How am I? If I was any better, I couldn’t stick it.
A personal reflection on Brendan Behan and his family in post-independence Ireland
A few bars of ‘The Auld Triangle’, the prison ballad made famous by Brendan Behan, will always go down well in Dublin. For many, including myself, the song evokes warm feelings for the outstanding champion of the city, its oral culture and its long-suffering poor.
Brendan Behan was driven, intelligent and sensitive. He could also be brutal. His mother said he had a tongue like a hatchet and his father said he had a vicious streak. He was brilliant, complex and angry, which was hardly surprising: Dublin’s notorious slums were not exactly conducive to affability. They could offer a positive community experience, but they were also places where some would ‘take the eye out of your head and come back for the lashes’.
Behan swaggered out of tenement Dublin with the stammer of vulnerability and two fingers raised high and pointed in the direction of respectable Ireland. He was to tell those in power in a loud voice that all was not well and that, as far as he was concerned, the state that had been set up in 1922 was politically inadequate and an unacceptable terminus after the nation’s lengthy political struggles.
Every twist and turn of his performative life challenged and ridiculed the social conformity observed by those with skin in the Saorstát Éireann game. His propaganda-by-the-deed mission demanded nothing less than a completely incautious approach to all aspects of life, and this, in the end, led to his tragic early death at the age of forty-one. Had he survived, he just might have gone on to add to his impressive body of work with the great Dublin book which, it always seemed, was very much within him.
Many of those who themselves, or whose families, relations or friends were institutionally excluded or restricted in the new Ireland, remember Behan’s heroism with affection. For these people ‘The Auld Triangle’ has an emotional and a political resonance.
Behan’s militant nationalism is less straightforward and is not the source of the widespread affection in which he was held during his lifetime and afterwards. His particular variety of nationalism was inherited and was of a type found among certain radical working class people in the Fenian and Connolly traditions. Its logic is perhaps not immediately apparent in these largely post-nationalist times of selective and emotionally disengaged commemoration. For people like the Behan family, the desired and non-negotiable end point to the national struggle was a republic which respected the interests of the urban poor. The two elements were seen as inseparable. It was a traditional position which was held firmly, but also one which was to weaken considerably under the experience of life in independent Ireland.
Many, including the Behans, believed the election of Éamon de Valera in 1932 would see transformative social measures. The family, which had been staunch supporters of de Valera, hoped for a seismic transformation and were cruelly disappointed. Dev, known affectionately as the ‘Long Fellow’ to Behan’s father in the 1920s, became the ‘Long Streak of Misery’ in the 1930s. Cumann na nGaedheal at the time didn’t want any red in the flag. As far as the Behans were concerned, they needn’t have worried.
It should be noted for the sake of historical accuracy that de Valera was not indifferent to the condition of the poor and was greatly animated by the challenge of industrial development. According to some estimates, he was responsible for adding 100,000 industrial jobs. His policies, however, did not lead to the transformation hoped for and did not much impact on the world of the Behans in the hungry 1930s.
The disappointment left only one political direction open. After 1932, many of radical inclination, including the adolescent Brendan Behan, became attached to the strongly socialist tendency that was emerging in the IRA and associated groups. One historian has referred to this socialist republicanism as the ‘politics of illusion’, which in overall historical terms is accurate enough, but if we want to understand the phenomenon and why it was attractive to people like Behan, it is necessary to consider the political and cultural dynamics involved on their own terms.
Up to around the age of twenty-three (1946) Behan acted and spoke as if the War of Independence was still under way. But of course it was long over. From his birth in 1923 an independent state had existed and was quietly bedding itself in throughout the course of his life. It was not a socially inclusive phenomenon and Behan’s implicit logic was that a continuation of the nationalist struggle, now focused on the border, offered the best hope for social transformation.
The new twenty-six-county state was organised around the interests of the farming class, on whom the bulk of Irish exports depended and whose successful political struggle to replace the landlord class was the largest immutable political fact of the decades prior to 1916. Many accepted the new hegemony of the rural petty bourgeoisie as the only realistic option. It was said that labour must wait. Whether that was true or not, it was a position that the marginalised urban working class could hardly have been expected to endorse.
When the poor are political, direct action rather than gradualism tends to be the preference. This was true of the young Behan, whose family experienced considerable want in the 1930s. Indeed, in the wider tenement community the political heroes of the past were those willing to use force. O’Connell, who was arguably the architect of contemporary Ireland, was reviled. On the other hand, Behan reports general approval for the Invincible ‘Fenian blades’.
