“This landlady was mean and as barren as a bog. Her broken windows would be a judgment on her for the cheap sausages and margarine she poisoned her table with, for she was only generous with things that cost little cash, locking hall doors at night time and kneeling down to say the Rosary with the lodger and her sister, who always adds three Hail Mary’s for holy purity and the protection of her person and modesty, so that you would think half the men in Liverpool were running after her, panting for a lick of her big buck teeth.”

“My name is Brendan Behan. I came over here to fight for the Irish Workers’ and Small Farmers’ Republic, for a full and free life, for my countrymen, North and South, and for the removal of the baneful influence of British Imperialism from Irish affairs. God save Ireland.”

“As I stood, waiting over the lavatory, I heard a church bell peal in the frosty night, in some other part of the city. Cold and lonely it sounded, like the dreariest noise that ever defiled the ear of man. If you could call it a noise. It made misery mark time.”

“He was not unfriendly, and told me his name was Donohoe. I said that by a coincidence that was my mother’s name. It was not her name, but civility costs nothing.”

“The big main door of the prison had a decoration over it. A snake in chains. Crime, strangled by the law. I knew what it meant. There was a similar piece of sculpture over Kilmainham Prison. I had often passed it with my father, taking me for a walk on Sunday mornings. It was where he had first seen me, from his cell window, during the Civil War. I was born after he was captured, and when I was six weeks old my mother brought me up to the jail and held me up, on the road outside, for him to see from the cell window.”

“He sat in civilian clothing behind a desk, looked down at a form and up at me. He was a dark man, not very old, and very hard in an English way that tries to be dignified and a member of a master race that would burn a black man alive or put a pregnant woman out the side of the road in the interest of stern duty. Looking at him, I thought of the war, and hoped themselves and the Germans would keep at it.”

“Afterwards I heard the screws talk about the doctor and what a good man he was, and overworked, and he did go round looking like Lionel Barrymore, and sighing like the doctor in The Citadel, but I never heard of him actually doing anything for anyone. The prisoners said that he gave a man two aspirins for a broken leg, but that it was not really viciousness, only stupidity and anyway, if he wasn’t a prison doctor he’d have to go in the Forces.”

“We walked through darkness, and doors were unlocked and locked after us, and we stood in a huge, high hall, dimly lit, gloomy and full of a heavy smell of well-washed stuffiness. It was like walking away from the world and back into the times of Charles Dickens.”

“Then the screw turned a key, and we were looking into the cell. My Jesus, my heart fell into my boots. It was like a white-washed hole in the wall, like a tomb up in Glasnevin.”

“Catholic warders were the worst. Irish Catholics, worst of all.”

“It seemed to me the English were very strong on washing and cold, but not so much on air and cleanliness. Like the well-tubbed and close-shaven looks of the screws – cruel and foul-spoken but always precise and orderly.”

“The Governor was a desiccated-looking old man, in tweed clothes and wearing a cap, as befitted his rank of Englishman, and looking as if he would ride a horse if he had one. He spoke with some effort, and if you did not hear what he was saying you’d have thought, from his tone, and the sympathetic loving, and adoring looks of the screw, P.O., and Chief, that he was stating some new philosophical truth to save the suffering world from error.”

“But I had never given up the Faith (for what would I give it up for?) and now I was glad that even in this well-washed smelly English hell-hole of old Victorian cruelty, I had the Faith to fall back on.”

“Ratface was about the ugliest server I’d ever seen, and a real cup-of-tea Englishman with a mind the width of his back garden that’d skin a black man, providing he’d get another to hold him, and send the skin ‘ome to mum, but Our Lord would be as well pleased with him if he was in a state of grace as He’d be with St. Stanislaus Kostka, the boy Prince of Poland, and race or nationality did not enter into the matter, either one way or another.”

“When I had finished, the cell had the smell of shit and soap – the first smell I was conscious of, when I came into the reception, the smell of a British jail.”

“Why should the Bishops of England be supposed to have the right to dictate about politics to an Irishman, Father?” I asked, as steadily as I could.”

“I did sir,” said I, with my hand at the seams of my trousers and looking manly, admitting my fault to this tired old consul, weary from his labours amongst the lesser breeds, administering the King’s justice equally and fairly to wild Irish and turbulent Pathan, teaching fair play to the wily Arab and a sense of sportsmanship to the smooth Confucian. In my ballocks, said I in my own mind, you George-Arliss-headed fughpig, dull scruffy old creeping Jesus, gone past the Bengal lancer act now back to where you started, like a got-up gentleman with his Curragh cap. Bejasus, any decent horse would drop dead from the shame if he managed to get up on its back. “I did, sir.”

“One of the Fenian prisoners said the things you missed most in jail were babies, dogs and fires.”

“Chewlips was a fairly big lad of eighteen, and he had dark hair, well-oiled with margarine off his bread, and a gold filling in one of his teeth. He had a serious face and listened with great attention; like when a bloke was saying that the sun was made of burning gas. When Chewlips heard this, which the bloke was telling from a book he’d been reading, Chewlips went over at dinner-time to look through the window and up at the sun, as if he’d never seen it before.”

“From a mixture of cowardice and laziness – two parts cowardice to one part laziness – and the fear of not being sure of winning, I don’t like tangling with anyone, but Ickey Baldock was the sort of little bastard that would pick a fight with you until he lost and the best thing to do with him was to make sure that he lost the first time.”

“…with Shaggy very visibly affected, thinking of his mother, which English people go in for a lot, unlike the Irish or Scots, who sing about her on Saturday night when they are drunk and leave it at that.”

“He looked a kind of little get, that would rise a row and go down on his two knees in gratitude, like that other little bastard , Ickey Baldock, for the excuse – once he could get other people to do the battling. We didn’t want to get into a bundle, our first night in the kip.”

“But my old man said that maybe a little atheism wouldn’t do the country that much harm at that, a little but not too much.”

“…only tinkers and tramps fight and make up – and young English gentlemen, of course.”

“He was born in the pot, like myself, for his father and his grandfather were painters. He was a good singer like most painters, my own family included, and the first book he’d ever heard tell of was the painter’s bible The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists by Robert Tressall.”

“I always get grateful and pious in good weather and this was the kind of day you’d know that Christ died for you. A bloody good job I wasn’t born in the South of France or Miami Beach, or I’d be so grateful and holy for the sunshine that St. Paul of the Cross would be only trotting after me, skull and crossbones and all.”

“Walton [prison] scalded my heart with regard to my religion, but it also lightened it. My sins had fallen from me, because I had almost forgotten that there were such things and, when I got over it, my expulsion from religion, it was like being pushed outside a prison and told not to come back…but Walton had cured me of any idea that religion of any description had anything to do with mercy or pity or love.”

“What I told was ninety per cent lies, and that’s being more than fair to myself, for I was an able liar, but my stories were often funny, and Jock, being a truthful bloke himself, saw no reason to disbelieve them.”

“Well, I had to admit, except for my late differences with them, I’d been well looked after. I suppose even throwing my P.C.T.F.O. into the scales I’d probably got away with more that I was ever punished for.”

[first sight of Ireland after release from prison] “There they were, as if I’d never left them; in their sweet and stately order round the Bay – Bray Head, the Sugarloaf, the Two Rock, the Three Rock, Kippure, the king of them all, rising his threatening head behind and over their shoulders till they sloped down to the city…I couldn’t really see Kilbarrack or Baldoyle, but it was only that I knew they were there. So many belonging to me lay buried in Kilbarrack, the healthiest graveyard in Ireland, they said, because it was so near the sea, and I thought I could see the tricolor waving over Dan Head’s grave, which I could not from ten miles over the Bay. And I could see Baldoyle there, because it was the races.”

Copyright Brendan Behan 1958

Photo credit:  Ida Kar

author bio:  https://www.britannica.com/biography/Brendan-Behan

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