Brendan Behan,
Borstal Boy
(Berkeley Windhover, 1958)

I've known of Brendan Behan for nearly two decades. The name first popped up in a biography of Jim Morrison. I knew early on that he was a drunk Irish playwright who died young. The name would arise from time to time over the years. I have often quoted his lines: "Quarrel not, hearts too precious to break/so have another pint for Jaysus' sake."

But for all the familiarity with his name and reputation, I didn't actually read much of his work. This was largely because I couldn't find it. I often searched bookstores in vain. I finally stumbled across some of his work online.

Borstal Boy is an autobiographical book about the borstals, or juvenile detention centers, in England. Behan spent three years of his life holed up in one when he was caught in 1939, at age 16, carrying a suitcase full of explosive devices in Liverpool.

The book begins with Behan's arrest and trial. A known member of the IRA, he had youthful notions of glory through combating the evil imperialist British Empire. Fortunately for him, he was caught with explosives before his 17th birthday, so he was tried as a minor and ended up in a borstal institution, not an adult prison.

Behan initially seems smug at the notion of getting three years in a borstal. Many IRA members would receive 20 years or more for similar offenses. What is interesting in the book is that Behan will recount only a few offenses committed by the British Empire, and he does this only when judges or other officials denounce the animalistic violence of the IRA.

It would be pointless to try to uncover all the complexities and intricacies of the struggles between the Irish and British during these years. The book is really more about his life inside the borstal system so I will keep the politics in this review to a minimum.

However, it is intriguing that, while staying in prison during his trial, Behan befriended a number of English prisoners. Behan does not seem to bear any personal animosity toward the English. It makes perfect sense that he would try to befriend them while in prison but he writes the book from the safety of Ireland. Perhaps any feelings of bitterness faded over the passage of nearly 20 years between that time and the book's publication in 1958. Whatever the case, the book becomes more effective because of his empathy toward other prisoners regardless of nationality.

The book gives a good day-to-day accounting of life in these borstals, from meal times to religious services (surprisingly tailored to each prisoner's beliefs). They also had available job opportunities. Many would work in the fields or pick fruit. Behan was able to get work as a painter because of an apprenticeship in Ireland. He became popular among many of the other worker prisoners.

Borstal Boys suggests that life inside the borstal system was not that bad. They were fed well and allowed to keep their faiths. They also had a library, which Behan was known to frequent often and where he read many great works of literature. He became friendly with the librarian in charge.

Of course, the screws (prison guards) often dictated how pleasant the experience would be. Behan seemed to think most of them were reasonably fair -- although their word was often law because it was hard to get the governor's (warden's) ear. Punishments included solitary confinement, which also meant a severe reduction in food.

Behan utilizes a lot of slang in the book. Luckily, there is a glossary in the back to explain the terms. It would be confusing without it. For instance, getting jarred meant getting drunk. A judy was a girlfriend. Behan also employs a bit of Cockney rhyming slang. For example, china meant buddy or pal (from rhyming china plate with mate). German band meant hand.

I was surprised by this book. I wouldn't rank it as a world classic but I learned a lot about the borstal system in England and a bit about the problems between Ireland and England. The glossary was also educational.

I must say this was different than what I expected from my first experience reading Behan. He displayed more humor and compassion than I thought he would; I always had viewed him as a bit of a humorless, hard-nosed drunk. This book reveals a tremendous amount of depth and breadth. Those interested in Irish literature, prison literature or autobiographical tracts might want to give this book a try. It's a beautifully written account of a difficult three-year stretch in a young man's life.

- Rambles
written by George Schaefer
published 8 March 2003

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