Round our way they thought a lot of the Invincibles, surgeon’s knives or no surgeon’s knives. The old people would tell how Tim Kelly’s mother shouted to him after he was sentenced “Good on you son. You’ll not see twenty, but you’re no informer.”
One of Behan’s childhood friends was Cathal Goulding, who also became a painter and decorator by trade. He went on to command the IRA and later lead it away from militant nationalism and towards an Irish version of Leninism. He demurred when, after the collapse of the USSR, the majority of his party headed off in a social democratic direction, which involved an unconditional acceptance of the democratic method. There was a logic to Goulding’s position, not only because Leninism was ultimately an anti-democratic ideology but because the majority in the country supported the idea that society should be based on private property, a simple fact which meant that the sort of socialism Goulding aspired to would not be delivered through adherence to the democratic method. Even if his politics were doomed in advance to abject failure, he was consistent.
While Behan was not political in the theoretical sense, it is possible to read an early version of Goulding’s ideological journey from nationalism in his politics. Had he lived, he would probably have been a supporter of the Workers Party ‑ in a country where the majority clearly supported the parties of property.
In 1939, aged sixteen, Behan was arrested in Liverpool, that most Irish and most Dublin of all British cities, in possession of a bomb which was to be detonated in the docks area and which might well have killed and maimed. It was, by any measure, extreme politics, not least as the British were just embarking on a major war with fascist Europe, Behan’s other great political hatred. As Borstal Boy has it, he was arrested in his lodgings, where his rural Irish landlady, to Behan’s disgust, insisted her tenants joined her in three Hail Marys for holy purity every evening. Behan ended up in the borstal system, whose civilised objective was the rehabilitation of its adolescent inmates. Recently released UK government papers reveal that Behan’s talent was recognised and encouraged by the authorities.
There were aspects of British life which Behan could not but find appealing. He found kindred spirits in his fellow working class inmates. He later had the same experience with Protestant working class people he met in Belfast. There was a Britain-friendly tendency in working class politics in Dublin not born of a love of the Union but of appreciation for the non-exclusionary approach to the working class evident in the national insurance scheme and later the welfare state. Even the republican Behan family noticed and admired this inclusiveness.
Brendan’s mother told of the time ‑ much later ‑ when her son Brian won a scholarship to the University of Sussex:
In Ireland that would never happen. The sky would turn blue, pigs would fly, before they would allow the sons and daughters of the poor to join them at Trinity.
His grandmother, who loomed massively over the whole family, said:
Don’t talk to me about freedom. You can starve as easily under the green flag as under the union jack. Freedom from want is the only freedom worth having.
The Behans did not do deference. Kathleen Behan, the extraordinary and extraordinarily modest mother of Brendan, served as a messenger during the Rising. She was not overawed by the male leaders. She described James Connolly as a small fat man with a massive moustache. Pearse, she said, was ‘wall-eyed’, not a ladies man, next-door to a spoiled priest. The young Michael Collins received a more positive press: she approved of his lips and later described him as the only leader we ever had to rival Napoleon.
Behan recalled one uncle whose only awareness of Easter 1916 was that his possession of a gold watch dated from that week. He himself could be less than deferential towards the great event. In my experience this was not unusual. My neighbour’s father had been in the GPO in 1916 and I once heard her mention to my mother that her father had been speaking on the subject. As an earnest eleven-year-old I piped up ‘that must be very interesting’. The lady next door fixed me with a look I found difficult to interpret. ‘Yes,’ she said, ‘it is interesting. But when you get 1916 morning, noon and night seven days a week and fifty-two weeks a year, it becomes LESS INTERESTING.’
The brilliant fictional memoir Borstal Boy is essentially a strict-boarding-school-type story rather than a tale of penal brutality. The Brendan character does get a hiding from the warders early on, the result of ill-considered insubordination, which he did not repeat. It was very unpleasant but not much worse than the violence which was the stock-in-trade of the Irish educational system at the time and for some decades following.
The power of the book, which was an international bestseller, lies with the empathy the reader experiences for the incarcerated protagonist, a young, idealistic and vulnerable foreigner who successfully navigates the borstal system and the world of incarcerated adolescents. The Behan character’s success was based not on aggression or violence but on an attractive combination of intelligence, savvy, bravery, ego and human decency. There is a fair bit of Dublin in the book too. The world loved it.
