Hold Your Hour and Have Another
The name Behan is said to mean bee-keeper, but the good thing about Brendan Behan was that he didn’t keep them in his bonnet. Not that it would have been surprising if he had turned into a crank—after all, he was involved in a fatiguing series of balancing-acts, and it would have been easy to totter. An Irishman all right, but stingingly critical of blarney and Irishness, and using them in his books only to ridicule them or to outwit his persecutors. A New Statesman reader, but half-afraid of and half-contemptuous of intellectuals. A Roman Catholic, but scornful of the Church for its loving support of all the wrong political causes—and moreover a man who took the line, still dangerously bizarre in Ireland, of being as much against anti-Protestant vindictiveness as against anti-Catholic ditto. A leftist with a long memory but no rancor, who ringingly announced that his ambition was to be a rich Red. A card-carrying, indeed bomb-carrying, member of the Irish Republican Army, who spent the best years of his life (in more senses than just the schooldays one) behind bars, but who was later to find himself sentenced to death by the I.R.A. for removing his toes from the party line. (Fortunately the sentence was passed in his absence, so he was able to send a courteous note suggesting that it be executed in the same manner.) Such self-warring loyalties and likings would be enough to drive a man to drink. Not, apparently, that Behan needed much driving.
It would be good if one could think of his passionate boozing as nothing more than a plain man’s delight in good fellowship. But it does look more obsessive than that, and Behan’s death in March of this year has, as everyone has pointed out, a great deal in common with Dylan Thomas’s. With both, there was a willed thoroughness about seeming hard-drinkingly normal that itself ended up not normal. With both, there was the fatal fact that the modern publicity industry prefers its celebrities drunk. The appeal now is from Philip sober to Philip drunk. There was no intrinsic reason why Behan’s famous insobriety in 1956 alongside Malcolm Muggeridge on B.B.C. television, or later under Ed Murrow, should ever have done him any harm. In fact it must have, and just because it was in a worldly sense the making of him. Drinking became, perilously, part of making money rather than spending it, and Behan, like Thomas, now had a reputation to keep down. Again like Thomas, there is one’s nagging feeling that he drank because he didn’t really want to write, was perhaps dismayed at how quickly he had run through what he had to say, and so was trying to stave off a sense of bankruptcy. The force of these pressures on Behan and the force with which his witty courage withstood them can both be seen in that extraordinary face, so photogenic …