Brendan Behan

By: Anthony Miller
February 9, 2014


On the wall of O’Rourke’s in Chicago there was this quotation beside a large picture of BRENDAN BEHAN (1923–64): “I have a total irreverence for anything connected with society except that which makes the roads safer, the beer stronger, the food cheaper and old men and women warmer in the winter and happier in the summer.” Behan’s rotund and roguish mug adorns many an Irish pub wall, the face of the venerable roaring alcoholic Irish raconteur. He was also a playwright, poet, and autobiographer whose writing and life mixed total irreverence with profound compassion. At 16, he was arrested for possessing explosives and his IRA involvement would take him in and out of prisons until age 24. Incarceration defined him. He found dark and uproarious comedy in captivity with his plays The Quare Fellow and The Hostage. His prison memoir Borstal Boy and the story collection After the Wake revealed his gifts for nimble prose. Behan was the finest epigrammatic Irishman of his generation, perhaps the best since Oscar Wilde. Learning of his death sentence by the IRA, he remarked (in a line that went into The Hostage): “When I came back to Dublin, I was court-martialed in my absence and sentenced to death in my absence, so I said they could shoot me in my absence.” He caroused with Patrick Kavanagh, Flann O’Brien, and J.P. Donleavy at McDaids and various shebeens in Dublin and with Jackie Gleason and Norman Mailer in New York City while residing at the Chelsea Hotel. Bilingual (an Imagist in Irish, a satirical Expressionist in English) and bisexual, he was more than a legendary Celtic inebriate. He jokingly dubbed himself “a drinker with writing problems” but smuggled beneath the bibulous, garrulous, and obstreperous Behan lurked a quietly dangerous literary subversive.


On his or her birthday, HiLobrow irregularly pays tribute to one of our high-, low-, no-, or hilobrow heroes. Also born this date: Amy Lowell, Ernest Tubb, Frank Frazetta, George Ade, Alban Berg.

READ MORE about men and women born on the cusp between the New God (1914-23) and Postmodernist (1924-33) Generations.