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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1021

In 1939, at the age of sixteen, two days after having crossed the border from Ireland into England, Brendan Behan was arrested in Liverpool for possession of explosives, which he intended to use in helping to implement the plant-bombing campaign of the IRA; he had been a volunteer in the...

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In 1939, at the age of sixteen, two days after having crossed the border from Ireland into England, Brendan Behan was arrested in Liverpool for possession of explosives, which he intended to use in helping to implement the plant-bombing campaign of the IRA; he had been a volunteer in the Second Battalion, Dublin Brigade, of the IRA for the previous three years. Borstal Boy is Behan’s forthright account of his life as a teenage inmate or Young Prisoner ( YP) in the English penal system. Each of the book’s three parts depicts his life in a different place of incarceration—first in the adult prison to which he was remanded during the two months that he awaited trial, then in the boys’ prison to which he was temporarily transferred, and finally in the Borstal (reform school) in which he served two years of his three-year sentence.

Borstal Boy opens with the sudden arrival of the police at the boardinghouse where Behan is staying in Liverpool, their confiscation of the bomb-making materials in his possession, and his immediate arrest. After his initial interrogation at the Criminal Investigation Department (CID) offices, where he refuses to answer questions but agrees to make a statement that is both determinedly partisan and wholly unrepentant, he is briefly confined in the Dale Street lockup before being transferred to Walton Prison to await trial.

With remarkable candor and surprising objectivity, Behan recounts the details of prison life: the extreme regimentation, the routine indignities, the regulation (extending even to a schedule of when prisoners’ bowel movements are and are not to be allowed), the prison-issue clothing (including Boy Scout-like shorts to be worn even in midwinter), the meager food, the monotonous labor of sewing mail sacks, the “screws” (guards), the threat of “chokey” (solitary confinement for infractions of the rules), and—in his particular case—the anti-Irish jeers and anti-IRA resentments of both the English authorities and the other prisoners.

Yet against all such means of dehumanization, the young captive retains a certain heroic indomitability. He steadfastly refuses to recant his nationalist beliefs; he defiantly disagrees with the prison-provided priest, who condones the Catholic church’s excommunication of the IRA and terms him merely an ignorant boy; and he proves his willingness to fight even the fully adult prisoners when goaded too far. He finds, too, sources of pleasure and satisfaction—in books from the prison library, in the cigarettes and newspapers he is permitted to buy, and particularly in his friendship with two English YPs, Charlie and Ginger, who are seventeen years old. Because they were under the age of eighteen at the time of their offenses, they could not be given an adult prison term (Behan’s could have been up to fourteen years); the judge’s harsh reprimand of Behan, sentencing him to three years in the Borstal, concludes the first part of the book.

The book’s second (and shortest) part takes place in London’s Feltham Boys’ Prison, where Behan and his “chinas” (mates) await the bureaucratic decision on the specific Borstal Institution in which they will serve their terms. From the moment of their arrival at Feltham, where they are designated as Allocations (temporary inmates to be transferred elsewhere), conditions are markedly less severe than in Walton Prison: Fewer restrictions are placed on speech and movement, the food is better and more abundant, and the beds are located in a shared dormitory area rather than in individual cells. After initially (and deliberately) demonstrating a willingness to fight and a potentially volatile temper—in order to establish his status as a “terror” among the others and thus forestall trouble—Behan readily adjusts to the new prison’s easier routines. Though excommunicated from the Roman Catholic church, he is required by English law to attend its services in the prison chapel and, though he cannot receive the sacraments, he is even allowed to serve the Mass. The religious services are depicted with considerable humor and occasional irreverence, being valued by the boys less for their spiritual content than for the opportunity to socialize with one another and to escape the workaday monotony of prison life. The second part ends as Behan shares with his English friends a cache of IRA-provided tobacco and chocolates, secretly passed to him by a fellow IRA member who is also serving as an altar boy.

The final section of the book is set in Hollesley Bay Borstal near the coast of Suffolk, where conditions are far less restrictive than in the other institutions where Behan has been confined. After an initial period during which he is engaged in field labor, Behan is reassigned to work as a painter—the trade in which he was a fourth-year apprentice before his criminal conviction. Among his new acquaintances there is Ken, whose middle-class background, attitudes, and experiences separate—and isolate—him from the other boys far more than Behan’s Irishness and political views have ever done. Though Behan befriends him, Ken plans and attempts an ultimately unsuccessful escape, after which he is confined in “chokey.” For the others, however, life settles into a relatively comfortable routine of work and camaraderie, harvesting fruit from the Borstal orchards and swimming in the ocean. Shortly before his release after serving two years of his sentence, Behan learns that Charlie (who was released from the Borstal somewhat earlier and returned to naval service) has been killed in the war. The book ends with Behan’s return to Dublin on a train and his welcome (in Gaelic) by the Irish immigration-control officer.

A glossary of the book’s frequently used slang terms is provided, though its definitions are sometimes euphemistic and not all terms are included. Most of those omitted, however, are sufficiently clear in context.

The book’s epigraph, from Virginia Woolf’s Orlando: A Biography (1928), describes a “crew of young watermen or postboys [who] . . . roared and shouted the lewdest tavern songs, as if in bravado, and were . . . sunk with blasphemies on their lips”; they are said (later in the epigraph) to have been Irish rebels and are, clearly, as irrepressibly high-spirited as Brendan Behan himself.

Bibliography

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 72

Boyle, Ted E. Review in Brendan Behan, 1969.

Gray, Nigel. “Every Tinker Has His Own Way of Dancing,” in The Silent Majority: A Study of the Working Class in Post-War British Fiction, 1973.

Kearney, Colbert. “Borstal Boy: A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Prisoner,” in Ariel. VII (April, 1976), pp. 47-62.

Mikhail, E. H., ed. The Art of Brendan Behan, 1979.

Phelps, Corey. “Borstal Revisited,” in I Carb S. II (Winter/Spring, 1975), pp. 39-60.

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