“It’s Brendan Behan’s Anniversary today” I charily mumble to the office, the sound reverberating around the room and returned to me like an unwanted gift at Christmas.
“Who the hell is Brendan Behan” was what I got in return. It’s almost a sin! It almost hurts as much as reading newspapers with their headlines of “Behan – A slave to the drink” or my favourite – “Being Behan: Death by celebrity and alcohol”.
While there is no denying that Brendan Behan was a drinker, it cannot be discarded that there was so much more to him than that. Yesterday marked the 50th anniversary of this very perplexing personality. A man who the media like to remember for his beverage consumption rather than the literary work and headway that he made, in terms of a voice among a strangled country.
Brendan Behan was a poet, a short story writer, a novelist and a playwright, as gaeilge agus as béarla. And he was also an Irish Republican and a volunteer in the Irish Republican Army.
When I think of Brendan Behan, I don’t see images of pints of stout or a drunk stammering and stuttering. I see a man who, even though he was involved in the war that raged through Ireland at the time, believed the pen to be mightier than the sword. As the man said himself :
“They took away our land, our language and our religion; but they could never harness our tongues”
Behan believed we were a nation of more. He believed in our thinking, in our talents and in our great resilience. He was known for his humorous, witty quotes. And to be honest, I would rather listen to a “drunks” philosophy on life, than some of the sober idiots that I have met in my time. I would rather read his books and watch his plays until my eyes rolled back in my skull, than to read some of the garbage that is fed out to us through social media and other sources that we encounter.
I feel that, as an Irish nation, we have lost the romantic and boisterous relationship we had with the Arts. If you enter a room and spout off a quote or mention a great writer, no one knows what you are talking about, or maybe a very small few do – and it is a shame. Behan grew up in a family, like many of the time, that was steeped in literature and patriotic ballads. From a very young age he was surrounded by an emphasis on Irish culture and history, which was to the very fore of his family unit. Fast forward to the family unit of today and things are very different.
We have become a nation of “Facebook news feed” readers where we read about what Kim K is wearing, or we subscribe to some blog about a girl who wears her hair this way, or her make up that way. We are bombarded by visual dead ends; nothing that feeds the brain or stirs the heart in us anymore. Nothing that teaches us about who we are, where we came from or where we could be.
Wouldn’t it be great to sit down and be able to engage with people about our Arts; the great stories, the novels, the plays, the romantic poetry that Ireland is renowned for? It is sad to think that in a few years from now, in libraries all over the country, the mystical and magical books of Brendan Behan, W.B. Yeats, James Joyce, Samuel Beckett, John B. Keane and Oscar Wilde, to name but a few, might be walked past by the youth that have not come yet. That they will never know the romance of Yeats, the humour of Joyce or the brilliance of Wilde.
We depend far too much on the company of our smart phones to entertain and while away a boring evening. We miss out on the bigger picture; we are distracted by people being able to down a drink in 60 seconds and towed in to give them “likes”, rather than to look back and reward the life of a man who spent time in jail yet turned to establishing a more honest way of life by writing about his thoughts and ideas. But, we allow the media to bash the same person about his drinking.
I know that Irish poetry and writings aren’t everyones cup of tea, but wouldn’t it be nice to give it a try to at least see if you would learn something from it? You might surprise yourself. Our literature is among the greatest in the world. I know many people think that its “old-fashioned” and backwards, but the evidence is in the books, the poems and the plays. If you’d only let yourself see it. It paints a very different picture of Ireland, and shows it as the place it is; a country of constant transition.
Whether you pick up a book of poetry from W.B. Yeats or Eavan Boland, or become engrossed in the drama of J.M. Synge, Brian Friel or Marina Carr. Or maybe the prose fiction of James Joyce and John McGahern, you will see the reflection of Irelands transformation in their work.
It is a testament to them and their individual talents, that they attempted to come to some kind of understanding of the troubles and changes that were happening around them. And it would probably serve us all better if we utilised the same idea.
Bored of Facebook or Twitter or the same genre of literature that you find yourself picking up time and time again? Do yourself a favour and go out and buy a copy of “Borstal Boy” by Brendan Behan, impress yourself by taking your own meaning from “Ulysses” or take your pick from any of our talented writers – and surprise yourself.