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Much of what I have written over the years has been lost or never filed.
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Brendan Behan by his niece

First published in the Irish Daily Mail, February 2008

Dublin-born writer Brendan Behan was a sex addict. His dependency on alcohol is well-known and well-documented but, according to his niece, his addictive personality also involved him a bi-sexual lifestyle.

Janet Behan, 53, whose comedy “Brendan at the Chelsea” is coming to an end of a short run in London’s Riverside Theatre, claims her famous uncle was sex-mad. [The play ended on 3 February 2008]

“He was a sexaholic. My father used to say that Brendan would get up on the back of a Drimnagh bus,” says the London-born actress and writer.

“He needed sex the same way as he needed drink. He was deeply unhappy inside and his moments of sexual togetherness were where he knew peace. There is very clear evidence that he was bisexual which may have been partly why he was unhappy.”

“Brendan at the Chelsea” is set in a room in New York’s infamous Chelsea Hotel, whose hotel register reads like a who’s who of the off-beat and louche. Apart from Behan, those guests included writer Dylan Thomas, Bob Dylan, Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix, and Jack Kerouac. It was at the Chelsea that Sex Pistol Sid Vicious murdered his girlfriend Nancy Spungen.

Janet says her play examines what drove the writer to drink himself to death at the age of 41. Had he lived, Behan would be celebrating his 85th birthday this year on February 9. He died in Dublin on March 20, 1964, when Janet was only 10 leaving her few memories of her uncle.

“I didn’t really know him. What I know was the shape that he left in that family. I knew the men of that family and I knew my grandmother I knew the dynamics of that family. That’s what I bring to the project.

“You can’t look at Brendan without thinking what must it have been like to constantly deny something so fundamental to the core of our being as our own sexuality.”

The writer of “Borstal Boy” and “The Quare Fella” spent many years in prison at various times in his life. His first homosexual experience is thought to have taken place when he was sent to a reform school (a Borstal) at the age of sixteen for an abortive unsanctioned IRA bombing mission to Liverpool.

He was later to serve other prison sentences in Ireland as well as Britain. Janet says that the sexual activities he would have taken part in during this time cannot be seen as homosexual activity.

“There are lots of men in prison who have what we, on the outside, would call gay sex but they certainly don’t regard it as gay sex in prison. The men are sort of temporary women.”

But Behan’s same sex activities continued in later life including a well-documented affair with a Dundalk-born sailor in New York.

Women also played a part in Behan’s sexual appetites. He is reputed to have bedded many women behind his long-suffering wife Beatrice’s back.

“He dreaded loneliness” says niece Janet. “If you’ve had sex with somebody and you wake up next to them, you’re not alone.

“In that room in the Chelsea he spent hours and hours when he should have been writing just talking to the dancers who were in there - making them laugh. Lying on the ground, in his bare feet, looking at the ceiling telling stories. At the heart of it, he couldn’t bear to be alone.”

In the play, Janet has given one woman who crossed Behan’s path when he lived at the Chelsea the name “Suzanne”.

“She had a child and claimed it was his. I think he was planning to set up home with her.

“When Beatrice came across to New York to see him, he asked for a divorce because he was going to have a son with this other woman. They were going to live together, which meant he wouldn’t have to leave America.

“I think this was all part of a mad delusion, a mad attempt not to die. This is where his chance to carry on living existed in this place, with this woman. A great opportunity here. It was far more to do with that than any affection he felt for the woman.

“He was always surrounded by young women continually trying to get close to him. Beatrice always had to put up with that.  If you look at him, Hemingway, John Lennon, and people like that, there was always a gaggle of girls who think there is some sort of reflected glory. It gave their lives a meaning.

“I think that the woman I called “Suzanne” in the play was another one of those. I don’t want to say she actually bound herself onto Brendan. But any grown up person would have looked at him and said ‘This bloke is not father material. This man is not going to support me or my child.’ I think it’s fair to say she was not very grown up.

“Who knows? The child may have been Brendan’s or maybe not. Families are full of secrets.”

Behan would have probably left Beatrice for “Suzanne” had his wife not announced that she was expecting the couple’s first and only child, daughter Blanaid. He returned home to Dublin with his wife. Within four months of Blanaid’s birth, he was dead from alcoholism and diabetes.

The child allegedly born to Behan and “Suzanne” may not be the only illegitimate off-spring father by the Dublin author.

Janet says she received a letter recently from a man searching for a woman called Sarah. He claimed Sarah was his mother, who had given him for adoption when he was a baby. Behan is said to have visited Sarah in Epsom in Surrey.

“Nobody in this family ever mentioned any Sarah or Brendan going to Epsom. It’s all very strange. There’s obviously many things that are hidden,” says the writer’s niece.

