On Kildare Road in Crumlin, a small plaque above the door of number 70 tells passers-by that it is a home of historical importance. The plaque shows the face of Brendan Behan, alongside the years of his birth and passing. Brendan was a giant of Irish literature of course, but this house was a home in which the sound of music and the typewritten word emerged from all rooms.
The children of Stephen and Kathleen Behan would, in their own unique ways, come to reflect the rich literary interests and political passions of their parents, and the contribution of Dominic Behan to the worlds of stage, song, politics and literature deserves greater recognition. A committed republican of a socialist variety, Dominic would publish his first poems and prose in the pages of the journal of Na Fianna Éireann, and in time would become a writer celebrated by voices as diverse as James Plunkett and John Lennon, not to mention clashing in dramatic style with Bob Dylan.
Russell Street Beginnings:
The Behan boys were products of the inner-city, to whom Russell Street was home.
Stephen Behan, Dominic’s father, was a veteran of the War of Independence, and took the Republican side in the Civil War which followed. Stephen was educated by the Christian Brothers on North Richmond Street, a school which produced more than 1916 participants than any other, proudly boasting of 134 participants between students and graduates. By trade,Stephen worked as a signwriter, a trade his son Brendan would briefly follow him into. Stephen married Kathleen in July 1922, as the country was in the midst of Civil War. Kathleen had previously been married to John Furlong, a 1916 veteran who died two years after the insurrection. Her brother was Peadar Kearney, author of The Soldier’s Song, who took the Pro-Treaty side in the Civil War divide. Not long after his wedding, Stephen was himself imprisoned. Family lore had it that Brendan Behan would first see his father through the railings of prison.
Certainly, the Behan family lived in working class surroundings, but Brendan Behan in particular could be prone to exaggerate the working class pedigree of the family. Kathleen came from strong middle class stock, even if it had since been greatly reduced, and the family lived in a home owned by Christine English, grandmother to the boys who owned several homes in the vicinity.
Dominic Behan was born in October 1928, into a family for whom republicanism was still a pillar of life and identity. Kathleen in particular shaped the world view of the Behan boys; a as Ulick O’Connor detailed in his biography of Brendan, she would bring them on walks through the city, showing them not only places associated with the battle of Irish independence, but the houses of Shaw, Swift and Wilde too. Dominic found his heroes in the Irish revolutionary tradition; he would particularly come to admire the Protestant and Dissenter radicals of the United Irishmen, and Big Jim Larkin of the Lockout, of whom he would write later:
Larkin gave a new meaning to Christianity when he decided to fight his cleric critics with their own cannons – a Bible and a plea for a true brotherhood of man. When they accused him of being a red menace, he threw back the suggestion that they were un-Christian, but it was in Larkin’s mouth more than a suggestion, it was an indictment of the Christian soldiers who were prepared to stand by and see the children of Christ starve.
Dominic remembered Russell Street fondly, recalling that “the native industries of Russell Street were drink and cleanliness, represented respectively by the Mountjoy Brewery and the Phoenix Laundry.” With a greengrocers, bookmakers and public,Dominic joked in his memoirs Teems of Times and Happy Returns that there thus existed no reason for anyone to leave the confines of the street, unless off to work. It was far from the worst of tenement Dublin, with Dominic recalling how “Russell Street was the extreme tip of a jungle of north city tenements: Georgian, red-bricked, strait-laced, and, at this time, complete with closed hall-doors and mahogany railed staircases. Even a few of the windows were still intact.”
No Suburbia, Only Siberia:
The 1930s would see many inner-city families moved into the new expanding suburbia, and in 1937 Kildare Road became home to the family. Brendan would quip that there was no such thing as suburbia,only Siberia. Dominic would recall that:
They could’ve built flats in the centre of the town for us and kept reservations like this for them that come in from the country.Home from home it would have been. But us! And the only grass we ever saw we were asked to keep off it.
Kathleen remembered that “Crumlin was a desperate place when first we went there: no schools,nos hops, nothing, except (as Brendan said) plenty of desolation…There was a spirit in Russell Street that you could hardly imagine in Crumlin.” Still, the family quickly turned it into a home of song and debate, in the same spirit as their inner-city dwellings.
Republicanism was at the heart of the Behan family. As a youngster, Dominic would join Na Fianna Éireann, the republican boy-scout movement that had been founded in 1909 by Countess Markievicz and Bulmer Hobson, and which remained a part of the republican movement into the decades that followed the birth of the Free State. He would remember taking part in Fianna displays in his memoirs.
