(Literary Essentials: Nonfiction Masterpieces)

Because they belong to an outlawed political organization, and because their activities—if they are to be successful—must be accomplished anonymously and become known only by their (often literally explosive) effects, members of the IRA remain covert subversives, necessarily attempting to stay out of the public eye. Whether they are regarded as ruthless terrorists preying on innocent civilians or patriotic freedom fighters seeking an autonomous homeland that has too long been denied, relatively little is typically known about them apart from the self-evident ardor of their commitment and the legendary willingness of those who have been captured to become martyrs for their cause. Borstal Boy, however, is a surprising and extraordinarily intimate self-portrait of an IRA member as a young man: Its first-person narrative is not only unexpectedly unpolemical but also compassionate, always frank and often witty, disarmingly human and remarkably humane.

Although there can be no doubt that, when challenged by the authorities or when teased by the English boys about Ireland or the IRA’s bombing campaign, Behan “was never short of an answer [that was] historically informed and obscene,” few such polemics are to be found within the book itself. Apart from his initial defiant statement after being apprehended (intended largely for propaganda purposes in England and for notice at home in Ireland) and his genuinely angry outburst against the condescension and smugness of the priest in Walton Prison, Behan’s commitment to the IRA remains a subordinate theme of Borstal Boy. Instead of emphasizing the ideology that sets him apart from his captors, his church, and his fellow inmates (almost all of whom are English), Behan repeatedly shows his humane solidarity with—and genuine compassion for—his fellow prisoners, whatever their crimes may have been. Though he is ready to fight whenever necessary (and acts of sometimes brutal violence recur throughout the first two parts of the book), Paddy Behan’s repeated acts of kindness—consoling, encouraging, and defending others as needed—earn for him the esteem and affection of his compatriots.

At times, Behan reveals that, notwithstanding his adolescent bravado and his sincere support of the Irish cause, his devotion to political goals is less fervid than it seems: In Walton Prison, he contrasts himself with the more ardently defiant Callan (an older IRA member whose shouted political slogans and sly subversions of prison routines earn for him a severe beating from the guards), and later he expresses a frank preference for the company of his English friends in the boys’ prison and...

(The entire section is 1090 words.)