Review of “Borstal Boy” by Brendan Behan

In 1939, Brendan Beehan who was only sixteen years old at the time tried to bomb a ship in the Liverpool docks as part of an unauthorized IRA action. He was caught and this is an autobiographical account of his time on remand and then at a young offender’s institution.

It is a complex coming-of-age story, but it is also a portal into a different time and place. Regular readers of mine will know that I previously read one of his later works “Confessions of an Irish Rebel”, which I was somewhat nonplussed about. This was much, much better. It is written in his own voice, and he does so brilliantly. His writing is rich, vibrant and descriptive and you can hear the different accents in your mind.

The institutions are primitive and cold. Well, compared to 2022 anyway. He talks about the intricacies of slopping out and trying to sleep in the cold. It also delves into why thuggish behavior is required. Being seen as weak means other prisoners will torment you. The Second World War is rarely mentioned, which I found somewhat odd. There’s only a handful of occasions when it reared its ugly head.

Strangely, it is often screws (prison guards) and other prisoners with Irish roots that give him the most hassle, and his closest friends, or “chinas” as he calls them are fellow prisoners from the English working class. As he states himself, it’s the British Empire that he hates not the English. Still, he admits that his happiness at one point when he gets to stay with his chinas rather than fellow IRA prisoners is something he’d rather keep to himself.

The closest friendship he forms is with a chap from London called “Charlie”. They quickly become Chinas and it doesn’t matter to him he’s in the IRA. They stick together through thick and thin. At times, they all seem quite content, even happy despite the grim circumstances.

This book was actually banned in Ireland and Australia for a time. Presumably due to its at times anti clerical rhetoric and depictions of youthful male sexuality.

I give this book a ten out of ten and strongly recommend you read.

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