Visiting friends in the 1920s, my mother once shared a table with Padraic O’Conaire, novelist, short-story writer and essayist. The great wordsmith uttered “nary a peep” during the encounter.Instead he seemed to transfix the company with his eyes as if trying to read their souls .I’ll  bet it was disconcerting for a young woman of good looks, (not, as my friends know, inherited by this son). But if Fate didn’t bless me with looks, I got more change out of my own meeting with Brendan Behan. Advice, no less, on my choice of reading, from one of the widest-read writers of his day.

I was then but a lad of eighteen summers, newly released from a boarding school, buried sixty miles from Cork and a hundred  from civilisation. I was enjoying the novelty of a pay-packet,
back in civilisation, and it was my habit of a lunch hour to promenade streets broad and narrow, window-shopping or assessing “the talent” or browsing the book stalls along the  Liffey  Quays.

One such lunch-hour, in Easons’ in O’Connell Street, I bought “THE UNITED IRISHMAN” which reported and supported the IRA Campaign in the Six Counties. A monthly, it was a useful complement to coverage in the daily papers. Besides, shortly before that I had been North for the first time, to Armagh City on a July evening. The virtual desertion of the streets by civilians, and the sight of up to a hundred armed “B” Specials in the bright hours had come as a shock. So,too, last August, did the midnight patrol of Andersonstown by a British helicopter,
playing its blinding searchlights on the homes and gardens of Her Majesty’s reluctant subjects. But back to Easons’.

 I was just after picking up my paper when I was made aware of a customer on my right side, also making a purchase, for he spoke to me. This is what he said: “Son, yeh don’t want to be readin’ that.Why don’t yeh buy a dacent paper – like THE DAILY EXPRESS?”

At the time I was more familiar with Behan’s reputation as a “Roaring Boy” than his merits as a writer, and I had occasionally seen him in various states of dishevelment. This time I looked into his face, which showed evidence of a rough time recently, but struck me as having great intelligence, and being essentially, (and this was a surprise) handsome. Not yet a master of badinage with strangers, and fearful of the effect of a bleeding nose  on my one good suit and shirt, I averted my eyes and retreated. But not before I had seen for myself that

Now I knew a lot of Dublin men who bought the DAILY EXPRESS, and whose political sentiments were nearer to those of THE UNITED IRISHMAN. I understood it was for the Racing pages, as they mostly enjoyed a flutter on the nags. But I’ve never heard that Behan, whose first published piece was in THE UNITED IRISHMAN, ever took much interest in the gee-gees .Could it just be an example of opposites attracting? Behan, generous, compassionate and highly literate, reading a mean, heartless, philistine, mindless rag, requires some explanation. Perhaps his very compassion drove him to examine the mental fare of the poor deluded blighters who’d bleed for Imperialism?  “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.”

But then, why try to make me subscribe?. It must be remembered too, that Brendan Behan could say more than his prayers.

I was reminded of all this by the rediscovery of a snapshot  given me a long time ago, by a fellow from Monaghan, whose name I’ve forgotten when he saw me reading the Biography of Brendan by Ulick O’Connor. It shows a very hevelled  Brendan, some time in the 1950s, on his knees being blessed by a newly-ordained priest.

For all his Roaring Boy waywardness, Brendan Behan was deeply Catholic, as also, he used to remark, had been most of the great artists of Europe .Shortly  before his death, aged 41, he addressed a nun nursing him, with the prayer that she become the mother of  a bishop.

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