Borstal Boy by Brendan Behan is a book that I’ve meant to read for a long time, and I finally got around to it last year. My main interest in Brendan Behan is as an icon of Irishness, and as a figure in Irish social and cultural history. Irish republicanism, Catholicism, literary postmodernism, working class culture, popular culture, folk culture, liberalism and a strain of anarchism all collided in this intriguing personality. I’d read about him quite extensively, but I’d never quite got around to reading his actual writing. Borstal Boy, his account of time spent in a juvenile prison in England for a minor involvement in IRA activities, seemed like the most obvious work to go for, as I take an interest in situations of confinement, and in self-contained settings such as prisons.

Now an icon of Irishness, Brendan Behan was born in 1923 to a Dublin working class family which was highly cultured and nationalistic. He became involved in the IRA, and underwent incarceration in both the UK and Ireland as a result. He turned to writing, and in the last years of his short life enjoyed spectacular international success, particularly with his plays. He became a public personality, renowned as a wit and a character, and the pressure to live up to this legend seems to have hastened his death of alcoholism in 1964, aged forty-one.

Borstal Boy is more or less a work of reportage, and its virtues are those of good reportage. Behan doesn’t dwell too much on his own thoughts and emotions, but concentrates upon what happened. Most of us will never be incarcerated, and nobody will ever again experience the particular regimes described in the book. (Behan spent some time in adult prisons before his sentencing, as well as in the “borstal” of the title—a youth detention centre, and a new phenomenon at the time.) Therefore the memoir is valuable as a record, a glimpse into a reality that once existed.

None of us want to go to prison, but we are all fascinated by prison stories– in fact, we are fascinated by any confined situation. How many stories, from Robinson Crusoe to The Breakfast Club onwards, reflect this fascination? Indeed, we become nostalgic over situations of confinement and being subjected to strict rules, such as school days.

There seems to be a regular dialectic in human life whereby people seek the maximum amount of freedom and then feel alienated by the very freedom (convenience, choice, etc.) they’ve achieved. We are seeing it today with mobile phones and the internet– why have “digital detoxes” become so popular, and what are these but a self-imposed curb on personal freedom?

Borstal Boy is also interesting to me on account of Behan’s attitude towards religion and nationalism. The detainees in both institutions looked forward to religious services, as a break from routine, and something to do. Everybody is classed by religion– Roman Catholics are referred to as “RC”s. In an early scene, the Catholic chaplain in prison urges Brendan Behan to renounce his republican views, and insists that he shares the excommunication of other militant republicans when he refuses to do so. Behan is particularly grieved when he’s debarred from taking part in a benediction service at Christmas.

It’s hard to get a handle on Behan’s religious views. In the book, he presents himself as a tolerant sceptic, somebody who appreciates the aesthetic side of Catholicism, and feels a certain tribal allegiance to it, but who doesn’t really take it seriously. “I had nearly lost interest in Sacraments and whether I was deprived of them or not, Walton scalded my heart with regard to my religion, but it also lightened it. My sins had fallen from me, because I had almost forgotten that there were such things and, when I got over it, my expulsion from religion, it was like being pushed outside a prison and told not to come back. If I was willing to serve Mass, it was in memory of my ancestors standing around a rock, in a lonely glen, for fear of the landlords and their yeomen… Walton had cured me of any idea that religion of any description had anything to do with mercy or pity or love.”

Reading his life story, it seems that Catholicism became more important to him as he deteriorated into alcoholism and bad health, and that he disliked excessive criticism of the Church. On the other hand, Anthony Cronin in his excellent book Dead as Doornails describes Behan, before his success, having a strong animus against Catholicism.

Despite being in the IRA, Behan seems to extend this rather detached attitude towards his nationalism, too. When he is tried for his crime, he delivers a speech full of Irish republican rhetoric, but only to irritate the judge. As he explains to the reader: “I have a sense of humour that would nearly cause me to burst out laughing at a funeral, providing it was not my own, and solemn speeches are not easily made by me. I can’t keep it up.”

This attitude of flippancy pervades the entire book. Behan is willing to mock, not only religion, but his own nationalist beliefs. He shows disdain for solemnity here, as elsewhere: “Nor was I one of your wrap-the-green-flag-round-me junior Civil Servants that came into the IRA from the Gaelic League, and well ready to die for their country any day of the week, purity in their hearts, truth on their lips, for the glory of God and the honour of Ireland. No, be Jesus, I was from Russell Street, North Circular Road, Dublin, from the Northside…”

Indeed, throughout the book, Behan represents himself as sharing the coarse humour and language of the other prisoners. A fellow Irish republican prisoner (who is also excommunicated, but remains pious nonetheless) expresses his disdain for such behaviour to Behan, at one point: “The prisoners, though, though they’re all right in their own way, they have as much respect for themselves, or for one another, as animals. They talk about things, aye, and do things that the lowest ruffian in Ireland, Catholic or Protestant, wouldn’t put his tongue to the mention of, things that you could be born, grow up, and die an old man in our country without ever even hearing the mention of.”

