Form and Content

(Literary Essentials: Nonfiction Masterpieces)

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...

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(Literary Essentials: Nonfiction Masterpieces)

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.