"He's not deformed, he's just drunk!" - Brendan Behan

9 February 1923, the Irish poet, novelist and playwright Brendan Behan was born in Dublin.

“I respect kindness in human beings first of all, and kindness to animals. I don't respect the law; I have a total irreverence for anything connected with society except that which makes the roads safer, the beer stronger, the food cheaper and the old men and old women warmer in the winter and happier in the summer.“ (Brendan Behan)

A photo of Brendan Behan from the late 1950s

charming thing about the English language is that it can convincingly include a term like “piss artist” with all its connotations and without seeming insincere and if there ever was a writer who lived up to the term, it was Brendan Behan. Admittedly, his training started quite early, even by European pre-1950 standards. When returning home from a pub crawl with a friend and his gran at the advanced age of 8, a passer-by remarked "Oh, my! Isn't it terrible ma'am to see such a beautiful child deformed?" "How dare you," said his granny. "He's not deformed, he's just drunk!" What sounds like a terrible case of child abuse from the slums of Dublin was embedded in a poor but highly-educated family of 6 and young Brendan was in contact with music, literature and politics at least as early as with spirituous beverages. And while his father was in the nick for his IRA activities when his third son was born and the selfsame offspring went down for his first stretch when he was 16, caught in Liverpool when preparing a bomb attack on behalf of the IRA, and not only for the possession of an Oul’ Alarm Clock, as his brother Dominic wrote in a song about the same time.

Brendan Behan and American comedian Jackie Gleason in 1960

off to France for a spell after spending another term in the clink in Manchester and encouraged by worthies such as Samuel Beckett and Albert Camus to start writing in earnest, young Brendan set forth to light “a bonfire under the arse of Irish literature. He took it by the scruff of the neck and dragged it kicking and screaming into the 20th century“, as his other brother Brian described it later. Returning to Dublin, he achieved his literary breakthrough with his play “The Quare Fellow”, followed by “Borstal Boy” and “The Hostage”, the latter written in Gaelic and translated into English by himself, and getting him almost sent to Coventry by IRA sympathisers who took offense at the portrayal of the fanatic and quite humourless IRA hostage takers while the captured British soldier comes off rather well in radiating sympathies. Gaining first a local reputation as a sharp drinking local wit climaxing in international fame and invitations and he was asked by a reporter "What brings you to Canada, Mr Behan?" quoth Brendan "Well now, I was in a bar in Dublin and it had one of those coasters, and it said "Drink Canada Dry", so I thought I'd give it a shot", and when asked by the Guinness Brewery for a slogan he improved on “gives you strength” with “it makes you drunk”. 

The short video below shows Brendan Behan singing his brother Dominic’s “Auld Triangle”, the signature tune of his play “The Quare Fellow”:

Being probably quite afraid of his growing fame and success, Brendan spent most of his money on alcohol, basically a good idea since there are few investments that’ll give one up to 40% and more in return, but his health being a bit contrary and the rising star had drunk himself to death with a purpose at the age of 41. The IRA obviously had forgiven him the depiction in “The Hostage” and Brendan was buried with a guard of honour while thousands lined the streets in 1964.

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