He worked on a number of building sites with Brendan in the 1940s, with one foreman complaining to their father that they were “the greatest bastards I’ve ever come across.One wants the men to strike for an incentive bonus so that the other one can bring them down to the pub to drink it.” While there was a socialist dimension to Brendan’s Republicanism too, Dominic delivered a much sharper class consciousness. In the late 1940s, he was close to the Irish Workers’ League, of which International Brigade veteran Michael O’Riordan was Secretary. In his history of the Communist Party, Matt Treacy details an occasion in July 1949, during which an IWL meeting was besieged by hundreds of protestors who had read of it in the Sunday Independent. Dominic denounced the mob as “fascist bastards” after they rushed the platform. His political activism would land him in trouble in the early 1950s, with his role in agitation for the movement against unemployment landing him in prison for a period.
Glasgow and other adventures:
Following his release from prison, Dominic departed Dublin for Glasgow, a decision which would transform his life on many fronts. He would meet Josephine Quinn,the woman he would marry, and who also came form staunch revolutionary stock, strongly aligned to the Communist movement in Glasgow. In Scotland, Dominic lodged for a period with Hugh MacDiarmid, a “lifelong supporter of both communism and Scottish nationalism”. When George Orwell would compile his infamous list of suspected communists for British intelligence officers, rightly described as a “snitch list”, Hugh MacDiarmid made the cut, along with Peadar O’Donnell.
The late 1950s brought considerable success for Dominic, then primarily living in London. His first play, Posterity be Damned, was performed to great reviews in Dublin’s Gaiety Theatre in September 1959. While the reviews were kind, the crowd sometimes weren’t. Some felt that Dominic portrayed the IRA as “misled idealists”. When asked by a reporter when he himself would produce a play owing to the success of his sons, Stephen Behan quipped “why should I produce plays when I produce playwrights?” Other acclaimed plays would follow, including The Folk Singer in 1972, dealing with the worsening situation in Ulster.
As is human nature, there was plenty of competition between the Behan siblings. In addition to Dominic and Brendan, Brian was also a writer, and barbed insults sometimes flew. When Brian’s writings were being translated into Japanese, Brendan quipped that it was a “good fucking job – nobody else would understand them.” There were real tensions between Dominic and Brendan too, but also a genuine respect.
What was the extent of Dominic’s involvement within the republican movement? In 1962, he wrote an article for Life magazine in which he claimed to have taken part in border raids against sentry positions as a teen, though he ended the piece:
It was shortly before I was born – nine months to be precise – that my loving mother dedicated my life to “the great and glorious cause of Ireland’s freedom.” Forgive me, mother of memory, I have never died for you – not even once.
Dominic was close to a number of prominent IRA men, including Seán Garland and Cathal Goulding. In The Lost Revolution: The Story of the Official IRA and the Workers’ Party, Dominic enters the narrative occasionally, for example telling one Republican function in Philadelphia that “we are over here looking for money to buy guns and to spread the revolution.” He was a prominent supporter of the ‘Official’ Republican Movement, penning a poem in memory of OIRA leader Billy McMillen, who was killed in a bitter Belfast feud with the INLA. Dominic would dedicate the first Irish edition of Teems of Times and Happy Returns to McMillen and Malachy McGurran, the Vice President of The Workers’ Party who died of cancer in July 1978.
Good insight into Dominic’s political views come from a 1958 edition of Socialist Review, in which he denounced British and Ulster socialists who made no reference to removing partition, arguing that “the occupation of any part of Ireland by a foreign army is wrong! Two ‘separate’ Socialism’s is a false, dangerous argument… designed by jingoists to betray the Irish Workers’ Republic. The only truly progressive slogan for us can be Unity and Socialism.”
A Better Class of Folk Artist:
Dominic made a number of important contributions to folk music in this islands, both as a song writer and a broadcaster. His Scottish television programmer, ‘A Better Class of Folk’, managed to shine a light on some of the finest up and coming talents in folk music. Dominic also wrote a number of hit songs and folk classics, some of which delivered chart success for other artists. In 1966, The Ludlows had a number one with Dominic’s ‘The Sea Around Us’
Two foreign old monarchs in battle did join
Each wanting each head on the back of a coin
If the Irish had sense they’d drowned both in the Boyne
And partition throw into the ocean.
