The Irish playwright and novelist, Brendan Behan, was arrested in Liverpool with a suitcase full of high explosives. He was only sixteen at that time in 1939, but was full of the revolutionary spirit and the cause of the IRA. Behan was underage and was remanded to what we now call reform school but in Great Britain is official called the Borstal Institutions.
Borstal Boy is Brendan Behan’s autobiographical account of his experiences in the Borstal, including his early detention, trial, incarceration, and release. I was surprised that this book didn’t have a greater exposure and following. Behan is an excellent writer, using clear prose that subtly sings to the reader. The narrative is engaging, human, and educational, the themes are universal and even the seamier parts are delivered with forthrightness while at the same time not becoming sordid. Most of the less gentile speech is smoothed over by the author’s representation of slang and regional dialect. Oh, and there are a goodly number of Irish songs woven into the narrative, some well-known, others more topical and specifically Irish (Behan was an excellent singer).
A major theme of Borstal Boy is the rash young Irishman’s awakening to the hearts and souls of the very people he considered the enemy. Behan deftly develops this theme without becoming clichéd nor smarmy. Growing up I commonly heard members of the Irish families (I was Welsh) entoning: I love everyone, excepting the British,of course! Borstal Boy puts the lie to that sentiment on a personal basis (although the British still have a lot to account for).
Behan writes the novel as if anyone reading it knows the nuances of being a part of the world of the Borstal. I like that. Only a few times in the book does Behan provide a translation or interpretation of either the Latin of the Church or the Irish language (which Behan studied further after his youthful revolutionary escapades). I don’t believe an author is obligated to keep things clear and understandable for the average reader. I hate books with footnotes where, when you flip to the back pages, you discover the note was something you knew all along. The reader should be prepared to do a little background research, look-up unfamiliar words and phrases, and always to read critically, sussing out the themes and allusions for themselves and not relying of footnotes or (Ack!) Sparknotes.
One fun aspect of Behan’s work is that he often uses Cockney rhyming slang in his dialogue, and just as it is in real life, so too it is in Behan’s fiction … no one stops to explain the slang to the listener or the reader. Do you know what a China is? It’s simple, common, and used throughout Borstal Boy. Look it up. Here’s a good site online for Cockney rhyming slang.
Behan, like Dylan Thomas, exchanged his fame for alcohol and an early death at only 41. Wikipedia gives us a good list of the works of Brendan Behan:
The Quare Fellow (1954)
An Giall (The Hostage) (1958) [also translated into English]
Richard’s Cork Leg (1972)
Moving Out (one-act play, commissioned for radio)
A Garden Party (one-act play, commissioned for radio)
The Big House (1957, one-act play, commissioned for radio)
Borstal Boy (1958)
Brendan Behan’s Island (1962)
Hold Your Hour and Have Another (1963)
Brendan Behan’s New York (1964)
Confessions of an Irish Rebel (1965)
The Scarperer (1966)
After The Wake: Twenty-One Prose Works Including Previously Unpublished Material (posthumous – 1981)
Brendan Behan Sings Irish Folksongs and Ballads Spoken Arts Records SAC760 (1985)’
“The Captain and the Kings”
Brendan Behan – A Life by Michael O’Sullivan
My Brother Brendan by Dominic Behan
Brendan Behan by Ulick O’Connor
The Brothers Behan by Brian Behan
With Brendan Behan by Peter Arthurs
The Crazy Life of Brendan Behan: The Rise and Fall of Dublin’s Laughing Boy by Frank Gray
My Life with Brendan by Beatrice Behan
Brendan Behan, Man and Showman by Rae Jeffs
3 thoughts on “Borstal Boy”
Behan is a terrific writer. There was a great stage play adaptation of Borstal Boy done about 20 years ago in the Gaeity in Dublin which is revives from time to time.
A fantastic read full of wit and wildness. A great example of Behans legendary humour and complicated nationalism.
They made a movie from this book but as is the case with so many cinematic adaptations, they had to throw in a female love interest and over emphasized the homoerotic aspects of hormonally challenged young boys living closely together in a reform school. It’s still worth seeing.