There was indeed a strong tradition of puritanism in Irish cultural nationalism, and it’s one which I admire. Even before I was a Catholic or a conservative, and though I’ve been a lifelong admirer of Yeats, I felt more sympathy with the Irish theatre audiences who protested Playboy of the Western World on account of its raciness, than I did with Yeats and the other intellectuals who lambasted them. I felt that the audiences were trying to maintain a standard, while the intelligentsia were trying to dispense with a standard, and that the former effort was intrinsically nobler. I realize that the intelligentsia would claim they were holding to a standard– freedom of expression– but that doesn’t rally wash with me. Puritanism is harder than liberalism, and more easily lost.

I’m generally favourable towards rules and standards, when they are not actually oppressive.  This often gives me a different attitude to some of my colleagues in my workplace. I’ve had lots of arguments with liberal colleagues who think everything should be allowed and every rule should be waived where possible. I’m of the opinion that, within reason, an institution is not under an onus to justify its regulations, but that the onus should be on the visitor to respect the institution. For instance, if I went to somebody’s house and they asked me to take my shoes off before I walked on the carpet, I might think that was a stupid rule, but I wouldn’t argue. I’d just do it, out of respect.

Even rules that seem arbitrary have this benefit; that they create an atmosphere of respect. They make the situation special, distinctive, creating a mental boundary between one place and another, or one time and another.

The Behan attitude towards Irish nationalism seems to have become popular, especially via its influence on Shane MaGowan of the Pogues. That is, Irish nationalism allied with a kind of anarchism; rules and conventions are to be despised, irreverence is the order of the day, and nothing should be taken too seriously.
My problem with this attitude is that it’s taking a free ride on the reverence, seriousness, and effort of other people– it’s squandering the funds they worked up. Behan inherited a tradition of Irish cultural nationalism because other people, who came before him, took it seriously. You only have to look at a character such as Miss Ivors in “The Dead” by James Joyce to see a portrait, presumably recognisable, of an earlier Irish cultural nationalist.:

And why do you go to France and Belgium,” said Miss Ivors, “instead of visiting your own land?”
“Well,” said Gabriel, “it’s partly to keep in touch with the languages and partly for a change.”
“And haven’t you your own language to keep in touch with—Irish?” asked Miss Ivors.
“Well,” said Gabriel, “if it comes to that, you know, Irish is not my language.”
Their neighbours had turned to listen to the cross-examination. Gabriel glanced right and left nervously and tried to keep his good humour under the ordeal which was making a blush invade his forehead.
“And haven’t you your own land to visit,” continued Miss Ivors, “that you know nothing of, your own people, and your own country?”

She is somewhat narrow-minded, chauvinistic, intense– the characteristic vices (if they are vices) of pioneers. Movements only get off the ground because people are willing to take them seriously. Decadence has set in when a mellow, easy-going, self-mocking attitude takes over. As Nietzsche put it: “All creators are hard”.  The same surely applies to those who preserve what has been created.

And the reason I think this irreverence is particularly lamentable in Behan is because Irishness was his gimmick. He drew constantly on Irish ballads, sayings, history, and culture in order to give his works a distinctive flavour. But he seems ultimately to have been a proponent of the same limp liberalism and cosmopolitanism favoured by most literary people of his time, and of our own. This is reflected in his writing, as well as his life. Literary modernism, pop culture, gutter speak– all of it got thrown into the pot along with the Irish ballads and folklore. How can anything fine or distinctive survive that kind of free-for-all?

Indeed, we see the outcome in our own era. Insofar as the Irish people have preserved any sense of Irishness or national feeling, it would be the nationalism of Brendan Behan—tongue-in-cheek, easy-going, essentially cosmopolitan—rather than the exclusivism of Miss Ivors. The same observation applies to Irish religiosity—insofar as it survives, it is for the most part a religiosity that eschews dogma and doctrine. And, after several decades of such attitudes predominating in Irish society, what have we left of Irish national distinctiveness, or of Irish religion?

Posted by Maolsheachlann Ó Ceallaigh