This post is a book review of Confessions of an Irish Rebel, an autobiography of Brendan Behan. Brendan is best known for his play The Quare Fellow, based on the time he spent in Mountjoy Prison in Dublin.
In Confessions Brendan specifically refers to the prisoner that inspired the play, a man sentenced to death for homosexuality. Brendan was serving a 14 year sentence for attempting to shoot a policeman. He was released after serving 4 years under a general amnesty for Irish Republican Army IRA prisoners.
I first heard about the connection between the song The Auld Triangle and Brendan Behan when I sang it at a small singing session here in Australia. I had assumed that the song was about a prisoner in the 1700s and mumbled something to that effect before singing it. There happened to be an Irish gentlemen in the audience who explained to me that I should probably know something about a song before singing it. Fair call.
I am writing this some ten years on, and while I did do some initial research back then, it was only reading Brendan’s book that really brought the song and its subject into focus for me.
There are some fantastic versions of this song, Luke Kelly and the Dubliner’s version being my favourite. Some other notable versions include the Doug Anthony All Stars here, and Brendan singing himself here. My own attempt here. Brendan did not write the song but attributes it to Dicky Shannon, who he mentions in the video of him singing.
You can still get a copy of Confessions on Amazon. I was fortunate enough to pick my copy up for $1 at a local charity book fair last week. The book had to be dictated, as by 1964, Brendan’s fondness for alcohol made it difficult to write or type himself. The book was published in 1965, after Brendan’s death at just 41.
The debilitating nature of Brendan’s relationship with alcohol comes across strongly in the text. Whether in Dublin, Cannes or London, there is always a stop for a pint or glass of something, even on the way to prison. This aspect of the book had me wondering whether part of the subjugation of the Irish people by the English was achieved with provision of access to cheap alcohol, just as it was achieved with the original populations of Australian, America and other colonies.
When Brendan is taken on a pub crawl by his grandmother and a Mrs Murphy, on her way to a retirement hospice, it becomes clear that the taste for a drink was not a new pastime in Dublin.
I am surprised that this book was published in the 1960s at all, with its frank discussion of homosexuality, IRA operations, prostitution, swearing and blasphemy. As the book doesn’t have its own Wikipedia page, I’m not sure whether it was banned (I did find a reference to it being banned in South Africa).
I don’t think Brendan was writing for fame or notoriety, I think this quote from an Amazon review on Borstal Boy sums it up well:
Brendan Behan may have been dead these 50 years but this book is like sitting next to him on a barstool telling this slice of his life story. As a teenager, Behan was arrested for his IRA activities and spent some time in custody at various English correctional facilities. He makes friends, he deals with prejudice, he deals with stupid rules. Really nothing happens in this book and yet it was entertaining. Wicked sense of humor and wonderful sense of the man both come through in this story of a young Republican serving his time. ARG – Amazon Reviews
I greatly enjoyed Brendan’s insertion of Gaelic throughout the text, I didn’t realise that The Quare Fellow had originally been called Casadh an tSúgáin eile, which means twisting the rope again, or twisting another rope, making reference to the hanging rope, but also the traditional song Casadh an tSúgáin (and in English). Brendan made good use of his time in prison to learn Gaelic.
The other enjoyable aspect of the book was spotting the names that so frequently come up in Irish song, probably mundane to those that live in Ireland, but of great interest to me.
It is timely that I am writing this on the day that Australian’s voted to endorse gay marriage. Of course we still have a conservative government in power and a conservative lobby engine that plans to do everything it can to avoid changing the law, despite a 61% yes vote and 79.5% participation.
This hypocrisy really irks me, all through the campaign the idea of marriage as a human right was dismissed by the religious conservatives, but now suddenly their right to be a bigot is a human right. I published my own, probably controversial, views here, but now that the people have spoken, the government should get on with making their will law as soon as possible.
Around the time that Brendan Behan was in Mountjoy and Borstal, 35 people were executed for homosexuality (between 1923 and 1954).
I highly recommend reading Confessions of an Irish Rebel, by no means high literature, but a raw and fascinating view into the events that shaped Brendan’s work.
Another drink, another glass friends,
Another song to the heros here and gone,
Let me sing the streets of Dublin, the cells of Borstal,
Drown them both in a fine dram.
Aughrim was lost, but Ireland fights on,
Fights with gun, and with a voice in song,
Devil take you haughty folks of pretence,
Give me a good solid girl and a bottle.
Though I am long from this world,
I lived full, and drew hard on the lit toitín of life,
Whether painting a lighthouse or a church,
I found the joy where it was to be found.