The Quare Fellow
Updated: 21 hours ago
Behan's Play Against Capital Punishment
When is a song more famous than the play it was written for?
The Auld Triangle, a song set in Mountjoy Prison, in Dublin's Northside, on the banks of the Royal Canal, remains a favoured staple of Irish folk music. It is also arguably one of the most famous prison songs (see: The Hub's Prison Blues blog and playlist), with its memorable opening stanza:
A hungry feeling
Came o'er me stealing
And the mice were squealing
In my prison cell
And that auld triangle went jingle-jangle
All along the banks of the Royal Canal
YouTube video: Luke Kelly & The Dubliners performing The Auld Triangle at The Gaiety Theatre, Dublin
But, ask anyone about the play the song features in, The Quare Fellow by Dubliner, Brendan Behan? The Hub doubts anyone but a knowledgeable theatre buff will tell you the play is a polemic against the inequities of the death penalty. The back cover blurb of the Metheun Modern Play edition of the script, first printed in 1956 and reprinted in 1970, sets the play in the context of its significance to Behan's career:
It was The Quare Fellow that made Brendan Behan an international figure. It was produced in 1956 by Theatre Workshop at the Theatre Royal, Stratford, in London's East End where later The Hostage was first presented. When he wrote The Quare Fellow Behan had passed eight of his thirty three years in British prisons for political offences. He knew the horror and farce of prison life, had met many condemned men and even spoke to them the day before they died.
Picture: The back cover of the Metheun Modern Play edition of The Quare Fellow with a picture of the author, Brendan Behan, bearing an uncanny resemblance to fellow Dublin writer Oscar Wilde / Credit: The Hub
The publisher is being polite about Behan's "political offences". A member of the IRA, he was incarcerated for attempting to blow up the Liverpool Docks. Metheun cast The Quare Fellow as a Comedy-Drama, a theme picked up on in an affectionate 2014 Irish Times article on the 50th anniversary of Behan's premature death aged 41, "The quare fellow 50 years on":
"His two greatest works, The Quare Fellow and the autobiographical (book) Borstal Boy, drew vividly from (his) penal experiences and made him one of the truest voices in “prison literature”. They also share Behan’s outstanding quality as a dramatist and prose writer: his ability to blend those twin components of great writing, tragedy and comedy, the humorous and humane."
The inside cover of the Metheun edition of The Quare Fellow sets the scene for the play:
The scene is an Irish prison during the twenty-four hours preceding an execution - the execution of the 'the quare fellow' who never appears on the stage. There is no story, although a great many things happen, because the author is concerned simply to show the effect of a hanging on his various characters - the old lags swigging methylated spirit, the warders, a reprieved murderer, and the hangman himself, over for the job from his pub in England. And the tension rises hour by hour to the moment when the grim procession moves across the yard and the clock strikes eight.
Kenneth Tynan, the leading theatre reviewer of his day, observed in The Observer on 27th May 1956 in a review titled, "The End of the Noose":
"In Brendan Behan's tremendous new play language is out on a spree, ribald, dauntless and spoiling for a fight... with superb dramatic tact, the tragedy is concealed beneath layer after layer of rough comedy."
A Play in Three Acts
YouTube video: The Quare Fellow , a 1962 film starring Patrick MacGoohan | Full HD Movies For Free | Flick Vault
The Quare Fellow is set across three acts, opening and closing with the song The Auld Triangle. Scene One introduces the characters and the scene, Scene Two gives a view into everyday life in an inner city prison before an execution, and Scene Three deals with the build up and aftermath of the execution.
Behan's use of song to express underlying feelings and to ease the tension in a prison setting is uncannily echoed in The Hub's "Calming Prisoners Through Song" blog and playlist about London soprano Emma Dogliani's choir in a London prison.
As the blurb says, Behan's device of only referring to The Quare Fellow indirectly, with him never appearing in person, puts the emphasis on the incidental characters in the play. On how their composure and demeanour changes as the tension builds across the three acts towards and after the execution.
For a Dubliner, Tynan's reference to the language of the play being "out on a spree" is simply explained by Behan authentically capturing the sprightly vernacular of the Dubliners of his day. As Sean O'Casey and James Joyce did before him.
As Roddy Doyle "the novelist most closely associated with the emergence of Ireland as a modern European nation" would do with his 90s Barrytown Trilogy. The Commitments - The Snapper - The Van reached a global audience with pithy Dub dialogue like The Snapper's unforgettable riff on the uncertainties of marital sex: "I suppose a ride's out of the question?".
YouTube video: The Snapper - "I suppose a ride is out of the question?"
They say every character in a French drama is a natural philosopher. Well, jump in a Dublin taxi at the airport unawares and you'll find yourself pitched into a verbal joust with a driver with the gift of the gab on steroids your jet lag has ill-prepared you for! Language for a Dubliner has evolved into a Darwinian point of difference even from their countrymen.
Another stand out from reading, or hearing the play, is the frequent use of the Irish language in ordinary speech portrayed by self-taught Gaelic speaker, Behan. This adds an additional local expression to the then global reality of the death penalty. A glossary translating these sentences is provided at the back of the Metheun edition.