Back home following his release from Borstal, Behan fired a gun at two plainclothes gardai during a republican commemoration in Glasnevin cemetery. Following that shooting he remained under lock and key until 1946, after which his republicanism became primarily rhetorical. In Borstal Boy, published in 1958, his nationalist utterances, which dwindle as the book proceeds, have the moribund air of something taken from an old book. His anti-colonialism and anti-racism on the other hand come across as deeply felt, as indeed do his homoerotic impulses.
Behan’s view was that in independent Ireland it was a case of the old warders with different badges. Politically, he was a class warrior. He wanted the slums replaced with buildings that incorporated the ‘best that modern technique can do for them’. He was not impressed by the mock Georgian of the new Gardiner Street flats. He would probably have approved of the bizarre SFWP aspiration to build an oil refinery in Dublin Bay.
Behan’s focus was on practical rather than abstract matters. He did not engage with the theories of advanced socialism very much. Unlike O’Casey’s Young Covey, he did not spend too much time talking or thinking about Jenersky’s thesis or the like. He was interested in people and in the details of life and experience. He was an artist, and he was on the side of the poor.
The persistent Dublin affection for Behan is not for Behan the bomb-setter or Behan the communist but for Behan the Dublin champion, the man who could channel the vibrancy, humour and wisdom of working class oral culture. Perhaps the book he didn’t or couldn’t write would have been a twin of sorts to Ulysses. Behan’s Ulysses would have featured those several steps down the ladder from Joyce’s unprosperous middle classes, the poor and the inhabitants of Dublin’s slums.
These were a people whose world was oral. Joyce’s characters, on the other hand, existed in a world suffused with print ‑ libraries, the courts, written literature, newspapers and universities ‑ alongside the oral. The culture of print encourages the interiority found in Joyce. Behan’s world, on the other hand, was overwhelmingly oral and outward-directed. Rendering that culture in a written narrative would have been difficult. Significantly, introspection is not a feature of Borstal Boy.
The migration of the oral to the written is always fascinating, as is the writer who mediates the journey. The great example in Ireland is William Carleton, whose outstanding rendition into print of the oral peasant world that disappeared with the Famine and its aftermath is one of the great landmarks of Irish literature. Carleton’s political circumstances, however, were different from those of Behan. Declining his father’s injunction to ‘lift the spade’, he went on the road as a poor scholar. He moved physically from the oral world and settled into one dominated by print. Arguably, this was what made his literary achievement possible. He abandoned the world he was reared in and came to believe that the peasantry, for whose world he clearly had a profound affection, were finished as a social class.
Unlike Carleton, Behan’s politics rested firmly on political loyalty to his social origins and were about demanding a place at the table for his people. He did not believe the working class were finished and was drawn to a Marxist-style politics which held that in the future the world would be run by that class. He did not make the Carleton journey, and remained predominantly oral and performative throughout his life. His dramas were of their nature performative and, as one observer commented accurately of Borstal Boy, reading it too was like being at a performance.
It has frequently been said of Behan that he underachieved as a writer because he had poor discipline and an excessive fondness for ‘the drop’. Certainly, his ‘hold your hour and have another’ lifestyle has long been disapproved of by the earnest. But Joyce wasn’t exactly a teetotaler either and Behan could on occasion exhibit great discipline, such as that required for his mastering of the Irish language, and indeed French. Those who wag the finger at him do so from the somewhat pious middle class world of print. Their retrospective wish for Behan, it would seem, is that he should have crossed over and settled down to fashioning a ‘well-wrought urn’, which could then be solemnly added to the canon. This, I think, is to misunderstand what he was about.
If Behan didn’t write his Dublin book, its raw materials are present in his plays and in Borstal Boy but perhaps even more so in his performative life and dazzling improvisations (who would not have liked to witness his version of Maud Gonne at the microphone) and also in his shorter prose, mostly newspaper columns, which the inestimable Lilliput Press has now published in a volume entitled A Bit of a Writer, edited by John Brannigan.
When Behan died in 1964, I was twelve and I had heard of him spoken of in our household in a positive way on many occasions ‑ not that he was in any way held up as a role model. It was more that he was regarded as the ‘genuine article’, a precious commodity believed to be in short supply in both the city and the country generally. Following his funeral, a major event that was extensively covered in the evening papers which came into our household, my older brother retired with his paints to his bedroom. What emerged some days later was a depiction of the graves of Behan and John Charles McQuaid. The setting was in the future, on the Last Day to be precise.
