A Bit of Sport
His lengthy time in prison no doubt made the bisexual playwright, poet and memoirist Brendan Behan more inclined to alcohol once he left confinement in a juvenile British prison called a borstal. His influential and gripping narrative of his time in jail after he was arrested for an IRA plot he was almost sure not to carry out, 1958’s Borstal Boy, rendered him a household name in his native Ireland and Europe as a whole. He was not the finest writer to ever come out of that proud and beautiful land, but he was the one who spoke for those who could not speak for themselves. His letters were few and far between; most mention his wife Beatrice Behan, who suffered through his losing battle with alcoholism, and to whom he never wrote very much. Then again, one of the major themes of his work was that how much you talked about something did not equate to how important or wonderful that thing was. Here is some of his private writing.
Dublin, May 1951
Some months ago, I wrote you that I had started a book. I am calling it Borstal Boy.
Here is a bit of it.
I might see you in the summer if you are still there. I was in Dieppe last month but only on a jump with an Irish boat. Got drunk on the North Wall and — off with them. Had no papers and so could not go up to Paris. Came home, armed with bottles of Pernod, 200 fr. ex-bond, which was what I principally came for.
Dublin, June 1951
You must excuse the terrible typing. It was not my fault. I had to do it myself. No typist in Dublin would look at it.
A woman that used to do a bit for me I fell out with.
I have no copy of that mss. I wonder would it be a terrible big thing to ask you do whatever excising you would think necessary?
For the … and so forth, could you manage an initial and a dash?
It is an extract from a novel. Why shouldn’t it read like that?
Poems of mine in Gaelic are being broadcast from Radio Eireann but apart from not understanding Irish, Radio Eireann is but barely audible in the pub next door.
Sometime I will explain to you the feeling of isolation one suffers writing in a Corporation housing scheme. The literary pubs are not much good to me. I prefer to drink over the north side where the people are not so strange to me. Cultural activity in present day Dublin is largely agricultural. They write mostly about their hungry bogs and great scarcity of crumpet. I am a city rat. Joyce is dead and O’Casey is in Devon. The people writing here now have as much interest for me as an epic poet in Finnish or a Lapland novelist.
Dublin, June 1952
I decided to go to work as a freelance hack writer to get enough money to finish my novel in peace. That’s an easier trade than house painting, that is…
I made a packet, and very nearly lost my sanity in the process. I was drunk night, noon and morning. Now, outside of reform school and Borstal, I have been a steady drinker from from the age of fifteen, but this wasn’t that sort of drinking.
And I finally said, to hell with it, I’ll go down and do my own which is what I’m doing now, and am broke, and it is a matter of some scoff for next week. The mountains are lovely. I wish I had a snap, and this is an old hideout of the I.R.A., there was a man shot dead by the Free State Army at the very window I’m writing this. And for all I run down the I.R.A. in my writing they were the only damn ones, when I had no place to write in peace, to say, “That’s all right Brendan, you go down there and use it, it’s no good to us now, it’s too well known.” So here I am and very happy and I’ll have the novel finished in its entirety before Christmas, and I’ll submit to you a few thousand words.
Dublin, October 1952
I got a Penguin Plato’s Symposium. With difficulty: the Censorship can hardly get after him at this time of day, but as one bookman (saving your presence) said to me, “We saw a slight run on it, and the same sort of people looking for it, so we just took it out of circulation ourselves. After all, we don’t have to be made decent minded by Act of the Dail. We have our own way of detecting smut, no matter how ancient.” In common with most of my babu countrymen, he had the sort of English accent which would make you laugh, and pronounced your man’s name “Plate-o,” rather as if it were something you put in soup.
About the novel. I have about fifty thousand words done. I haven’t done much to it lately, because I’m writing a play for the Abbey and have had to do some jobs for the radio and various journals to live. As it turned out, the strain of meeting the sort of people who have to do with journalism was so great that, for the first time in my life, I drank from pure nervous strain. I have a feeling I told you ail this before. (So have you, more than likely, by the time you get this far.)
I can get over to Paris easily, but I’m getting too old for just landing in a city on my arse, flat broke.
Dublin, July 1956
If I had a one act play there is no one would get it sooner than yourself after your nice letter.