The Quare Fellow, a 1962 film starring Patrick MacGoohan, brings the play to life starting with a walk across O'Connell Bridge, up O'Connell Street towards Mountjoy Prison on the other side of Dorset Street, tucked out of sight of the tourist spots.
With thanks to Israel travel guide Marco Alexander, the Hub's school friend from St Mary's National School in Booterstown, Co. Dublin, for the film reference. Marco's father, actor Gerry Alexander, performs as the prisoner in The Quare Fellow film who says "Nice day for the races!" at 13.02 on the YouTube video.
Picture: Nelson's Pillar on O'Connell Street reduced to a stump and rubble after a bomb attack by IRA splinter group member, Liam Sutcliffe in March, 1966 / Credit: Getty Images
In the opening scene of the film, Dublin landmark Nelson's Pillar is seen still standing on O'Connell Street before it was blown up unceremoniously by the IRA on 7 March, 1966. The following day, The Hub was taken in a pram by his mother the short walk from Summer Hill to see the pillar turned to a stump and rubble.
And finally... The sense of longing for escape that all of the characters in the play express, in their different ways, apart from directly The Quare Fellow of course, is powerfully captured in the song's and the play's closing stanza:
In the female prison
There are 75 women
And among them now, I wish I did dwell
Then that auld triangle could go jingle-jangle
All along the banks of the Royal Canal
Picture: Brendan Behan at the typewriter / Credit: irishistory.blogspot.com
Brendan Francis Aidan Behan (Breandán Ó Beacháin) (9 February 1923 – 20 March 1964) was a poet, short story writer, novelist and playwright who wrote in English and Irish.
Behan was born on 9 February 1923, in Dublin at Holles Street Hospital, on the corner of Merrion Square. One of the largest and grandest of Dublin's five Georgian squares, Merrion Square has Georgian houses on three sides. On the other is the garden of Leinster House, Oireachtas Éireann - the legislature of Ireland, and two national museums. In the attractive central park next to colourful flower and shrub beds look out for a statue of local writer Oscar Wilde reclining on a rock. A Dublin Tourism plaque at no. 82 celebrates former resident, "Poet & Playwright, William Butler Yeats".
By contrast, Brendan Behan lived across the river Liffey in the less fashionable North Inner City, in a house on Russell Street near Mountjoy Square. The house was owned by his grandmother, Christine English, who owned a number of properties in the area. Mountjoy Prison, the setting for The Quare Fellow, is a short walk around the corner. As is Eccles Street where fellow Northside writer, James Joyce lived. The James Joyce Centre is a few streets away on hidden-gem North Great Georges Street.
Although no longer seen as salubrious as its southern sister, Mountjoy Square and its surrounding area is the setting for some of Ireland's finest literature, The Quare Fellow included. Joyce's works The Dubliners, Finnegan's Wake and Ulysses are partly set in and around the square. Playwright Sean O'Casey, who lived at no. 35 Mountjoy Square during the War of Independence, set his Dublin Trilogy (The Shadow of a Gunman – Juno and the Paycock – The Plough and the Stars) in the area.
Artist, singer and Abbey Theatre doorman, Padraig O'Faolain, a family friend of The Hub, is one of a long list of other Irish notables who lived on Mountjoy Square. The Hub has fond memories of playing chess with Padraig in his grand-but-dilapidated Georgian home. In winter, a coal fire would roar but barely warm the first-floor, high-ceilinged, airy living room-cum-studio with views across the square, adorned with Padraig's paintings-in-progress.
Picture: Padraig O'Faolain with one of his paintings in his Mountjoy Square home / Credit: Photographer Colm Pierce
Brendan Behan was born into an educated working-class family. His father Stephen, a house painter active in the War of Independence, read classic literature to the children at bedtime, including Zola, Galsworthy and Maupassant. There was also a strong emphasis on Irish history and culture in the home, immersing Behan in literature and patriotic ballads from an early age. His mother, Kathleen, took the children on literary tours of the city.
Behan left school at 13 to follow in his father's footsteps as a house painter and became a member of the IRA's youth organisation Fianna Éireann aged fourteen. Behan joined the IRA at sixteen, leading to his serving time in a borstal youth prison in England and he was also imprisoned in Ireland. During this time, he self-studied and became a fluent Irish language speaker.
Behan's uncle Peadar Kearney wrote the Irish national anthem "Amhrán na bhFiann" (The Soldier's Song). His brother, Dominic Behan, was a renowned songwriter best known for "The Patriot Game". Another brother, Brian, was a prominent radical political activist and public speaker, actor, author and playwright.
If Behan's interest in literature came from his father, his political beliefs came from his mother. She remained politically active all her life and was a personal friend of Irish republican, Michael Collins. Behan wrote a lament to Collins, "The Laughing Boy", at the age of thirteen. The title was from the affectionate nickname Mrs. Behan gave to Collins. Kathleen published her autobiography, "Mother of All The Behans", a collaboration with son Brian, in 1984.
