Critical Context

The Quare Fellow was Brendan Behan’s first major literary success, and it made him an international celebrity. Begun in 1946 and titled “Casadh Sugain Eile” (the twisting of another rope), the play was intended as a one-act radio production.

The play originated in Behan’s prison years (he was jailed at age sixteen and served an eight-year sentence for involvement with the Irish Republican Army) and is rooted firmly in lived experience. In Mountjoy Prison, the inmates referred to a condemned man as “the quare fellow,” and one acquaintance of Behan, Bernard Kirwan, had been convicted of murdering his brother. The night before he died, Kirwan told Behan, “I will be praying for you in Heaven tonight.” Many of the events surrounding this hanging found their way into the play.

The success of the play encouraged Behan’s already outlandish personal proclivities. The week after the play opened, he appeared, clearly intoxicated, on British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) television for a nearly unintelligible interview with Malcolm Muggeridge. Behan the person became as popular as Behan the writer; as his success grew, so did his physical dissipation.

The Quare Fellow encouraged Behan to move on to the greatest work of his short career, The Borstal Boy (1958), a gripping memoir of his years of incarceration. His later play The Hostage (pr., pb. 1958) was also an international success, elevating him in the minds of many to the ranks of one of Ireland’s most outstanding twentieth century playwrights.

Like Sean O’Casey before him, Behan explored the lives of working-class people and the dubious glories of patriots. Behan’s work reveals a keen ear for spoken language with all of its possibilities for subtlety, extravagance, wit, and pathos. His immediate subject in work after work is Ireland—its people, its troubles, its uniqueness—but as The Quare Fellow demonstrates, Behan also spoke to the human condition. It is as both Irish and world writer that Behan will be remembered.