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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Review of “Confessions of an Irish Rebel” by Brendan Behan

I first came across the name of Brendan Behan when I was reading about Christy Brown. Socially, they were on friendly terms but Brown was anxious to match his success. Behan, just like Brown was a voracious drinker, and it played a significant role in his early death at the age of forty-one.

This book was released posthumously. It tells the story of his life, in his own inner voice after Borstal Boy (when he was imprisoned for attempting to bomb the Liverpool docks). Brendan dictated this book during the last years of his life. Thankfully, the book had been completed, but it had not been edited by Behan. It tends to wonder at times and is a bit loose here and there. It can meander from one subject to the next and at times it can be hard to keep track of.

More importantly, for me anyway it leaves many questions unanswered. He never states why he drifted away from the IRA, just that he did. There is nothing about how he feels about his poor health in the end or about his illegitimate child (a further child is born to his wife post death).

However, it is very well written and has many very funny sub stories. One of the funnier aspects is how he gets on with some of the British police and prison guards. For instance, after another stint in prison, he is given the option to get out if he agrees to leave the country. A policeman goes with him to the port and they both get drunk along the way. He is supposed to spend his last night in another prison but they won’t let him in as they say he is too drunk! The book is full of such anecdotes and can be very laugh out loud at times.

Another, is when he’s working for a pimp in Paris from one of the pubs. A man is there with his mother, so they convince her that her son heading to a late night mass only for men.

He never talks about his own liaisons, but the book gives me the impression that there were many. It’s a pity cause I’m sure there must have been some stories left out.

The book ends quite abruptly. Probably, on his death he didn’t want to say too much about those he loved most.

I give this book 3.5 stars out of 5.