Brendan Behan was born February 9, 1923, in Dublin, Ireland, the first child of Stephen and Kathleen (Kearney) Behan, though his mother had two sons by a previous marriage. Born into a family with radical political leanings, Behan was reared on a double dose of IRA propaganda and Catholicism. The radical Left was part of his genetic makeup. His grandmother and a grandfather were jailed for their roles in the revolution, the former for illegal possession of explosives when she was seventy years old and the latter for his part in the murder of Lord Cavendish. Both of Behan’s parents fought in the Irish Revolution and in the Troubles. Ultimately jailed for his participation in the violence, Behan’s father saw his son for the first time through prison bars.
Behan was a precocious child whose reverence for writers was spawned by his father’s readings of Samuel Pepys, Charles Dickens,Émile Zola, George Bernard Shaw, and various polemical treatises to his children. By Behan’s own account, his home was filled with reading, song, and revolution. Juxtaposed to this violent heritage was Behan’s conservative religious training. He attended schools run by the Sisters of Charity of St. Vincent de Paul, where he was a favorite, and another operated by the Irish Christian Brothers, where he found himself in constant disfavor. His militant disposition surfaced early, when at the age of nine he joined the Fianna Éireann, the junior wing of the IRA. Most of his early adult years were spent in prison. Arrested in Liverpool at the age of sixteen for participating in IRA bombings in England, Behan spent three years in the Borstal, the English correctional institution for juvenile delinquents. Released in 1941 and deported to Ireland, Behan was again incarcerated the following year for shooting at a police officer. He had served four years of a fourteen-year sentence when he was released in 1946. Additional stays in jail followed throughout his life.
The worldview projected in Behan’s works recalls the environment in which he matured, one dominated by a radical family and by his prison experience. Cradled in the romance of revolution, Behan was cultured in a more traditional sense. Kathleen and Stephen Behan reared their children with a love for music and literature. Nurtured with a reverential attitude toward...
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Brendan Behan (BEE-uhn) was born in Dublin, Ireland, on February 9, 1923, to Kathleen Kearney and Stephen Behan. He was the oldest child of that marriage, but Kathleen, widowed by her first husband, had older children. Behan claimed his background was the slums of Dublin, but that, like so much he related, was a half-truth. His mother had grown up relatively poor but came from a musical and literary family; her brother wrote the Irish national anthem and was the stage manager at Dublin’s Abbey Theatre. Behan’s father spoke both French and Latin and read to his children from the works of Charles Dickens,Émile Zola, John Galsworthy, and Guy de Maupassant. Behan’s grandmother, Granny English, was a particular influence, not always for the best: With her knowledge, Behan was sipping porter and whiskey by the age of eight.
Another influence on the young Behan was the Irish Republican Army (IRA). His father was in prison during the Irish Civil War when Behan was born, and the family was committed to the dream of a unified Irish republic. When Behan was a boy Ireland was neither unified nor a republic. Caught up in the romantic aura of violence associated with the outlawed IRA, he joined its youth organization as a boy and later became an IRA courier. In 1939, he was arrested in Liverpool, England, in possession of bomb-making materials. He was not on an approved IRA mission, and his actions were amateurish at best. Only sixteen, he served less than two years, from February, 1940, to December, 1941, in the Borstal, or juvenile reformatory prison. His incarceration eventually became the subject of his autobiography, Borstal Boy (1958).
Returning to Dublin, Behan was again...
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Brendan Behan is an important writer but is not among Ireland’s greatest authors. His major works are only three: The Quare Fellow, Borstal Boy, and The Hostage. He also wrote some excellent poetry in Irish and several fine short stories. His other writings are, for the most part, ephemeral. The major works, for all their brilliance, are not fully crafted. The years of disciplined writing were too few; his serious work ended several years before his early death in 1964. Nevertheless, to produce three near-masterpieces is a notable legacy.
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