Critical Context

Inspired in part by the Irish revolutionist John Mitchel’s Jail Journal: Or, Five Years in British Prisons (1854), Borstal Boy would seem to fit within the literary subgenre of such autobiographical accounts of prison life as Jean Genet’s Journal du voleur (1948, 1949; The Thief’s Journal, 1954), Eldridge Cleaver’s Soul on Ice (1968), and Jack Henry Abbott’s In the Belly of the Beast: Letters from Prison (1981). Yet the unique tone of Behan’s writing—its often-hilarious comedy, its almost complete lack of bitterness, its literary allusiveness, its emphasis on resilience and irrepressibility, its inclusion of frequently bawdy songs and mirth-filled banter—sets it apart from these works. The nature of Behan’s crime also differentiates Borstal Boy from other books of this kind: His intended bombing attempt is now known to have been unauthorized by the IRA leadership, independently undertaken, and poorly planned, having little if any chance of success at the heavily guarded military installation he had targeted. It seems primarily a rash act of adolescent bravado and derring-do rather than the work of a humorless zealot such as those depicted, for example, in Fyodor Dostoevski’s Besy (1871-1872; The Possessed, 1913), Graham Greene’s The Quiet American (1955), or Joseph Conrad’s The Secret Agent (1907).

Fundamentally, Borstal Boy is more nearly comparable to the novels of England’s so-called Angry Young Men from the mid-to-late 1950’s (Kingsley Amis, Alan Sillitoe, John Braine, Keith Waterhouse) in its emphasis on working-class experience, its antiauthoritarianism, its inclusion of sometimes coarse language and formerly “unmentionable” subject matter, its comic vulgarity, and its uninhibited frankness about the body and all of its functions. It particularly resembles Sillitoe’s nonautobiographical novella, The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner (1959), whose first-person narrator is also a teenage Borstal boy, a self-styled outlaw, and a resilient antihero with wit, cunning, and antiauthoritarian defiance.

Like Borstal Boy, Behan’s plays The Quare Fellow (1954) and The Hostage (1958) depict prison-based and IRA-related incidents with his characteristic blend of violence, raucous comedy, and song. Subsequent prose works—including Brendan Behan’s Island (1962) and Confessions of an Irish Rebel (1965)—are edited transcriptions of various anecdotes rather than carefully wrought prose.