‘Like champagne. . . or the Aurora Borealis’

Brendan Behan

The death of maverick Irish writer, Brendan Behan, (above)  50 years ago, has been much remarked upon. But Behan shares this anniversary year with another major Irish literary figure, playwright Sean O’Casey, who appears as a character in my latest novel, The Rising of Bella Casey, which tells the story of his sister Bella.

The bare biographical details of Behan and O’Casey’s lives tell their own story. Behan died aged 41 on March 20, 1964, from alcohol-related diabetes. Six months later, O’Casey passed away aged 84. The age gap between them belies how much they had in common, although their lives did not cross.

Behan was certainly influenced by O’Casey’s work, particularly his Dublin trilogy – Shadow of a Gunman, Juno and the Paycock and The Plough and the Stars. Although a Protestant, O’Casey was brought up in straitened circumstances in northside Dublin and combined his literary career with a political radicalism, although he was a late bloomer as a writer. He was in his forties before his first play was staged.

Born 43 years after O’Casey in the same neighbourhood, Behan, a Catholic, was a precocious talent. He began writing in his teens contributing to Irish Republican magazines.  His work was heavily influenced by his political commitment.  In Behan’s case, that commitment included active involvement in the IRA, which resulted in two spells in prison.

Borstal Boy – a play based on his novel of the same name is now running at the Gaiety Theatre, Dublin in a new production directed by Conall Morrison – describes Behan’s first sentence in England for IRA activities. The Quare Fella tells of an execution at Mountjoy Jail when Behan was imprisoned there, and The Hostage deals with an IRA kidnapping of a British soldier.

Through very different routes, both  came to roughly similar conclusions in their writings about the fight for Irish freedom – “that while the issues involved were nationalism and imperialism, the ordinary poor had nothing to gain and a great deal to suffer in the cross-fire” as Colbert Kearney notes in The Writings of Brendan Behan.

But perhaps the most telling difference between them was one of temperament and habits.  Unlike Behan, O’Casey was a tea-totaller. In his biography of O’Casey, Christopher Murray remarks:”It is a sobering thought, if the pun will pass, that had O’Casey taken Behan’s path, he would have been dead before a single play had been staged. . .”

Conversely, Behan described himself as a drinker with a writing problem.

O’Casey’s view of Behan’s work is not recorded, but he was almost paternal in his concern for the younger writer. In an interview in the Irish Press on May 9, 1961, he remarked: “It’s sad to see this man abusing himself like he is.  If he does not mind his talent it will fade.”  On Behan’s death, he told the Evening Press: “One thing Brendan Behan never did was to exploit his own talents. . . He died too quickly.”

Behan was reverent in his admiration of O’Casey.  In a BBC television interview on November 29, 1962 he declared “. . .any playwright, certainly any Irishman writing plays in the past forty years that denies that O’Casey influenced them is a fool –  a liar. Yes, of course, he influenced us all.” In Brendan Behan’s Island, he went further: “I come from the same area as Sean O’Casey about whom I don’t intend to say anything for the simple reason that it would be like praising the Lakes of Killarney – a piece of impertinence.  A far as I’m concerned, all I can say is that O’Casey’s like champagne, one’s wedding night, or the Aurora Borealis, or whatever you call them – all them lights.”     

Sean O’Casey died on September 18,1964

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