When in Paris . . . with Brendan Behan

By Thomas O’Grady
Special to the BIR

Today I walked along rue St. André des Arts in Paris, searching for an Arab tavern. I was following the footsteps of legendary Dublin-born man-of-letters Brendan Behan, or at least following their imprint in a poem he wrote—in Irish—in the Latin Quarter of Paris in 1949. Like many Irish writers before and after him—most famously Oscar Wilde, James Joyce, and Samuel Beckett—Behan was drawn irresistibly to La Ville-Lumière (The City of Light): it was the absolute antithesis of “dear dirty Dublin.”

Beginning in 1948 and continuing almost until his death in 1964, he had several extended sojourns in Paris and numerous visits—all of which generated tales of adventures and misadventures as colorful as those that fueled his public persona as a hard-drinking “character” not only back home in Dublin but also in New York, London, and virtually every other city where he set foot during his meteoric rise to fame as playwright and memoirist during the latter half of the 1950s.
Behan’s earliest Parisian days and nights are reconstructed and recounted by Ulick O’Connor in his biography of the artist, titled simply Brendan, first published in 1970. Just released from a month in Mountjoy prison for being drunk and disorderly and assaulting a police officer, Behan felt the need for a fresh start outside Dublin but was barred from entering England because of his extensive record of incarceration for militant republican activities—two years of juvenile detention in England, fours years in prison in Ireland, and then another four months in an English jail in 1947. He thus took his chances even in passing through England while coincidentally retracing the very route to Paris that Joyce gave his character Stephen Dedalus in Ulysses: “Newhaven-Dieppe, steerage passenger.”
Ever gregarious, once he crossed the English Channel, Behan quickly insinuated himself into various corners of Parisian life. Over time his acquaintances included fellow Dubliner Samuel Beckett, iconic French existentialist Albert Camus (who shared Behan’s passion for soccer), and American expatriate novelist James Baldwin. According to O’Connor, Behan lived mostly hand to mouth, though occasionally he sold a piece of writing—like the short story “After the Wake,” published in the avant-garde literary magazine Points—and occasionally he resorted to his family trade of house-painting. He also claimed to have operated as a “ponce” for prostitutes, soliciting business from deep-pocketed American tourists visiting the landmark Harry’s New York Bar (which, I can attest, is still a going concern today at the same address, 5 rue Daunou). Generally penniless, however, and an unabashed chancer, Behan relied heavily on American ex-G.I.s living comfortably on their education grants to provide him with food, drink, and a floor to sleep on at night.
In fact, Behan’s poem that drew me to rue St. André des Arts reads as a sort of emblem both of his makeshift life in Paris and of his emerging literary ambition. First appearing in the Irish-language journal Comhar in August of 1949, “Buíochas le Joyce” was partly a byproduct of Behan’s time spent in prison during the mid-1940s for attempting to murder a police detective after the annual Easter 1916 commemoration at Glasnevin Cemetery in 1942. Sentenced to fourteen years of penal servitude, Behan was released after only four years thanks to a general amnesty for political prisoners in 1946. But during his time first at Mountjoy Prison, then at Arbour Hill, and finally at the internment camp at The Curragh in County Kildare, he became a serious student of the Irish language. In his biography of Behan, O’Connor quotes his Irish-language tutor and fellow Mountjoy internee, County Kerry schoolteacher Sean O’Briain, who recalls that “Brendan truly loved the language and the literature”: “He had a great gradh (love) for the Cuirt (The Midnight Court), and also for An tOileannach (The Island Man) and the stories of Sean-Phadraig O Conaire. He went far deeper into the subject than his gaiety would suggest, and he loved to talk and learn about life in the Blaskets, Dun Chaoin and Ballyferriter.” At The Curragh, Behan studied under the mentorship of novelist and short story writer Máirtín Ó Cadhain.
O’Connor notes that Behan was influenced by various styles of Irish-language poetry; however, the body of work that he left behind—only a dozen poems all told—is too small a sample to prove either influence by or confluence with the specific 17th- and 18th-century poets whom O’Connor cites. Indeed, the inclusion of a couple of his poems in the important anthology Nuabhéarsaíocht (1950) aligns his writing much more closely with what scholar Louis de Paor describes as “the emergence of a Modernist poetics” among non-native speakers that marked “the accelerated development of the modern lyric mode in Irish away from the vigorous tradition of folk or community poetry that continues to be the dominant form of poetry in Gaeltacht areas.” While its irreverent tone may be consistent with the poetic practices glanced at by O’Connor, both the formal and the stylistic attributes of “Buíochas le Joyce” suggest a more complex literary lineage.
For starters, Behan’s poem is a sonnet—a form inextricably associated with the British poetic tradition by way of Wyatt and Surrey, Spenser and Shakespeare, Milton and Donne, Wordsworth and Keats. Was Behan’s appropriation of this form thus one more act of diehard Irish nationalism on his part? If that was his intention, then the effect is just mildly subversive, as its fourteen lines are arranged in the Petrarchan variant of the form—an octave and a sestet separated by a double line break—rather than the Shakespearean. Or was Behan drawn to the sonnet through acquaintance with some of the French masters of the form—Rimbaud, Baudelaire, Mallarmé? One way or the other, he shows little interest in the “craft” of the sonnet—he seems either oblivious to or indifferent to the conventions of consistent line-length and predictable end-rhyme.
Yet, as Ulick O’Connor puts on display in “Gratitude to James Joyce,” his translation of “Buíochas le Joyce,” the rhetorical structure of the poem’s subject matter falls naturally into the Petrarchan formal structure. The first four lines establish the basic circumstances of Behan’s direct address to the spirit of Joyce (who had died in 1941):