In the painting, the adjacent graves were open. McQuaid’s decrepit cadaver was depicted in shades of dark grey and was covered in a sort of Transylvanian mist. The awakened archbishop, looking by no means happy, emerged from below to find himself being prodded from the rear by a gentleman in black with a pitchfork and a long tail coming out of his backside. He was urging John Charles, whose mitre was leaning to one side, towards a depressed area to the left from which flames leapt. Behan’s grave, on the other hand, was bathed in light as a healthy and benign-looking Brendan emerged to be met by assorted angels whose ranks ascended towards the blue skies above, where the former resident of Russell Street was clearly headed. While ours was a Catholic household, the view of my parents and siblings was that the painting embodied an undeniable truth, or at a very minimum an entirely reasonable point of view.
It is sometimes forgotten that one feature of the conformist monolith of the economically stagnant era is that, as it progressed along the middle of the road, it was quite unable to reach into the countless nooks and crannies along the way where less conformist modes of existence and thinking prevailed. If Behan had not achieved fame abroad, he could have been safely ignored at home as insignificant. As it was, he was far from the sort of ambassador the government wanted. Kevin Rafter, in a recent book, reveals that his success abroad annoyed de Valera and Lemass. For these leaders, Brendan Behan and, tellingly, that other working class genius Sean O’Casey, traded on versions of the ‘stage Irishman’.
Lemass, though highly intelligent, had a bleakly unvariegated view of the world. As Luke Gibbons tells us in his latest book, when republican intellectuals were discussing Ulysses during the Civil War, Lemass stared gloomily out the window. In the view of CS Andrews, he had contempt for intellectuals. (There were, of course, readers on both sides of the civil war divide who found Joyce compelling.) Given the conformist character of the times and his disposition, it is hardly surprising that Lemass didn’t like Behan, though his efforts to counter his influence internationally with statistics showing the Irish to be on the whole low-to-average consumers of alcohol do not appear to have had much impact. He might have got some attention if he’d employed a few intellectuals and taken them out of the pubs.
Ironically, stage Dubliners – as opposed to stage Irishmen ‑ were quite acceptable in conformist Ireland. In versions of O’Casey, at least in my memory of productions seen in the 1970s, the national theatre often seemed unable to treat working class characters as anything other than clowns. The Dublin of the early twentieth century had a significant Protestant working class ‑ one of the many realities that escaped notice in the new one-size-fits-all Ireland. I recall one version of The Plough and the Stars where, in order not to confuse its audience, O’Casey’s Protestant street vendor Bessie Burgess was given a Belfast accent by the Abbey. It would be hard to think of a more pointed insult to the memory of the Dublin working class Protestant playwright Sean O’Casey. He too died in 1964.
Behan held up Joyce’s cracked mirror to Independent Ireland. The new elite did not like it and could think of nothing better than to denounce him as one trading in stereotypes.
It might be noted as an aside that the parties of property and the left shared certain structural similarities in independent Ireland. One of the features of economic stagnation was that the guarding of privilege gave an importance to family and family links, a measure which tended to be less crucial in thriving societies. This extended to political privilege. Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael had key families which functioned as a sort of hereditary ruling class. The Lemass clan offers a good example. But the phenomenon was also found on the left, where there were also leading families with loyal devotees. It is likely that hard-working foot soldiers across the political spectrum found the associated sense of entitlement somewhat wearying.
It was of course, the people of property who had power in independent Ireland. Michael Davitt’s notion that land should be nationalised was not taken seriously by the farming class or their allies in the cities. In the independent state, farmers were not only the most politically coherent force in the country but, as mentioned earlier, also the chief exporters. It was a perfect recipe for social power.
As a child I can remember that the news on Radio Éireann was dominated by agricultural matters, such as shifts in the price of hoggets, which to me were creatures no less mysterious than the fabulous beasts of Greek mythology.
It is hardly surprising that the Workers Party was hostile to rural Ireland. I can remember one supporter telling me with great passion of the massive monetary value of the Riordans’ farm. (The Riordans was a long running rural soap on Telefís Éireann.) He added that one had to hate the bourgeoisie. I assumed the injunction was not intended to include himself. Personally I found it hard to work up any hostility towards the fictional Riordans or their son Benjy, although I had frequently heard on the streets the cry, ‘Get up the yard, there’s a smell of Benjy off ya!’
Some people, not many, did wonder if the Irish were making the best use of the land, the country’s major economic asset. In 1933 a short book on the economic potential of independent Ireland was published. Its subtitle was ‘A Survey of the Economic Consequences of Independence and its Possibilities’ and it was widely noticed in the press. While its perspective was not socialist, one of its propositions was that in the national economic interest farms should be amalgamated into much larger units of production in order to maximise their productive value. De Valera commented positively on the book in general, albeit in a vague way. But on the issue of farm amalgamation, he was clear. He rejected the idea, saying that it was the natural condition of man to aspire to own land and that this should not be denied in the pursuit of efficiency.