Janet says the Behan family were not close but she does recall some incidents where she saw her famous uncle. Her father Brian would bring his family to Ireland from London to visit Brendan. Janet has fond memories of those visits.

“I remember he his warm and jolly presence. His house seemed terribly posh. It was in Anglesea Road in Ballsbridge and we were living in a pre-fab in Herne Hill, a down-at-heel district of South-east London.

“I also remember when we went to visit Dublin we’d get on that smelly old train and go to Liverpool or Holyhead and get the boat to Dublin. It was always at night.

“But once Brendan paid for all of us to get a berth on the boat. So we all had beds and that was pretty luxurious. He was pretty open-handed with his brothers. I know he gave Dad money.

“Brendan was the only one who had money.”

But while the successful author, who described himself as “ a drinker with a writing problem”, may have made money, he had no idea how to keep it.

“He gave it away and he drank it,” says Janet.

“When he died he left Beatrice with horrendous debts which she then had to clear gradually.

“Beatrice said than when she went to cart him back from New York that second time, she had hidden one of his royalties cheques in her purse. If she hadn’t done that they wouldn’t have been able to come back from New York”

After her play opened a few weeks ago, Janet received a letter from a woman who recalls how she knew Brendan when she lived in Dublin. The woman was a small girl hanging around the tenement streets of inner-city Dublin when she saw the writer talking to a friend. Behan asked the two girls if they could sing an Irish song.

They performed “Molly Malone” and received half-a-crown (16 cents) each.

“Half-a-crown was a lot of money in those days,” says Janet. “He was always giving away money to kids. He was very nice to children.”

Brendan Behan’s ability to relate to children is, according to Janet, a testament to how difficult he found engaging with the real world and those close to him.

“Brendan came to London one time and went to the pub with my father, his brother Brian. The conversation was quite stiff and awkward as he chided my father over left-wing politics.

“Then Brendan then turned round and started to talk to a Kerry builder who came up to him the pub. They had a great conversation and my father felt very sad when he saw that Brendan couldn’t talk to his own brother. But he could hold forth to a stranger.

“I doubt very much if Brendan was ever entirely sober apart from time in his life when he was sober in the West of Ireland. If you’re an alcoholic and if you don’t have a drink, you can’t function. He was great conversationalist. Beatrice says in her book, on a night out she said to him: “You’re just a witty and just as funny without the drink.”

But being a Behan hasn’t always been easy for Janet.

I think a lot of Irish were, for many years, very embarrassed about their reputation abroad. I remember going to a pub in Dublin when I was about 14 and I always felt like I was a bit of a celebrity because I was a Behan.

“I would say ‘Oh, I’m a niece of Brendan Behan’ and one day a man turned around and said: ‘It’s the likes of you f***ing Behans who have given us Irish such a f***ing bad reputation abroad.’”

Born in Lambeth, a mere stone’s throw from the fictional Walford, like her famous uncle Janet herself is no stranger to controversy with Irish audiences.

“I was in the notorious Irish episodes of EastEnders that caused terrible distress to the Irish Tourist Board who asked the programme makers to apologise, which they did.”

Janet played Pauline Fowler’s niece-in-law in episodes filmed in Ireland and London and shown in September 1997. EastEnders was accused of negative stereotyping in the way that it portrayed Irish people, depicting them as "dirty, rude, and drunk".

The BBC were inundated with complaints from angry Irish people all over Britain and Ireland. In addition, complaints were made by the Irish Embassy in London and holiday chiefs who feared that the show would have a negative effect on the tourist trade.

“We were the beginning of an Irish storyline and actually I would have made a fat living out of EastEnders for many years if it hadn’t been that the Irish rose up as a nation and completely mistook the show for a sociological document. They felt very insulted.

My storyline was already written. I was going to stay in Albert Square for many years but they were axed and that’s when an Italian family came in instead.”

The irony of having her work shunned by Irish in much the same way as Brendan Behan’s was in the 1950 and 60s by the intelligentsia of Dublin is not lost on Janet.

“I was very worried when I trying to get this play on that the Irish people wouldn’t like this portrayal of Brendan. They no longer wanted to have that image of an Irishman. But the Irish people who have seen have been very kind.”

Encouraged by the success of Brendan at the Chelsea, and with hopes of it transferring to New York and Dublin, Janet has more writing projects in the pipeline. But no more about her famous family.

“I don’t want to be someone who endlessly trawls the Behan bandwagon. I think I’ve said all I want to say about them. Uncles aren’t put there for me to write plays about,” she laughs.






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© 2008 Brendan Martin

Brendan Martin - Media Trainer and Journalist