Brendan Behan (9 February 1923-20 March 1964) was an Irish poet, short story writer, novelist and playwright who wrote in both Irish and English. He was also a committed Irish Republican. Behan was one of the most successful Irish dramatists of the 20th century.
Behan was born in inner-city Dublin into an educated working class family. The house the Behan family lived in belonged to his grandmother, who owned a number of properties in the area. His father, a housepainter who had been active in the Irish War of Independence, read classic English writers to the children at bedtime and his mother took them on literary tours of the city. Behan's uncle, Peadar Kearney, wrote the Irish National Anthem. At the age of thirteen, Behan left school to follow his father's footsteps in the housepainting business.
In 1937, the family moved to a new local authority housing scheme in Crumlin. Here, Behan became a member of Fianna Eireann, the youth wing of the IRA and published his first poems and prose in the organization's magazine Fianna: the Voice of Young Ireland. In 1939, Behan was arrested in Liverpool in possession of explosives for use in a planned IRA bombing campaign. He was sentenced to three years in Borstal Prison (Kent) and did not return to Ireland until 1941. In 1942, Behan was tried for the attempted murder of two detectives and sentenced to fourteen years. Behan was sent to Mountjoy Prison and later to the Curragh Internment Camp. He was released in 1946 as part of a general amnesty of republican prisoners. In 1947, he spent a short time in prison in Manchester for helping a fellow republican to escape from jail.
Behan the Writer
Behan's prison experiences were central to his future writing career. In Mountjoy he wrote his first play, The Landlady and also began to write short stories and other prose. Some of this work was published in The Bell, the leading Irish literary magazine of the time. He also learned Irish in prison and after his release in 1946, he spent some time in the Gaeltacht areas of Galway and Kerry, where he started writing poetry in Irish. By the early 1950s he was earning a living as a writer for radio and newspapers and had gained a reputation as something of a character on the streets and in literary circles in Dublin.
His major breakthrough came in 1954 when his play The Quare Fellow, which was based on his experiences in jail, was produced in the Pike Theatre in Dublin. The play ran for six months. In May 1956, The Quare Fellow opened in the Theatre Royal, Stratford in a production by Joan Littlewood, bringing international fame to the author. In 1957, his Irish language play, An Giall (The Hostage) opened in the Damer Theatre and his autobiographical novel The Borstal Boy was published. Behan was now established as one of the leading Irish writers of his generation.
Decline and Death
Behan found fame difficult to deal with. He had long been a heavy drinker (describing himself, on one occasion, as "a drinker with a writing problem",) and developed diabetes in the early 1960s. This combination resulted in a series of notoriously drunken public appearances, both on stage and television. After 1957, his books consisted of transcriptions of tape recorded conversation or of works written long before that date. He died in the Meath Hospital, Dublin and was buried in Glasnevin Cemetery.