As we know, this love of the small farmer ended abruptly in the 1970s as, under the tutelage of the EEC’s Dr Sicco Mansholt, farm amalgamation and efficiency were demanded. The end of the micro-proprietor followed shortly thereafter. The evidence of his final interment came in 1979 when in a new rural soap (Bracken) actor Gabriel Byrne ‑ playing a small farmer on marginal land ‑ was presented as smouldering and sexually alluring. This would have been regarded as ludicrous fifteen years earlier when small farmers were still a social force and when, in Dublin at least, they were regarded as the last word in hick. Synge did something similar earlier in the century with his portrayal of the peasant Christy Mahon as sexually charged. This was only possible because the subsistence peasantry, who were not at all regarded in a sexual way when their massive numbers terrified property owners, had by that time effectively vanished.
For Behan there were four provinces in Ireland: Dublin, the North, Cork and down-the-country. For all his nationalism there is no sense of real passion about the border, and still less for the condition of the national minority within Northern Ireland, nor was he hugely interested in Cork other than as the birthplace of Michael Collins, whose death inspired him to write the ballad containing the lines ‘Ah what will mend my broken heart, / I’ve lost my Laughing Boy’, a song which Theo Dorgan tells us later became an anthem of resistance in Greece.
Down-the-country, which did not include the western seaboard, was a different matter. To that province Behan was not indifferent but actively hostile. (There were exceptions, Tipperary being one, and on a single occasion he mentioned Carlow ‘scallion-aters’ in a positive tone.) Down-the-country was where the guards, politicians and civil servants came from and those members of the IRA who wanted him thrown out as a communist. Down-the-country was the seed bed of respectable Ireland. He did not care for it.
The grimness of Dublin is why it was so liberating for Behan to get to Paris and mix with avant-garde writers and artists. He was able to write there, and he was responsive to the innovations of European writers and artists. The French, of course, had a fully-fledged bourgeoisie which acknowledged the importance of art and literature. In France there were possibilities. Beckett, who referred to Behan as the new O’Casey, was living there and Joyce had lived there. In Paris the bitterness could ebb.
In Dublin ‘culchie’ was a portmanteau term of abuse for those from outside Dublin and particularly those who originated in the interior of the island, usually referred to as the bog. In the 1960s there was a popular Craggy-Island-style event held in Dublin. It was called ‘The Bray Walk’ and involved several thousand young people walking along the roads from central Dublin until they reached Bray, from where buses transported them back to the city. I recall after one Bray Walk, as I headed down the stairs on the 86A bus to get off in Dundrum, I heard a derisive female voice call out ‘Culchie!’ It cut deep.
Behan observed in one of his columns: ‘But if we wanted to imitate a policeman, it was always a country accent we used.’ Indeed, in my own experience, this remained the case into the 1960s and beyond. Behan observed: ‘We had never met a civic guard or a teacher or a doctor in the hospital that spoke like ourselves.’
Brendan Behan did not, by any means, come from the poorest of the poor. The Behan family experienced downward mobility, a journey which tends to sharpen those who take it. The Joyce family, the Yeats family, the O’Casey family and the Behan family all experienced social decline. The phenomenon of social mobility in an economically stagnant society is frequently a venomous thing because, to put it in overly simple terms, every family that moves up must force another down. Economic growth is the only thing that creates more space further up the pole. Stagnation, however, did not mean that people were not interested in rising above the circumstances into which they were born. An economically stagnant society does not mean there is complete social stasis.
Many people who lived in tenement Dublin were keen to rise. Behan noted the factory girls returning to the Russell Street area who pretended to be from Drumcondra, which as he puts it, was a better address if you wanted to get ‘a fellah’. Accent was a huge barrier to social ascent for the working class. I knew one girl in the 1960s who worked assiduously on her accent. The early results were torturous, but she got there in the end, and I believe that she secured a job in an office on Harcourt Street. Her brother was equally ambitious and, like his sister, pleasant and positive about life. He managed to build up a successful car repair business. But those who had social position to protect hated the upwardly mobile, who were sometimes denounced as ‘counter-jumpers’. Another important consequence of stagnation was that if you had a business you had to devote yourself to an unending petty vigilance to be sure you held on to it.
