Last Updated on May 12, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1090
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 Borstal rather than the ideologues of the bombing campaign. For all of his support of the IRA and his pride in his Irish heritage, Behan ultimately celebrates individual autonomy rather than any institutional authority—whether that of the Catholic church, the British Empire, the penal system, or even the IRA.
Behan’s attitude toward the Church undergoes a radical transformation during the course of Borstal Boy as his prison experience soon causes him to lose his initially secure faith. “Walton scalded my heart with regard to my religion . . . [and] cured me of any idea that religion of any description had anything to do with mercy or pity or love”; the priest there is “an active enemy” who condones his expulsion from the Church, offers no consolation of any kind, and belittles his political views. In Feltham Prison, Behan enjoys (but does not join in) the other boys’ bawdy irreverence during the services; in the Borstal, he finds that he has lost interest in religion entirely, remarking—without bitterness—that his excommunication was “like being pushed outside a prison and told not to come back.” He willingly serves the Mass that he is unable to receive, but he does so solely “in memory of my ancestors.”
Ironically, the book’s one authentic religious experience is felt by a boy known as “Chewlips” during his first visit to a Catholic Mass, but his potentially life-transforming conversion is thwarted by prison authorities, who prevent him from attending further Catholic services because his identification card states that he is a member of the Church of England. For Chewlips, as for Behan, it is social institutions (and the bureaucratic agents of church and state, whether priests or prison guards) that constantly frustrate rather than encourage the development or expression of humane values and the autonomy of the individual—both of which such institutions continually and insidiously try to suppress.
The fact that Behan’s humane values, wit, and personal integrity are so utterly irrepressible accounts in large part for the vitality and warmth of his narrative, which are juxtaposed to all the dehumanizing aspects of his prison experience. Yet because his heroically indomitable spirit is best displayed in adversity, the book’s portrayal of his experience in the Borstal itself lacks the narrative force and suspense of the earlier sections, in which his circumstances were far less benign. Without the narrative tension that was present in the first two parts, the book’s final hundred pages seem a more random collection of anecdotes, often interspersed with the words of favorite songs.
The vitality of Behan’s character is also effectively communicated through the vigor of his prose, which is profanity-laden and full of prison argot as well as Cockney rhyming slang. Though shocking to staid readers of the 1950’s, the book’s frequent obscenities not only contribute to its humor and its consistently frank tone but also are essential to a realistic portrayal of its characters. Behan’s many painstaking revisions refined the book’s style into a type of vulgar lyricism, having its origins in the language really used by men in a state of confinement. Although Behan’s manuscript is no longer extant, the published text appears to have been extensively and inconsistently edited: Sometimes dashes are substituted for the more offensive words, with or without the first or last letter being indicated; at other times, the same words are spelled as if in dialect (for example, “fugh,” “facquing”). The recurrent juxtaposition of brutal violence and raucous humor, of dehumanizing repression and life-affirming song, is a unique feature of Behan’s style, not only in Borstal Boy but in his plays as well—a fact that has led detractors to contend that his works are disunified or diffuse. Yet, Behan claimed, “from my point of view I was as comic as I was pathetic, and as comic as I was sinister; for such is the condition of man in this old world (and we better put up with it, such as it is).”
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