoners. Undoubtedly that was a result of Behan’s exuberant personality, but it also says something about Behan’s awareness of, and sympathy for, the universality of human experience. He was able to separate the English as a people from the policy of their government toward Ireland, which he deplored. In fact, young Behan, the urban Dubliner, often...
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