But alas! I have no such thing and therefore can’t give you what I haven’t got.
When I do write one you shall have it with a heart and a half, if Senator McCarthy doesn’t get us all in the meantime and love B. Russell from B. Behan & B. Behan.
P.S. The weather over here just now is so bad it’s driving me to drink.
Dublin, November 1956
Did you know that Nuala means the fair shouldered one?
I need not tell you how delighted we were to get your letter this morning.
We walked one day round Poulaphouca and we nearly wept for our exiled Harrises, with whom we had last done this walk to Kilbride before — I mean you and Beatrice had.
The play is in its fifth week at the Abbey and we continue to get a hell of a lot of money out of it.
I am in the American edition of Harper’s Bazaar in a month or two. I don’t know when. I only only they paid me $150 for it — or for the right to reprint it from the English Vogue — which I gave to Beatrice for a non-birthday gift, so look out for it, the Harper’s Bazaar I mean.
Dublin, April 1957
I was leaving my father-in-law’s house, 43, Morehampton Road, Dublin at 1:30 a.m. on the morning of Wednesday the 17th, when I was accosted by two Civic Guards who came from a squad car, and very truculently asked my identity.
This I refused to give until they have me some valid reason for demanding it.
They dragged me to Donnybrook Guards barracks, and released me, and on the way down to the station, both of them addressed me by my name, which shows that they knew my identity.
I would not have attempted to bring this matter before you, were it not for the fact that I was in the company of my wife. We were going home and she was wheeling a bicycle.
I can tell you that my father was in Gormanstown with you, and my uncle Michael Slater, of Annadale Avenue, off Philibsburgh Avenue, is an old worker in the cause of your election to the Dail.
I do not claim that these things give me the right to break the law, but I do claim your consideration in this matter, when I have been illegally dragged along Morehampton Road for no reason whatsoever.
Except that the Guards who drove us home, remarked that it was “only a bit of sport.”
I do not regard it as a bit of sport, and if all else fails, and I cannot live in Ireland, without the dangers of this experience being repeated, well I shall make very certain, at the International Drama Festival in a fortnight’s time, that publicists outside this country know the way I was treated.
My wife can bear witness to the truth of all that I have stated here.
Dublin, June 1957
My own writing habit is that I write when absolutely sober.
I have written for love, (political writing) and for money, radio, newspaper work, in English and Irish, and poetry.
I swim a great deal in the summer (in the water I mean) and am very fond of race meetings — particularly a point-to-point. I spend most of my time with non-literary fellows that I have known from youth — mostly fellows that are mixed up in the greyhound business. I myself like the company and am of course always very well informed as to the form of dogs at any track in England or Ireland, but don’t like racing myself, because the track racing is too dull, and the coursing is too cruel. I like city people, in Dublin or from the East End.
I was excommunicated from the Catholic Church when I was arrested and refused to disavow the Irish Republican Army in prison, and I think the book tells of my loneliness in exile from the only church I had ever known, or taken seriously, the church of my people, of my ancestors hunted in the mountains, and of my bitterness about this.
with his wife in Tijuana
Dublin, December 1958
I enjoyed reading about myself and my wife in Time, and indeed it was very generous of you, but the nicest thing of all happened when a foreign citizen turned around from looking at my picture and said, “I did not realize you were Jewish.” “I am not,” I said, “but Our Blessed Lord is — I hope I’ve caught a little of the contagion.”
New York, May 1960
This is a great town. We all should have come here years ago.
Los Angeles, May 1961
New York is a real city. Los Angeles has no navel — no Broadway — and nothing to recommend it except the sunshine swimming pools.
You will be glad to hear that Fred Astaire got an award here recently and still looks a lean forty. Great city for a quiet piss-up.
Dublin, December 1962
I was swimming at the Y.M.H.A. on Lexington Avenue and was having a shower when a little Negro employee came in.
He surveyed our naked forms and said “Mr. Behan — there is a message for you on the phone.”
“O.K. son,” said I, “come down the locker room till I put some clothes on.” I was giving him a half-dollar and a thought struck me.
“Did you see my picture on the newspaper?”
“Well,” I said, “how did you know me?”
“You had no clothes on, sir, and the other men were all Jewish, sir.”
I gave him another half a buck.
Shalom – Slainte