I am so at home in Dublin, more than any other city, that I feel it has always been familiar to me. It took me years to see through its soft charm to its bitter prickly kernel - which I quite like too.

Home Uncategorized Hostage to Fortune

Hostage to Fortune

George O’Brien
Behan in the USA: The Rise and Fall of the Most Famous Irishman in New York, by Dave Hannigan, Ballpoint Press, 300 pp, €14.99, 978-0992673208.   There is a loose pattern of such words as “legend” and “celebrity”, phrases like “force of nature” and “darling of the in-crowd”, and various other terms related to being famous, that provide a structure for this work, although on the surface it seems simply a very thorough and eminently readable chronicling of the time Brendan Behan spent, off and on, in America between 1960 and 1962 (not just in New York: side-trips to Toronto, Montreal, San Francisco and Los Angeles are also covered). It’s not so much that words and phrases of that kind are used to excess but that excess is their business, and when, after a while it becomes clear to the reader that excess is also the book’s subject, one begins to resist, or at least question where such a lexicon tends towards. “A shilling life will give you all the facts”, as Auden put it. That is not to suggest that if you want any more you can sing it yourself but that there are other aspects and dimensions of a subject that the facts are only gateways to. The unearthing and contemplation of those deeper dimensions are going to ask more of the inquirer as well as his material. Why is it worth our while to know of the many, many occasions when in noted nightclubs and big-name hotels Brendan Behan broke into song, fell down, was arrested, or resembled “a manchild setting off on a great adventure to a promised land”? Well, one approach to that question could be to consider how the phrase quoted echoes the title of the classic autobiography of a 1940s childhood in the Harlem ghetto, Claude Brown’s Manchild in the Promised Land (1965). The echo may well be unconscious, and in any case there might not be all that much to it. Still, race is certainly an aspect of how Behan was presented to the American public; and his presence at parties hosted by New York’s élite apparently denotes not just class difference but an “odd clash of civilisations”. As to class, the man himself, in one of those throwaway lines of his that – like his asides on Camus and Brecht – reveal something of what he was capable of standing for, says he’s the…

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