Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 502
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 identified more with London cockneys and working-class boys from Liverpool than he did with rural Irishmen.
Behan experienced pain, fear, and brutality, particularly before he arrived at the Borstal, but what remains in the reader’s memory is the humor. Behan could make himself the butt of this humor: On one occasion he was sentenced to solitary confinement for twenty-four hours, restricted to bread and water. During that short period he noted that if a warder had requested that he sing “God Save the King” in exchange for a piece of roast, he, an IRA terrorist, would have immediately complied.
The Borstal to which Behan was sent was organized more like an English public school than a punitive jail (if the distinction is not too fine). The boys had work assignments, but often considerable freedom. During the summer Behan and his “chinas”—best friends—were able to sneak away to the nearby seashore. More than anything else what made the Borstal bearable were the friendships that developed among the boys. On occasion relations were more intimate than simple friendship. In Borstal Boy Behan generally only alludes to the subject of homosexuality; in some of his other writings he was more explicit. As a result of the book’s language, which was profane but realistic, because of the book’s attitude toward the priest who denied Behan the sacraments, and possibly because of the homosexual allusions, Borstal Boy, critically acclaimed in the United Kingdom and the United States, was banned in Ireland. Many other Irish writers’ works were banned as well. Perhaps Behan thought that the banning put him in good company.
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