Brendan Behan was a mid-20th century Irish writer, and another great example of drink-sodden Irish literature. Even better, he reminds me of Bukowski, the great drink-sodden exponent of Beat literature. Behan is best known as the author of Borstal Boy, an autobiographical account of his imprisonment at a young age in a English jail, and which was later adapted for the stage. After the Wake is a collection of Behan short stories, as well as journalistic pieces, and includes part of the Borstal Boy story.
Recently, the Dublin port company have been running a series of posters promoting the use of the port as a tourist link to Britain, somewhat bizarrely through reference to the numerous literary emigrés who took the 'mailboat' out of the country, often never to return. James Joyce is one, and Behan - a well-known nationalist author - another. I say bizarrely, because the prime motivation for this emigration (hardly the jaunty travelling that the company wishs to advertise) was, I would think, the conservative and narrow-minded culture, not to mention economic and political stagnation, of Ireland itself. I mean, these supposed national literary heroes were one-way ticket people, and more exiles than emigrés. And the self-proclaimed 'Borstal Boy' is an unlikely candidate for a reputable, not to say distinguished, cultural ambassador.
I had not in fact personally read Behan until very recently, when I picked this book up at the local library, and to say the least I was impressed. Think perhaps of the realism and dark humour of Bukowksi, against or rather with a more generous, gentler and less sociopathically destructive nature, and set within an older, impoverished yet verbally acute culture. Even just on literary merit alone, and leaving aside the politics, humanity and vibrancy of his characters, these short stories represent some very skilled writing.
This extract is from a story called 'The Execution', an understated, lightly scored (in the sense of the author playing on the emotions) and surprisingly tender tale of paramilitary murder and warped social relations. Pints, pistols and gombeens are not a world away from Bukowski's seedy underbelly of California. Well, in fact they are... but only becuase it's a small world. Read on; some knowledge of Irish history useful!
"We went in, Ellis between Kit and myself. The poor devil wouldn’t have run if we’d let him. He was telling me how it wasn’t his fault giving the dump away. He had never been picked up before and the cells had got in on him. Smiling contentedly to himself he was, and saying that maybe the boys wouldn’t think too badly of him when he took his tar and feathering like a man. Real wistfully he said to me, ‘I’d sooner get an awful beating than a tar and feathering because that’d be a terrible disgrace, my old man being a ’16 man an’ all.’ God help him. My father was a Dublin Fusilier in 1916, but that’s the way.
I squeezed his arm in a friendly way. I’d never liked him much before but I felt sorry for him and sorrier for his people. He had been fond of boasting about the Fenian tradition of his family. Still, we couldn’t let people give away dumps on us or there’d soon be no respect for the Army.
We entered the snug.
I’d my hand through the pocket of my mac and on my skit. It was a Police Positive .38 in a slip-holster, a nice small skit.
Gerry Dolan, I knew, had either a Lüger, Parabellum, Walther or a Browning. They were the only automatics in the company dump, except for a few Colt autos and a 9mm Peter that was too big to lug around. And Gerry dearly loved automatics, especially ones with queer names. I never saw the day he’d be satisfied with a Smith or Webley.
You can sometimes judge a fellow by his taste in skits.
Now Kit, I could swear, would be carrying a Colt auto. He liked a Smith but held that it was bulky for work like this. Although he didn’t love automatics as a rule, gra for the Colt. Mainly, I think, because when he went around checking dumps with the Batt. Q/M he could pinch a few rounds of Thompson stuff to bang off in it. A wild lad Kit, but dependable. A bit of a boozer. He used drink with Mickey Horgan and Connie.
For all that I’d nearly had them dismissed for using Army stuff on an unofficial job, I thought the three of them the best suited of the five of us in tonight’s work. Connie and Mickey would be carrying short Webleys.
I ordered four drinks – four pints, a mineral for Dolan and a glass of whiskey for Ellis. They give a condemned man a glass of rum and a cigarette in France. I wished Ellis had asked for a bottle of stout. Connie, Kit and Mickey were drinking abstractedly. The frothy rings on their glasses were equi-distant.
I wasn’t used to drink and was sorry I’d hadn’t ordered an ale, a pint seemed even more unmanageable tonight.
Ellis knocked back his whiskey and asked what we were having. I didn’t want to stop there all night and said we’d better be going. I was surprised when Gerry Dolan said it was his round. He ordered three pints, ale for me, and two whiskeys. His face reddened when I looked at him.
When we got in the car again Ellis’s spirits seemed even further improved, the liquor I supposed. He offered me a cigarette and struck a match; his face was very young looking.
About three miles further was the spot. It would be my job to tell them to get out of the car. Ellis would see the loneliness of it. There wasn’t a house in sight of it. It didn’t seem so easy a thing now.
It was a frosty night and my legs were getting a bit cramped. I hoped Ellis wouldn’t start crying or anything. I’d sooner he put a fight. It would be easier to let him have it.
‘Let him have it,’ ‘plugging him,’ ‘knocking him off’. It’s small wonder people are shy of describing the deed properly. We were going to kill him..."