He’s regarded as one of the greatest Irish playwrights and poets of all time – thanks to such works as The Borstal Boy and and The Quare Fella – and was feted and befriended by the likes of Arthur Miller, Bob Dylan and (above) Allen Ginsberg.
Beyond the acclaim for his plays, books and poems, Behan also became something of a poster boy for the wild, drunken Irish writer.
And he wore it well. Being as much Bukowski-meets-Beckett as Belushi-meets-beer, young Brendan’s fine self-diagnosis was “a drinker with a writing problem“. Which is a pretty beautiful line, and one of many that Behan gave the world.
Lines like, “One drink is too many for me, and a thousand not enough“, and “It’s not that the Irish are cynical. It’s rather that they have a wonderful lack of respect for everything and everybody“.
Still, it was telling, perhaps, that this happy thorn in the side of the establishment was, according to files released in 2010, considered by MI5 to be ‘too unstable and too drunken‘ to be dangerous.
Perhaps one of their agents had met Behan at 1am on Wednesday, March 4th, 1959, on Church Road. For that was the day that the noted writer and wit was arrested in Greystones for being, yep, drunk and disorderly.
Our town was, of course, a favourite destination for day trippers of all shapes, sizes and talents, and was also seen as something of aretreat for many writers, with everyone from Yeats to Beckett spending many a night here contemplating the sadness and madness of the world. Indeed, it was during a particularly heavy storm at Greystones harbour that Beckett was first inspired to write Waiting For Godot, whilst his father, Bill, is buried in Redford Cemetery.
Stories for another day. What we’re concentrating here is that drunk and disorderly charge, and how Behan handled himself when it came to appearing in Bray District Court shortly after.
So here, in all its beauty, is a newspaper report from the time, headlined, Brendan Behan Insists On Use Of Irish In Bray Court. Where, it would be fair to say, Behan set out to make a mockery of said court….
Mr. Brendan Behan, playwright and author, aged 36, Anglesea Road, Dublin, was yesterday fined 40s, at Bray District Court by District Justice Manus Nunan, for being drunk and disorderly at 1am at Greystones, Co. Wicklow, on the morning of March 4th last.
Mr. Behan insisted that the case should be heard in Irish. He admitted that he was drunk and apologised for his language. Witnesses said that he called policemen murderers, scruffhounds and dirt birds.
When the case was called, Mr. Behan said (in Irish): “I want this case to be heard in Irish, please. According to the Constitution of this country, I have a right to be heard in Irish.” District Justice (in Irish): Sit down. Inspector James Kelly (in Irish): Be quiet. Mr. Behan (in Irish): I have a right that only the Irish language be used in this case.
Guard J.A. Molloy, who began his evidence in Irish, said that on the morning of March 4th, he got a call from a civilian named Terence O’Reilly that a man was lying in Church Road, Greystones. At 12.45am, he went to Church Road, where he saw the defendant, Mr. Behan.
Mr. Behan (in Irish): “Justice, can I speak to you for a moment.” District Justice (in English): “No.” Mr. Behan (in Irish): According to the Constitution of this State, I can speak in Irish, and have the right to be heard in the language which is the first official language of the State.” District Justice (in Irish): “Sit down.”
Guard Molloy then began his evidence in English. He said that he went to Church road. “I saw the defendant…” Mr. Behan (in Irish): “That man is not talking in Irish. I want the case to be heard in the first official language of the country.”
Guard Molloy, continuing his evidence in English, said that he asked the defendant what he was looking for. He was lying down. A local doctor, who was also on the scene, told him that Mr. Behan was not ill and that he appeared to be a case for the police. “He said that he was looking for his wife,” the witness said, “and added that she was in one of the local houses. He was dishevelled and appeared to have been in a struggle. He said: “Here are the *********** bloodhounds”, and, “You are ******* murderers”. Mr. Behan: “Correct.” Witness: “He then left the scene, and went towards another hotel, where he hammered on the door to gain admittance. I remonstrated with him, and he used vile language. Then I telephoned for a patrol car, and two gardai came along in it.” Mr. Behan (in Irish): “Well, at least you know one word in Irish – gardai.” Guard Molloy: He said that we were ******* bloodhounds. He resisted violently when we tried to arrest him, and used foul language. You could hear him all over the place.” Defendant: “No doubt it was not the Irish language.”
