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Brian Behan, 75; Irish Writer Thrived on Controversy

November 06, 2002|From Times Staff and Wire Reports

Brian Behan, the colorful, contentious Irish writer and younger brother of the noted dramatist Brendan Behan, died of a heart attack Saturday in the southern English city of Brighton, where he had lived for many years. He was 75.

An eccentric figure, Behan swam nude every day off the Brighton coast; in December 1999, an onlooker mistook his behavior for a suicide attempt and alerted authorities, who mounted an air-sea rescue.

He was not close to Brendan -- who once derided Brian's plans to write a memoir with the words, "You could get that fellow's memoirs on the back of a postage stamp and still have room for the Koran" -- or another brother, Dominic, who didn't speak to him for 34 years.

His biggest success was in 1984 with Peter Sheridan's dramatic adaptation of Behan's novel "Mother of All the Behans," about his mother, Kathleen. A flamboyant figure, she acted as a courier for the rebels James Connolly and Padraig Pearse during the ill-fated 1916 Easter Rising against British rule in Ireland.

His first play, "Boots for the Footless," attracted pickets outside a London theater from Irish groups protesting its stereotypical portrayal of drunken, violent Irishmen and contradictory, conniving Irishwomen.

Behan was unrepentant, describing his play as an autobiographical work that spared no member of his family -- from Brendan, whom he portrayed as "a Republican rebel with 1,000 causes," to his father, "who used the pub as a form of contraception for 40 years."

"I poke fun at us all," he told the London newspaper The Independent, "because if you take yourself too seriously, it kills you. That's what Brendan died of -- an overdose of self."

He did not avoid other controversial themes: his play "The Begrudgers," set in postwar Dublin, explored the literary rivalry between Brendan Behan and fellow writers Brian O'Nolan (who used the pen name Flann O'Brien) and Patrick Kavanagh.

His satirical play "Hallelujah I'm a Bum" (1995), about a British prime minister having a homosexual relationship with one of his ministers, aroused further controversy.

His also wrote two novels, "Time To Go" (1979), and "Kathleen" (1988), again inspired by his mother.

Behan grew up in a north Dublin slum and as a youth was often in trouble. A court ordered him to attend an industrial school run by the Christian Brothers, where he said he was sexually abused.

After school he served in the Irish Army Construction Corps. With work scarce in Dublin, he moved in 1950 to London, where he eventually worked as a bricklayer, carpenter, hod carrier and dockworker. His 1964 autobiography, "With Breast Expanded," described England, where many Irish worked in construction, as the land of "big money and small shovels."

He became an active trade unionist, whose campaigning resulted in brief prison sentences in 1951 and 1958.

He joined the British Communist Party, became an executive member and met Soviet dictator Josef Stalin and Chinese leader Mao Tse-tung on a party tour, but quit the party after the Soviet suppression of the Hungarian uprising in 1956.

He then joined the Socialist Labor League, a Trotskyite group, but was eventually expelled for "deviationism." The Anarchists also threw him out when he demanded to know who owned them.

In the 1960s, Behan studied history and English at Sussex University in southern England. From 1973 to 1990, he lectured in media studies at the London College of Printing.

He is survived by three daughters from his first marriage and a son and daughter by his second marriage, to artist Sally Hill, who died two years ago.

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