Brendan Behan’s Borstal Boy

It must have been in 1964, having been intrigued by Brendan Behan’s antics on television, that I first read Borstal Boy, which led me on to reading everything he wrote and other things that were written by others when he was incapable of writing towards the end of his short life.  His vocabulary with its Dublin vernacular extended mine no end and he became a folk hero of mine and many others.

I heard the Gaiety were putting on a a re-make of Frank McMahon’s adaption of the novel which had been first put on at the Abbey in 1967 and I determined to go.  I also heard that at least one of the original cast, Des Cave, was still strutting his stuff and was about to do it in this.  I had another reason as well, my daughter, Paddy Jo’s beau had secured a part in the Borstal section of the production and I later discovered that to gain entry into a Borstal young offenders unit of 1940’s Britain, it was well that you attended the Gaiety School of Acting first.  The beau, some hick from the Cork/Kerry border was given the part of Ken Jones, the posh English lad, who had pushed his paraplegic brother off a cliff in his wheel chair.  I wondered how a Ballyvourney boy, with the upsy-downsey accent they have round that quarter, could ever enunciate the beautiful sculptured tones of an upper class Englishman.  I was about to find out.

We left Boyle on the 9.33am train bound for Dublin for the 4th October 2014 matinee performance.  It is a lovely day out, the two and a half hour journey up to Dublin armed with my kindle, the Indo’s Super Sodoku and the spouse, a little lunch, the performance and back on the last train, alighting in Boyle at 9.30 pm, a late snack and the best part of a bottle of Malbec.  With the Super Soduko nearly done and with good connections we were outside the Gaiety by 12.15 to meet our friends, the actor and daughter, who only had to come from Sandymount, but were late and I was ravenous.

We ate in a Chinese restaurant next door to the Gaiety, where the sour faced head waiter held a mis0gynistic grip on his gaggle of young waitresses.  The lunch was needed rather than admired, the young Cork gent went off to make-up and we enjoyed a coffee in an adjacent cafe.

The play started in boisterous mood with the Liverpool police kicking the shite out of “Beehorn” on arrest and the Scouse crowd baying for blood after recent IRA atrocities in the Midlands.  The action was snappy, the dialogue what you would expect from angry police and prison warders, who all their lives only see the worst.  With the political scene set and the brutality of imprisoned life not at all exaggerated, it was time for routine slopping out and showers and the Director, Conall Morrison, took us right in to the communal wash house where a crowd of inmates were going through their weekly routine and some admirable routines there were.  I was keen to see Corky’s dangly bits because they might become part of the family, but as keen eyed as I was, one dangly bits merged into another dangly bits so that the opportunity was lost, a good end though to the first half.

Most of the second half was set in Hollesley Bay Borstal, located in a remote area of England’s East coast where the regime was easier, the warders more forgiving and the violence amongst the inmates was what you would expect from incarcerated young bulls, there was also much humour as the lighter and darker sides of these men were portrayed.  After the dark first half both writer and director injected much needed lightness into the characters.  It turned out that all these young men from different parts of the British Isles and Ireland having committed all sorts of heinous crimes were really all the same, all they really wanted was to give and receive love, which had been denied to most during there upbringing.  I finished the play weeping at the underlying pathos and thinking “there but for the grace of God…”.

Of the main characters I thought Gary Lydon treated his important role as the elder Behan with a little disdain and although he looked like Behan and spoke like Behan, for me he did not seem like Behan.  Behan to me was a man of intensity, Lydon’s Behan was a dejected, miserable old fart in his meanderings.  However Peter Coonan’s young Behan, exuded intensity, humour and the vitality you would expect from a young rebel.  Faced with a mountain to climb, he just laughed and jumped to the top of it.  As for my boy the Cork crooner or Jamie Hallinan as his family like to call him, I thought him impressive.  He had all the right vowel sounds as though he had gone to school with that horrible wretch Cameron.  With his command over dialect he could get a job as a con man any day.  Well done young man.  Paddy Jo has got a rare one there.

So after a brief  but exciting stroll down Grafton Street we arrived at Connolly with 40 minutes to spare, a couple of glasses of station red and back off to Boyle.  I finished the Super Sodoku for the first time in a few weeks, a ham sandwich washed down with the stipulated Malbec and to bed for a well deserved sleep.  I thought the production was superb, the action real and intricate, the thespians in the main earned their corn and most importantly, I came home happy and content with my day and glad to see there was a healthy disrespect for the Catholic Church in the 1930s/40s as there is today.

2 thoughts on “Brendan Behan’s Borstal Boy

  1. Good post Paul.
    Pity, I would have enjoyed joining Helen n yourself on that excursion.
    Never read Borstal Boy – yet, but thoroughly enjoyed Dominic’s ‘My Brother Brendan’ at the British Library in Manila some years back – and Brendan’s choice Confessions of an Irish rebel – and his fine play The Quare Fellow.

    Borstals were named after the first establishment was set up in Borstal Kent. Now called Y.O.I.’s.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *