Last year marked the fiftieth anniversary of the passing of Brendan Behan, and with it there was much focus on the literary output, and indeed the life story, of Dublin’s ‘Laughing Boy’. Particularly welcome aspects of the anniversary included RTE’s documentary feature on Behan and a revival of Borstal Boy at The Gaiety.
Last week, I stumbled on a work of Behan’s that significantly predates Borstal Boy, in the form of a poem written by him while “a young Dublin worker of sixteen”. Red Envoy, a scathing attack on capitalism, was printed in the August 1938 edition of The Workers’ Republic, a monthly journal of the Communist Party of Ireland in the 1930s.
The journal took its name from an earlier radical paper, which was edited by James Connolly. The party produced a weekly in the form of Irish Workers’ Voice, but The Workers’ Republic provided a space for essays and indeed cultural content too. The poem is one of Behan’s earliest published works, and it gives great insight into the mind of the young developing writer and his political outlook. The image on the right is of poor quality, so I have typed the poem below.
The following year after the publication of this work, while still a teen, Brendan was destined for a Borstal in England for a three year stay as a result of a failed bombing mission. He had travelled to Liverpool as a young idealistic republican with the intention of bombing the docks there.
We’ve looked at Behan several times on the site before, with a particular favourite piece being an article on Behan’s monument along the Royal Canal. At the unveiling of that monument in 2003, Bertie Ahern was on duty to do the honours. Paudge Behan questioned the logic of Bertie Ahern being there, and asked:
What has Bertie Ahern in common with Brendan Behan, other than they are both Irish? When you see what is happening with the fat cats in this country, with Bertie Ahern and his Government, I can’t think of anyone further from the spirit of Brendan Behan!
Below is the 1938 poem in full:
The following lines are written by a young Dublin worker of 16 years-of-age.
I bring no songs of rolling drums
Of pennons flying gaily
I sing of filth and dirty slums
Gaunt man with hunger crazy
Canticles, not of virtue bright, nor holy austere lives.
I chronicle consumption’s blight
And the haggard face of wives
Who gaze on children, pale and wan
Who see no flowers nor hear birds song.
I see no beauty rave in dreams of justice, unto those
Who keep the wheels of old earth moving
And oil them with their woes
Of burning towns and brimstone red
A phoenix from the ashes dead
Our city, truth and justice wed arise.
I see this old bad order die
In a great swift blaze of fire
A structure, clear and mighty high
Born in its funeral pyre
Worker, know the world’s for thee
Wert though to raise the serville knee
From on the ground.