Ronnie with Brendan’s parents, Kathleen & Stephen
Guard Molloy said the defendant had to be forced into the patrol car, and had to be forced out of it again at the police station. He was forcibly searched, and then forcibly put into a cell. He added: “He kicked at the cell door from 1.30am to 4.30am. He said the police were ******* murderers, and said, ‘You are no ******* good’. He was discharged at 8am, when he was till in the same tone of voice.” Defendant: “As I always am.” Guard Molloy said that when he attempted to take the defendant into custody, he had no idea who he was.
Mr. Behan, cross-examining the guard in Irish: “When I asked you for a drop of water during the night, did you give it to me?” Witness: “Yes.” Mr. Behan: “You gave it to me five minutes before I left in the morning. Now, you know I have no great love for you, don’t you? You are a perjurer.” Addressing the district justice in Irish, he said: “He said to some of the others, ‘We have the quare fellow now’.” Inspector Kelly: “I must ask you, Justice, to treat this behaviour as gross contempt of court. He has abused this guard, and has called him a perjurer. This should not be allowed.”
The next witness, Guard Denis O’Leary, said that he was called to Church Road in a patrol car on the morning of March 4th. When he attempted to arrest the defendant, he called him a bloodhound, and said that he would get him in the morning. He had to be forced into the patrol car and out of it at the station.” Defendant: “Did you recognise me as Brendan Behan?” Witness: “Yes, I had seen your photograph in the People.” Defendant: “Not in Fogra Tora?” (Hue and Cry).
Guard L.C. McEntaggart said that he was in the patrol car which came to arrest the defendant. “When we tried to get him into the car, he called me a ******* guttersnipe,” said witness. District Justice: “It would be hard to translate that one.” Mr. Behan (in Irish): “I’ll do it for you.” Witness added: “His language was vile, and he could be heard all over Greystones.” Mr. Behan: “Did you recognise me?” Witness: “I did not know him, and I do not know him. I have never heard of him, and never read him.” Mr. Behan (in Irish): “Can he read at all?”
Asked to make his defence, Mr. Behan, speaking in Irish, said: “I went to the Grand Hotel, Greystones, on the evening of March 3rd, because I wanted to do some writing for a film. I was in the bar and was having a few drinks. I had booked into the hotel for a couple of days. While I was in the bar, a man, who said his name was Charlie Reynolds, came up to me. He wanted to drink with me. He told me that he was an old policeman. I told him I would not give a drink to any policeman, old or new. “Then I went out into the open, and the police came. They put me in the car. They would not even give me a drink of water in the cell. I have been in jail in Belfast, and in Britain, and have never been refused a drink. I am on my oath now, so I must admit that I was drunk on this occasion.”
Beatrice & Brendan Behan
District Justice Nolan called Mrs. Beatrice Behan to give evidence. She said that when he husband left Dublin for Greystones, he was sober, and that he had gone there to finish some work, so that he would not be interrupted.
District Justice: “Isn’t it obvious that he went there on a skite?” Mrs Behan: “I do not think so. He just wanted to be somewhere quiet.” District Justice: “I am trying to keep him out of jail. I don’t seem to be able to do that. You don’t seem to be able to control him.” Mrs Behan: “I would have if I had been there.”
Inspector Kelly said that if the case had been carried out in a proper manner, he would not press it. It was a shame that an otherwise very talented man should behave like a blackguard. “He was drunk, and he was very violent, and he had behaved very badly.” District Justice: “Will you make an apology for your behaviour?” Defendant (in English): “How can I make a sincere apology? I regard you as the representative of the representative of the Irish people. But I will apologise for my language.” District Justice: “Is that an apology?” Defendant: “Which would be the greater insult – to apologise if I was not sincere or not to apologise?” District Justice: “This is a matter for your conscience.” Defendant: “Alright, I will apologise.” District Justice: “Fined forty shillings.”
Man, that’s worthy of, well, the great Behan. The Greystones Players really should consider putting this up on The Whale’s stage at some point…
In the meantime, you can check out our fairly comprehensive list of writers who found their muse (and booze) in Greystones. If you know of any more, let us know on email@example.com. And, no, Dustin The Turkey doesn’t count.
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