Day the Borstal Boy came to Cork, boy!

Born 100 years ago on February 9, playwright Brendan Behan was a flawed genius, as famous for his hellraising as his writing. THOMAS LONG recalls the time the Dubliner sailed into Cobh and held court
Day the Borstal Boy came to Cork, boy!

HOMEWARD BOUND: Brendan Behan (second right) departs the liner Saxonia at Cobh on December 20, 1960, ahead of his wife Beatrice. They were returning to Ireland from a stint in America

IT’S not every day that a global icon turns up on a newspaper’s patch; the type of star whose every utterance is an instant headline, whose every sentence a classic quote.

But it happened in Cork on Tuesday, December 20, 1960, when Brendan Behan’s ship docked in Cobh, having brought the playwright and his wife Beatrice back home from a stint in the bright lights of New York.

The press had been aware of the impending arrival of Behan on the Saxonia since it left Nova Scotia, and newsdesks would have been counting down the days.

Before dawn had broken on that Tuesday before Christmas, they despatched reporters to Cobh to report on his homecoming - and the Dublin writer invited them into the lounge of the ship, where he held forth on a raft of issues - from his republicanism, to the recent election of John F Kennedy, from his writing success in the U.S, to his wealth and loathing for the critics.

The press must have bristled with delight as Behan, puffing a giant cigar, regaled them with stories, sound-bites, and pithy quotes. Every line was gold-dust!


Behan was at the peak of his powers that Christmas in 1960, the world’s most famous - some would say infamous - Irishman. His play The Borstal Boy and book The Quare Fellow had put him on the map in the 1950s.

Now 37, he had long been a party animal, famed for his drinking and hellraising, but his lifestyle had not yet dented his powers. The end was to come just over three years later, but that morning in Cobh, his genius shone through.

The Echo published a front page picture of him that day, bouncing jovially down the gangplank, telling reporters “It’s good to be home”, after “stirring up a little controversy on the far side of the Atlantic”.

Earlier, in the ship’s lounge, the Echo’s reporter, Larry Lyons, said Behan “proved his state of heath by not only puffing but also inhaling a cigar at 7.45am”.

In a dark blue suit, freshly starched shirt, with neat tie, he said he had been asked in America why he was returning to Ireland “where he would only get what others got - persecution”. He had replied that Ireland was his home and the Irish were the people who he could write about best.

The ordinary Irish people, he added, had amply repaid his affection for them by packing his theatres for his plays - voting with their feet at the box office.

Behan said he had read U.S reports that his play The Hostage had aroused protests in Dublin, where people had walked out of the Olympia Theatre in disgust. He referenced similar protests for Synge’s Playboy Of The Western World and O’Casey’s The Plough And The Stars and added: “If an Irish author does not rouse some sort of riot, he had better examine his artistic conscience and see what he has left undone.”

The Hostage was playing to packed houses on Broadway and Behan, reflecting on his financial state, said: “I do not think I have to worry about a pound of rashers.” An IRA supporter in his younger days, He had been asked about Partition in the U.S, and told that he was in the same camp as President Éamon de Valera. Behan retorted that neither man wanted to be in the same camp on anything, but “the elementary injustice of Partition” had made it so.

Kennedy had been elected a month earlier and Behan said he “campaigned illegally for him” and called it a “great victory”.

Brendan Behan smoking a cigar while regaling reporters about his life and career on board the Saxonia in Cobh in 1960
Brendan Behan smoking a cigar while regaling reporters about his life and career on board the Saxonia in Cobh in 1960

The reporters ascertained that Behan had been in first class with his wife on the voyage, but that they found the company in tourist class “more congenial”.

Two Irish girls entertained the passengers with step-dancing, and one of them told the Herald: “Brendan got the passengers to join in a sing-song and sprinkled Champagne over our heads.”

However, the playwright insisted to reporters that he was off the drink. Indeed, he had only been drunk twice in the U.S - one of those occasions was when he had found his way to a bar before a TV appearance.

Asked about the difference between Dublin and New York audiences, he said Dubliners got the points he wanted to make quicker, but the same could not be said of the critics.

He told reporters he was putting the finishing touches to his new play, Richard’s Cork Leg, which he expected would be performed in London in the coming February.

He also hoped to have an Irish play, Sainnt mor-Shainnt, accepted for the next year’s Dublin Drama Festival. Behan said he would write it at Carraroe in Galway, “where people are to be heard speaking Irish properly”.

Behan stayed in Cork that night and went to Dublin the next day. It may have been on this visit to Cork that the playwright met up with the Echo’s theatre writer, Robert O’Donoghue, an event the latter recalled when Behan died in March, 1964. O’Donoghue wrote: “On one of his rare forays down south, I discovered myself coming down Shandon Street with Brendan Behan in the dawn of the morning.

“An old woman in a shawl flittered past us on her way to early Mass. Quite suddenly, a brace of swans, heading no doubt for the river, beat close above our heads. “D’yeze see that” roared Brendan, gesticulating wildly at the swans. “Yeats’ Ireland!” and pointing after the old woman, “And Paddy Kavanagh’s!” “I remember asking myself: ‘Where is yours, Brendan’?

“The city began to assert itself in the hardening light; its outlines sharpened and I drew Behan’s attention to the rising lush of suburbia in the distances of Blackrock and Douglas: anathema to his incurable romanticism. I repeated my question, this time out loud: “And your Ireland, Brendan - where is it?” “We stood on the North Gate Bridge, draining the last from a pint bottle. He threw the bottle into the river, where it sank among the drifting miscellany, among the toy gulls, the snob swans.

‘I wouldn’t know,’ he said, ‘but there’s a quare bit of it attached to that bottle this minute.’ “Behan was incapable of the mealy mouth or the snigger. He gave, whether of himself or of his property, lavishly. He despised, more than anything else, the symbols of the rat race, and celebrated, without sentimentality, what he considered his own class; the quiet desperation, as he saw it, of smug suburbia impelled him to fantastic deeds of unrespectability: the obverse of his large and uninhibited compassion for all men.

“To consider Brendan Behan unimportant because he was, perforce perhaps, unprolific, is to deny the vital quality of what he has done. If output were the criterion for immortality, the journalist must surely outlive the poet.

“The singularity that made him an international figure derived not from his notoriety but from the fact of his genius.

“All the disapproval there is of his way of life cannot blot out the fact that he created, whether you consider them masterpieces or not, plays of universal moment and impact. May he rest in peace.”

Playwright holding court again...

TWO days after his appearance in Cobh, Brendan Behan was making headlines again in his native Dublin, after he stood bail of £250 - more than a month’s wages at the time for most people - for a car dealer accused of fraud.

The relationship between the playwright and the accused is not known, but Behan was in witty form as he told the judge: “I have been speaking to the prisoner and impressed on him the fact that, while I am not a notorious upholder of law and order, I am a notorious upholder of my £250.” He then bade the judge a “happy Christmas”.

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