Here in the rue St. André des Arts,
Plastered in an Arab Tavern,
I explain you to an eager Frenchman,
Ex-G.I.’s, and a drunken Russian.

The next four lines make clear the relationship between the speaker’s state of intoxication and the company he is keeping. Presumably, at least the Frenchman and the Americans are students (the latter sponsored in Paris by the G.I. Bill), and in their eagerness to learn about Joyce from his fellow Dubliner, they are willing to ply the self-styled expert ex-pat Irishman with lashings of French alcohol, including the anise-based liqueur that replaced the wormwood-infused absinthe spirits (outlawed in 1915) that Oscar Wilde had favored and the trademark apple brandy of the Basse-Normandie region of France:

Of all you wrote I explain each part,
Drinking Pernod in France because of your art.
As a writer we’re proud of you—
And thanks for the Calvados we gain through you.

Then, in typical Petrarchan fashion, the double line break announces the sonnet’s volta (or “turn”), a pronounced shift in its emphasis—in this case to Behan’s rationalization of his exploitation of Joyce’s name and reputation for the sake of a free booze-up. Would Joyce begrudge his fellow Irish transplant the chance to quench his thirst through such a ploy? Essentially, Behan imagines reversing roles with his venerated literary precursor, and in the process transforms his scheme into a conspiratorial wink between two Dublinmen notoriously fond of their drink. In short, he invites the departed Joyce to put himself literally in his shoes, tanked up on brandy and making his way from Les Halles, the vast and teeming marketplace known as “the belly of Paris,” across the Seine to the bohemian Left Bank:

If I were you
And you were me,
Coming from Les Halles
Roaring, with a load of cognac,
Belly full, on the tipple,
A verse or two in my honour you’d scribble.

So, is “Buíochas le Joyce” just, as Behan scholar Colbert Kearney suggests, “a casual jeu d’esprit”? And is Behan just suffering from delusions of grandeur in imagining Joyce composing verses of gratitude to him? About a decade later, Behan would describe himself in a letter as a typical Irish writer: “you know that we have no proper view of our own work—we think we’re James Joyces one minute and plain gobshites the next.” Around the same time, asked in an interview why he first wrote his play The Hostage in Irish (An Giall), he explained: “Irish is more direct than English, more bitter. It’s a fine muscular thing, the most expressive language in Europe.” Obviously, the poem is an apprentice piece—Behan’s poetic “career” was short-lived, and his most enduring works are his compelling plays The Quare Fellow and The Hostage and his memoir-esque narrative Borstal Boy. Still, “Buíochas le Joyce” effectively evokes a specific time in a specific place where Behan might still feel at home more than sixty years later: the Arab tavern may be long gone, but walking today along rue St. André des Arts, I could not help but notice the Guinness sign over Corcoran’s Irish Pub.

Thomas O’Grady is Director of Irish Studies at the University of Massachusetts Boston and in the spring of 2013 a Visiting Scholar at the American University of Paris.