Brendan Behan, or Ó Beacháin as he wrote his name as Gaeilge, would have been 100 on February 9 had he lived. His life was much shorter, he having died in March 1964 at the age of 41.
He is seldom thought of as a writer in Irish even though his play The Hostage, which was performed before huge audiences around the world, was Behan’s own translation of the original An Giall, which was staged in the Damer theatre, Dublin, in 1958. Even more noteworthy is that Máirtín Ó Cadhain – who was a severe judge of such matters – described Behan in 1950 as being, in the illustrious company of Seán Ó Ríordáin, one of “dá fhíorfhile sa nGaeilge.” High praise indeed.
Ó Cadhain and Behan had become friends in what former republican alumni of the wartime Curragh Camp christened Acadamh Mhic an Ghoill where Behan spent the years between 1944 and 1946, after being moved from Mountjoy where he had been serving a long sentence for shooting at Special Branch detectives at the bottom of the Finglas Road on Easter Sunday 1942 when the detectives attempted to arrest armed IRA members who were marching to a banned commemoration at Glasnevin cemetery. Behan, who missed the Gardaí, was fortunate not to have been either killed himself or sentenced to death, as was the fate of a number of IRA men during that period.
Ó Cadhain and Behan and other former internees used to drink together for a while in McDaids and other Dublin pubs after their release, but as is usually the case they drifted mostly out of contact, and their literary lives took very different courses. Brendan wrote some interesting plays, and a great prison biography, but Ó Cadhain has left the more serious body of work, despite his much smaller audience.
While some claim that Behan only became proficient in Irish while in the Curragh – there was one Dublin ex internee who even claimed to have taught him – Brendan could speak and write Irish well before that. He no doubt benefitted from being in the company of native speakers like Ó Cadhain, who also provided him with books and advice.
Perhaps a more significant encounter, and one that led to Behan writing not only his own outstanding poem, but the one that Ó Cadhain had in mind when describing Brendan as one of the true poets of Irish, was with Seán Ó Briain from An Bualitín in the Kerry Gaeltacht of Corca Dhuibhne. They met when Behan was serving another short sentence in Mountjoy in 1948. Ó Briain was an IRA Volunteer who was a teacher and who enthralled Behan with the history and traditions of his native place.
That poem, Jackeen Ag Caoineadh na mBlascaod, was dedicated to Ó Briain and was published in Nuabhéarsaíocht in 1950 for which Ó Cadhain wrote a pre-publication report for the publishers Sáirséal agus Dill.
Beidh an fharraige mhór faoi luí mar ghloine,
Gan bád faoi sheol ná comartha beo ó dhuine
Ach an t-iolar órga deireanach thuas ar imeall
An domhain, thar an mBlascaod uaigneach luite..
An ghrian ina luí is scáth na hoíche á scaipeadh
Ar ardú ré is í ag taitneamh i bhfuacht trí scamaill,
A méara loma sínte ar thalamh
Ar thithe scríosta briste, truamhar folamh …
Faoi thost ach cleití na n-éan ag cuimilt thar tonna
Buíoch as a bheith fillte, ceann I mbrollach faoi shona,
Séideadh na gaoithe ag lusascadh go bog leathdhorais
Is an teallach fuar fliuch, gan tine, gan teas, gan chosaint.
The great sea will be laid out like glass,
No boat under sail nor sign of life from any
But the last golden eagle high at the rim
Of the world, over the lonely beaten Blasket.
The sun is low and the shadows of night are spread
And she shining coldly through the clouds,
Her naked finger stretched towards
The broken houses, pitifully empty …
Silent apart from the birds breasting the wave,
Grateful to return, head in chest at peace,
The wind softly brushing the half door
And the cold wet hearth, without fire, without heat, without protection…
Brendan Behan being asked to sing again at the Jager house Ballroom 85st & lex av [sic] / World Telegram & Sun photo by Phil Stanziola.