The Laughing Boy
"The Laughing Boy" Irish republican leader, Michael Collins, in pensive mood. / Credit: @kcshowcork
The Laughing Boy
By Brendan Behan
T'was on an August morning, all in the dawning hours,
I went to take the warming air, all in the Mouth of Flowers,
And there I saw a maiden, and mournful was her cry,
'Ah what will mend my broken heart, I've lost my Laughing Boy.
So strong, so wild, and brave he was, I'll mourn his loss too sore,
When thinking that I'll hear the laugh or springing step no more.
Ah, curse the times and sad the loss my heart to crucify,
That an Irish son with a rebel gun shot down my Laughing Boy.
Oh had he died by Pearse's side or in the GPO,
Killed by an English bullet from the rifle of the foe,
Or forcibly fed with Ashe lay dead in the dungeons of Mountjoy,
I'd have cried with pride for the way he died, my own dear Laughing Boy.
My princely love, can ageless love do more than tell to you,
Go raibh mile maith agat for all you tried to do,
For all you did, and would have done, my enemies to destroy,
I'll mourn your name and praise your fame, forever, my Laughing Boy.'
You can listen to the Theatre Workshop Players sung version of The Laughing Boy from a collection of songs from a theatre workshop production of Brendan Behan's The Hostage by clicking on the link below.
An interesting connection between The Hub interviewee Emma Dogliani and Michael Collins, is Emma's great great uncle, Crompton Llewelyn Davies, great uncle of The Lawbreaker co-author Theodora Llewelyn Davies.
Crompton Llewelyn Davies' wife, Moya, was born Dubliner Mary Elizabeth O'Connor and was an Irish Republican activist in the War of Independence and a Gaelic scholar. Moya was a free thinker in the guise of Dora Russell and Vita Sackville-West and a long term friend of Michael Collins. She used her husband's connections high up in the British civil service to spy for the Republican leader and she used her house in Clontarf, north Dublin, to hide people and guns as part of Collins' network of operations.
The Women in Collins' Life, is a 2007 Irish Times article following the auctioned sale of Moya's letters to PS O'Hegarty, a historian active in the Irish Republican Brotherhood and Sinn Féin, when he was the Irish Secretary for Posts and Telegraphs. Written by Moya's granddaughter Melissa Llewelyn-Davis, the article discusses the insights the letters give into Collins' personality and the nature of his relationships with Kitty Kiernan and Moya.
A Drunk with a Writing Problem
Picture: Study from life of Brendan Behan by Irish portrait artist Reginald Gray, 1953 (Egg tempera on wood panel)
1923: Brendan Behan is born in Dublin's Holles Street Hospital
1936: Behan writes Laughing Boy as a tribute to Republican Micheal Collins
1938: Behan joins the IRA youth wing Fianna Eireann
1939: Behan joins the IRA
1940: Behan is sentenced to Borstal Youth Prison for IRA activities
1946: Behan is released in a Fianna Fáil government amnesty
1954: The Quare Fellow is produced in Dublin and is well received
1955: Behan marries Beatrice ffrench Salkeld
1956: The play's production at Joan Littlewood's Theatre Workshop in Stratford, London gains Behan a wider reputation aided by a drunken BBC TV interview with Malcolm Muggeridge.
1958: Irish language play An Giall debuts at Dublin's Damer Theatre. Later, the English-language adaptation The Hostage, meets with great success internationally.
1958: Behan's novel, Borstal Boy, is published and described as, "This miracle of autobiography and prison literature." becomes a worldwide best-seller.
Early 60s: At the peak of his fame Behan increasingly frequents New York with Harpo Marx and Arthur Miller hanging out at The Chelsea Hotel.
1961: Behan is admitted to Sunnyside Private Hospital in Toronto for treatment for alcoholism and diabetes.
1963: Behan and ffrench Salkeld have a daughter Blanaid Behan.
1964: 20 March after collapsing at The Harbour Bar in Dublin Behan dies and is given a full IRA guard of honour at his funeral and burial at Glasnevin Cemetery. Newspapers describe the funeral as the country's biggest since Michael Collins' and Charles Stewart Parnell's.
YouTube video: A Hungry Feeling - The Life And Death Of Brendan Behan.
From The Irish Times: "Behan's hell-raiser reputation made him as famous for being a carouser and jester as being a writer. He once described himself as, "a drunk with a writing problem". We can only surmise what other literary accomplishments he might have been capable of if, like his contemporary and fellow habitué of the Chelsea Hotel, Dylan Thomas, he had not been a victim of celebrity and its demons.
A devotion to the Irish language resulted in some fine short stories and poems, as well as his second major play, An Giall/The Hostage. But, the work of his (Behan's) last years never matched the talent and originality The Quare Fellow promised in 1954."
The Guardian's article on the 50th anniversary of Behan's death, "From The Archive: Brendan Behan", looked back at how The Guardian and The Observer covered Behan's work and his gradual descent into alcoholism.
"His death on 20 March 1964 after months of ill health made the front page of The Guardian. In his obituary, Brian Inglis described him as a "decent man and exceptional raconteur, for whom gregariousness and drink were an escape."
Go raibh míle maith agat Brendan!