Nonpareil Books, 1982 365 pp.
Brendan Behan is one of those figures of whom it is practically impossible to separate the myth from the man. He was born in 1923 into an educated working class family in Dublin, a family with a long and deep Nationalist history. His mother, Kathleen, was a personal friend of Irish revolutionary leader, Michael Collins and his uncle, Peadar Kearney, fought in the 1916 uprising and was also the author of the Irish national anthem. This background drove him in two directions — Irish Republican rebel and writer. His nationalist activities led to his jailing a couple of times, but by his mid-twenties he had abandoned active support of the IRA and had embarked upon his career as a writer. These times in jail are the basis of the best of his work — The Quare Fellow, The Hostage (both plays) and Borstal Boy (a memoir). In his role as a writer, however, he became famous (as he put it himself) as “a drinker with a writing problem” and it is this image, so beloved of would-be artistic rebels, that has muddied his reputation. He was famous for drunken public appearances and a profane and scurrilous tongue and his personal legend has come to obscure a body of work which, at its best, is powerful and moving.
Borstal Boy was published in 1958 after his two big successes, The Quare Fellow and The Hostage and, though both of the latter are infused with a fierce humanity, Borstal Boy has a voice that is more personal and direct — despite exhibiting some writing habits, which writer Alan Simpson once described as being “somewhat repetitive, involuted and in need of some cutting.” If Behan’s plays were written, as poet Donagh McDonagh once accused, “for himself”, Borstal Boy is certainly an explanation of himself. And Borstal Boy was probably his last great work before the drink and resultant diabetes killed him.
The events of Borstal Boy start with Brendan at the age of sixteen, on a self-appointed raid to blow up the docks at Liverpool. He’s arrested at his boarding house and after initial detention sent to borstal, a type of reformatory or prison for youth. It is in this confinement that his life expands and all glibly held notions of “the enemy" are questioned and altered. It should be noted that from the beginning of the story Brendan seems to have a generous sense of humor about life itself and a charitable view of the human condition. Here, among his fellow inmates and in the keeping of the “screws”, he learns more and more about the common humanity of those around him, forms friendships and occasional feuds and, despite some occasional hardships, has a generally good time. This is not the story of hardened IRA soldier coming to love his enemy but a more nuanced view of the individual within the system. Indeed, as a practicing Catholic (later self-described as a “daylight atheist”), his main rancor is reserved for priests that refuse him the sacraments because, as a member of the IRA, he’s considered to be excommunicated. But his sympathy for those around him, the common criminals, the low-lifes, and the screws trying to keep order, is what is most in evidence. He once famously said: ”I respect kindness in human beings first of all, and kindness to animals. I don't respect the law; I have a total irreverence for anything connected with society except that which makes the roads safer, the beer stronger, the food cheaper and the old men and old women warmer in the winter and happier in the summer.” That’s good enough for me.