There was also ‘Liverpool Lou’, a song that Yoko Ono would select during her Desert Island Discs appearance, reminiscing of how John Lennon would sing it as a lullaby to their son. In one interview, Lennon himself would state his fondness for Dominic, despite the fact he found most folk music “completely middle class…’I worked in the mine in Newcastle’ and all that shit. There was very few real folk singers.”
Dominic wrote a wide variety of songs dealing with Irish revolutionary history, but most famously of all there was ‘The Patriot Game’. The song dealt with the IRA Border Campaign and a raid during which two Volunteers lost their lives. One of the men was Seán South, the other was a young Monaghan Volunteer named Fergal O’Hanlon. The song is written from the perspective of O’Hanlon. Dominic’s good friend Seán Garland was one of the IRA men involved in the raid across the border that night, when Brookeborough’s RUC barracks came under attack.
In America, The Clancy Brothers achieved considerable success with the song. It also clearly had an influence on a young Bob Dylan, as his ‘With God On Our Side’ borrowed significantly from it. Dylan was a great admirer of The Clancy Brothers, later remembering them as “these musketeer like characters.” To Dylan, there was “no fear, no envy, no meanness” in their eyes, and he would later invite them to perform at his 30th anniversary concert.
A rather nasty war of words began after the release of Dylan’s song, with Dominic accusing Dylan of plagiarising his work. Liam Clancy made the point though that the actual tune predated Dominic:
..he had taken a popular song by Jo Stafford, ‘The Nightingale’, popular in the 40s and 50s, and wrote ‘The Patriot Game’. Then Dylan borrowed the melody and wrote ‘With God On Our Side’. It went on all the time. That’s folk music. The song was originally an American tune, so it’s come full circle.
There’s a great scene in Don’t Look Back, the documentary of Bob Dylan on the road, where Dominic Behan is mentioned and Dylan retorts pretty quickly that “I don’t wanna hear nobody like Dominic Behan man!” What was remarkable about the bitterness was how long it went on; Dominic was interviewed in The Guardian in the 1980s, and said that “Bob should know all about piracy. My song The Patriot Fame, Dylan’s God On Our Side takes my music lock, stock and barrel, and very nearly the words, the song is a complete parody.”
Rows with Dylan aside, many of the songs Dominic penned are still widely known and sung today. He also released an important collaboration LP with Ewan MacColl, ‘The Singing Streets: Childhood Memories of Ireland and Scotland’. A great piece of social history, it captured the spirit of working class childhood on both islands.
Behan is an important if often overlooked part of the history of The Dubliners too, something recounted in the pages of Ronnie Drew’s autobiography.He remembered that Dominic “sold us as an international folk group and it worked. We were soon booked for more television, more tours abroad and success at the Albert Hall.” Introducing the band in that very venue, he would describe them as “the only group capable of performing Irish music with guts.” Ronnie recalled Dominic opening many doors for the group, who would perform a number of his songs over the years, including the great ‘McAlpine’s Fusiliers’.
As a producer,Dominic worked on Christy Moore’s first LP, Paddy on the Road, in 1969. Only 500 copies of this LP were produced, and it is a highly collectable item today. When interviewed on this blog in 2014, Christy remembered Dominic:
I first met Dominic “Domo” Behan in Shepherd’s Bush London in 1968 when we both sang at a concert in aid the Irish Civil Rights Movement. Dominic was pure Dublin to his very core.He mesmerized me with an enormous repertoire of songs, reflections and poetry. Himself and his wife Josephine were very kind to me. Like myself back then,he seldom put the cork back into the bottle. The sessions went on ’til the bitter end.
I learned so much from Dominic Behan. He took the time and trouble to organize my first recording session. He set up the musicians and created the deal with Mercury Records. Sadly, we fell out “in drink” but I remember him fondly and always acknowledge the help he gave me and the hospitality I received in his home.
And therein lay one of the great problems of Dominic’s life. On more than one occasion, drunken altercations landed him into the newspapers at home, and like Brendan it had the ability to stop him reaching his full potential at times.
Behan died in Glasgow August 1989, far from an old man at sixty years of age. He was survived by two sons, Fintan and Stephen, and his beloved wife Josephine. His ashes were scattered on the Royal Canal in Dublin, and an oration delivered by his friend and comrade Seán Garland. He would be remembered in the pages of The Irish Times as “a funny man, garrulous, brilliant, infuriating, angry,lovable but never boring.”
As a songwriter, broadcaster and writer, he left a great legacy of work. He should be remembered as much more than the brother of another fine writer. Folk songs, Dominic maintained, were “not the special preserve of the few, but the undeniable heritage of the many.”