By Peter McDermott
THE DUBBALIN MAN, by Brendan Behan. Forward by Anthony Cronin. Published by A.A. Farmer and distributed by Irish Books and Media, 1433 E. Franklin Ave., Minneapolis, MN 55404-2135, (612) 871-3505. 167pp. $15.95.
Of the pantheon of Irish literary figures, none was loved by the Irish public quite like Brendan Behan.When he died in 1964 at the age of 41, his funeral to Glasnevin was said to have been the biggest since Michael Collins’s in 1922, six months before his birth. In the years before his death, he’d won an international reputation with his plays and his memoir, "Borstal Boy," together with other books.
But in Ireland, before that, Behan had became a household name with his contributions to Radio Eireann and national newspapers. His column in the Saturday edition of the Irish Press, which appeared weekly from March 1954 to April 1956, was widely read. It also coincided with an important period in his career. In November 1954, his first play, "The Quare Fellow," appeared at the Pike Theatre in Dublin. And the month after the column ceased, the play got its first London run.
In his foreword to this selection of the Irish Press pieces, Anthony Cronin writes that, aside from a few tapes, this is the closest we have of Behan talking. However in his hugely entertaining memoir of 1950s literary Dublin, "Dead as Doornails," Cronin argues that the Brendan Behan the world got to know was already in decline; Behan, the young house painter, whom he knew as a friend, was a truly brilliant performer and wit. Yet there is more than enough evidence in the book of his special talent.
The main reason for his decline figures here occasionally as a topic. Behan writes that when he was a child "the older ladies believed in a sup of porter for children of pre-Confirmation age and even said, ‘Let them have a taste of it now and they’ll never even bother with it when they’re grown up,’ " theories which Behan noted had "little or no scientific basis in fact." But, more often, alcohol consumption provides the setting. "We had gone out there to pass the beautiful day of high summer like true Irishmen in the dark snug of a public house," Behan says, recalling an afternoon spent with Orangemen in
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Donaghadee in County Down.
Much of the action in the pieces, though, takes place in one contemporaneous Dublin snug whose fictional regulars include Mrs. Brennan and Maria Concepta, both elderly women whose husbands fought in the Boer and Great Wars, and the barroom patriot Mr. Crippen. In other pieces Behan introduces us to people from his childhood, like his bedridden great-aunt Henrietta who "caught a bad cold at Parnell’s funeral and hadn’t been expected to live this forty year."
Behan had a great knowledge of Dublin history and folklore. He notes at one point that the River Tolka never had a song written about it despite its claims to fame, which included the fact that "Brian Boru’s son was drowned in it, and it’s not every river you could say that about."
A lot of the comic effect depends on Behan’s ear for the peculiarities of local pronunciation — and as late the 1950s, local could mean a particular neighborhood or district. The dialogue is also enriched with some wonderful malapropisms, particularly from Mrs Brennan.
Some of the columns are fairly straightforward travelogue pieces written from England and France; they are less interesting, however, than those set at home. None could compare in any case with Cronin’s own hilarious account, in "Dead as Doornails," of an earlier journey that he and Behan made to France.
Behan writes that the British made less use of their loot than many lesser imperialisms. "The ugliness of much of London is unbelievable," he says. However, he adds: "Its people are kindlier, nosier and more respectable than any I have ever met." He continues: "The famed British reserve is as much myth as the idea of a broth-of -a-boy Irishman, he of the ready wit and the warm heart and the great love of a fight."
Generally, Behan’s approach is broadly nationalist, one which would have been in tune with his readers. His prison years in Ireland were spent under a de Valera government, but now just past 30, he’s writing for de Valera’s paper. There is a certain ambivalence about his attitude here. Occasionally he’s strident: "The least we can do is knock Nelson off his perch." Ten years later, Nelson was toppled, but, regrettably, the impressive perch went along with him.
At other times republican piety is gently mocked. After the 1969-70 IRA split, Behan’s survivors were strongly supportive of the Officials and the Workers Party. That movement promoted the "revisionist" position — insofar as there was a single position — which
challenged the old nationalist narrative of Irish history. Kathleen Behan, Brendan’s mother, was once quoted as saying that it was only in England’s universities that an Irish working-class boy could get an education. The shift from a national to a mainly class perspective was evident.
However there is little or no social criticism in the column — though a short story published here for the first time shows Behan’s harder edge. But, Cronin argues, if they lack realism, the "Irish Press columns have their own authenticity." What we have, he says, is "unmistakably Dublin." And Dubliners agreed, which is one reason why they turned out that day in March 1964 to say farewell.