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The Quare Fellow

The Life and Times of Brendan Behan, Dublin's Most Famous Forgotten Son

April 07, 2002|CLANCY SIGAL | Clancy Sigal is the author of "Going Away" and "The Secret Defector" and is a screenwriter.

Brendan Behan, the bad boy of modern Irish letters, was good copy. Journalists like myself fed off him, fed him drinks and then fed him to our editors. At our (and his) worst, we led him around like a trained bear, into the pubs that were killing him and onto transatlantic TV talk shows where, on cue, he performed as the outrageous drunken "paddy" who could write his fool head off in private and in public make a fall-down sloppy buffoon of himself. At the peak of his popularity, in the early 1960s, he gave audiences a caricature of an Irishman, free with his sex and curses, and a prodigy with the English language. Like the Welsh poet Dylan Thomas, he lived down to our expectations everywhere except at the writing table.

Brendan Behan was a serious literary craftsman on a near-equal footing with his contemporary (and mentor) Samuel Beckett. In his best-known plays, "The Quare Fellow" and "The Hostage"--both originally written in Gaelic--he was an Irish Brecht in his inventive use of music, song and irony. He wrote one of the finest of all prison memoirs, the touching and forceful "Borstal Boy," now a film by Peter Sheridan. His wickedly funny crime novel, "The Scarperer," is as good as anything by Frank or Malachy McCourt. And his short stories, collected in "Hold Your Hour and Have Another" and "After the Wake," are first rate.

FOR THE RECORD
Los Angeles Times Saturday April 13, 2002 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 A2 Desk 1 inches; 33 words Type of Material: Correction
Essay--In the essay "The Quare Fellow: The Life and Times of Brendan Behan, Dublin's Most Famous Forgotten Son,"(Book Review, April 7), the name of the bar Davy Byrne's was misspelled. Also, the bar is on Duke Street, not Pearl Street.
For the Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday April 14, 2002 Bulldog Edition Main News Part A Page 2 Advance Desk 1 inches; 35 words Type of Material: Correction
"The Quare Fellow"--In the April 7 Book Review, the essay "The Quare Fellow: The Life and Times of Brendan Behan, Dublin's Most Famous Forgotten Son" misspelled the name of the bar Davy Byrne's. Also, the bar is located on Duke Street, not Pearl Street.
For the Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday April 14, 2002 Bulldog Edition Main News Part A Page 2 Advance Desk 1 inches; 35 words Type of Material: Correction
"The Quare Fellow"--In the April 7 Book Review, the essay "The Quare Fellow: The Life and Times of Brendan Behan, Dublin's Most Famous Forgotten Son" misspelled the name of the bar Davy Byrne's. Also, the bar is located on Duke Street, not Pearl Street.
For the Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday April 21, 2002 Home Edition Book Review Page 18 Book Review Desk 1 inches; 32 words Type of Material: Correction
In the essay "The Quare Fellow: The Life and Times of Brendan Behan, Dublin's Most Famous Forgotten Son," (Book Review, April 7), the name of the bar Davy Byrne's was misspelled. Also, the bar is on Duke Street, not Pearl Street.

As an IRA terrorist, Behan had blown up things and tried to kill people. The son of a politically conscious Dublin house painter, he was an IRA message carrier by 9. At 13 he was arrested on a sabotage mission, attempting to blow up a battleship in Liverpool harbor, and sentenced to three years in Borstal, an English reform school, the period covered in Sheridan's film. Later, he was sent to an adult prison, the notorious Mountjoy, and served another jail term for helping an IRA prisoner to escape. What great copy!

In 1962 my editor, David Astor, publisher of the liberal Sunday newspaper the Observer, sent me to Ireland on a double mission: to cajole Behan into entering detox in England (to be paid for by Astor), or, if that failed, to catch for posterity his dying words. The week I spent with him in Dublin, at his Ballsbridge home and making the lethal rounds at Jury's, Bailey's, the Dolphin, Davy Burns--up and down the bars of Pearl Street--was brutally alcoholic, phantasmagoric and, for me, unforgettable. Everyone, including Behan, knew he was dying--of diabetes and liver and life itself--and some were impatient that he was taking such a God almighty long time at it. He wasn't 40 yet.

Huge, sprawling, disheveled, a large cigarette burn squarely in the back of his new Irish-export tweed suit, his white shirt streaked with dirt and spotted with faded bloodstains down the front, the tops of his suspendered trousers reaching almost to the barrel-like chest, his yellowish drink-splotched face showing several days' growth of rough reddened beard, he looked the very stereotype of burned-out roaring boy from the heart of working-class Dublin. Wherever we went in Dublin, him wheezing and coughing and spitting blood into a handkerchief, he seemed to know everybody. Old school friends, booze-up pals, IRA comrades, hangers-on, admirers and ex-lovers surrounded him on every street, in every pub, feeding him whiskey, bits of sly gossip, slyer malice, thumps on the back and ... always--always--more Jameson's whiskey.

Once, when I suggested to him that perhaps his friends were easing his passage to the grave prematurely, he turned his sad behemoth's shattered gaze on me and said, "It's obvious you're not Irish despite your name. All this"--he waved his hand at the pub mob around us waiting for him to crumple or fight or do something wicked--"it's a form of mercy, don't you see?"

Then the surprises came.

As the drink seeped into him, and I thought he'd probably die in my arms, he became something more than a self-destructive clown. Death staring him in the face didn't exactly sober him. What could? (I actually attended, in his Ballsbridge bedroom, Behan's wake for himself where he sadly greeted the mourners filing in to pay their respects.) But, temporarily relieved of the duty of playing a "local character," of dying so publicly, he revealed a gentler, more vulnerable man who had "gone beyond," into a melancholy, meditative place.

He was, I believe, first and foremost a political poet. But now, near the end, he was transcending his own history. At the core of his large and difficult heart, he'd gone from being a man of war, reprisal and revenge to being a man of peace and reconciliation and no quick answers. I've rarely seen this except in veteran combat soldiers--or political operatives--who evolve into something like conscientious objection to violence.

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