When Behan declared that the only land his family had was in a window box he was being economical with the facts. Kathleen Behan’s family had land on both sides near Slane. Her grandfather had a hundred acres. Her father was set up in business in Dublin, with pubs and property around Dorset Street. Unfortunately for her family, Kathleen’s father did not exercise the essential petty vigilance and instead became interested in the justice system, becoming a regular attender at the courts. He took to wearing a top hat and black jacket and regarded himself as something of an expert in legal matters. There were, of course, consequences. The family ended up with a modest shop in Dolphin’s Barn which in due course also went south, with the end result that the young Kathleen found herself with her sisters in Goldenbridge orphanage, where she stayed for a period of five years.
Brendan’s paternal grandmother also had assets. She owned two tenement buildings and sat up in her bed ‘like a queen bee’ marking her tenants’ rent books. She was the person who introduced Brendan to alcohol. It seems she spent the greater part of her existence in her bed which, for reasons of economy she shared with one of her adult sons. She left the very considerable sum of three thousand pounds which, it seems, her inheriting son ‘laundered’ via the licensed trade. She was not the only lady in the family to take to the bed. Behan tells of a great aunt who caught a chill at Parnell’s funeral and was at ‘death’s door for forty years’ thereafter. She would, however, sit up in the bed several times a day pleading ‘Will one of yous in the name of God give us a drain of tay.’
The grandmother’s slum buildings were eventually condemned, but she gamely continued to collect rent, contrary to regulation. Dublin tenements had been falling apart and sometimes collapsing for a very long time. Apart from periods when they actually fell down on people they were slowly dismantled. Surviving remnants could still be found in the 1960s. Delivering papers to a room at the top of a tenement building on Francis Street in the mid-1960s, I came across a massive hole in the outside wall. I reported my discovery with alarm, only to be told with philosophical resignation that there were others in worse condition.
Over the decades large numbers were moved to suburban estates with luxuries such as indoor toilets, but there were also unforeseen costs. Tenement Dublin provided an economic eco-system which worked in its way for those who lived hand to mouth. It was the practice of Stephen Behan, Brendan’s father, who was a painter, and according to his wife a hard worker, to retire to the pub after work and to return tipsy or worse for his dinner when the children had been put to bed. He was not at all pleased when the family was allocated a house in Crumlin: ‘My God Kathleen, sure they eat their dead out there.’ His pleas were ignored and the family relocated but in time it emerged that there was some substance to his disquiet, which was shared by Brendan. There were few facilities in such places; there was a loss of community and social coherence, and it was much more expensive. The one butchers shop could charge what it liked. The concentration of poverty in tenement Dublin meant it was possible to survive while being very poor. There were numerous small shops in competition with each other. Limited credit was available and pawnbrokers easily accessible. Cigarettes, tea, butter and other essentials could be purchased in minuscule quantities, day and night. Kathleen Behan tells of elderly female turf-sellers who would urge their donkeys up several flights of stairs every evening. This obviously saved on stable fees and such cost-cutting no doubt kept the price of their turf competitive. Hauling turf out to Crumlin would have had the opposite effect.
Kathleen Behan and her family were by tradition committed to the old project of getting rid of the English. Their post-independence realisation, as they experienced poverty and want, was that nationalism was not enough. Kathleen was one of the disabused. ‘I cannot agree,’ she said ‘that things were much better in Ireland than they were in the days before the rising or just after it.’ Speaking of the fires that were built on Russell Street when de Valera won the election of 1932, she commented:
The people were all for him. He told us that the resources of Ireland were so great that to develop them he would have to bring the emigrants back from America. God bless the mark, he did no such thing. Only sent all the more.
Brendan said something similar when responding to Lemass’s criticism, reminding him of the waves of young people driven from the country in search of employment. This was the crux of the Behan experience. The urban poor were unregarded in the new Ireland.
In the 1960s people bragged about their American relations, usually described as rich. The Dublin poor, however, generally fled to England for work. Emigrants to England were ignored. They were not especially affluent and for some reason were not consumed with an innate affection for ‘the old sod’. The low esteem in which the Irish in England were held was part of a broader anti-working class and anti-Dublin animus in the culture of independent Ireland, a phenomenon which can still be registered from time to time.
In timorous times Brendan Behan had the courage to declare that more was required, that his people were real and deserving of respect. In making the case he won the attention of the world, rattled the powerful at home and kept the hope of genuine equality and inclusiveness alive to this day, and not only along the banks of the Royal Canal but throughout the country.
Maurice Earls is joint editor of the Dublin Review of Books.