Tuesday, April 11, 2017

Brendan Behan and the Christmas Carollers

Since today seems to be my day for recommending books, I'll recommend another: Dead as Doornails by Anthony Cronin, who himself passed away only months ago. It was published in 1976. I've read it at least twice.

The book is a literary memoir, recounting Cronin's acquaintance with several Irish literary greats-- Myles Na Gopaleen, Patrick Kavanagh, and Brendan Behan-- as well as assorted lesser lights.

Cronin makes an almighty effort to portray this literary circle as utterly miserable, and denounces the Dublin pub (an institution in which they spent most of their time) as the worst possible venue for literary or intellectual discussion. However, his anti-romanticism is futile; the glamour of the era, a golden age both of Irish literature and the 'Dublin character' (eccentric), hangs over every page. All the alcoholism, frustration and misanthropy only seems to heighten this aura. Indeed, the ghosts of this clique still haunt various Dublin pubs, and are suitably commemorated in them.

One story from Dead as Doornails which lingers with me especially involves Brendan Behan accosting a group of Christmas carollers. Somebody else has transcribed the first part of the story elsewhere on the internet, so I am going to copy and paste it here. I apologize for the obscenity:

It was Christmas Eve, and we came out of McDaid’s about nine o’clock to find that it was raining. The Christmas lights were on in Grafton Street, there were more people than usual about, and a bunch of carol singers was standing at the corner with coat collars turned up, still sweetening the damp night air. They carried placards advertising their charitable intent – something to do with the St Vincent de Paul Society, or the Legion of Mary or the Morning Star hostel for down-and-outs. As we stood in the rain deliberating the next move, Brendan began to mutter. As I have said, he had in those days a ferocious hatred of the Catholic Church in all its manifestations.

We decided to go to Keogh’s, which is in Anne Street, and moved towards the corner. The carol singers were still hard at it, tenor and alto, bass and treble, but as we passed them Brendan suddenly seized one of the placards and proceeded to tear up the cardboard and smash the lath while roaring ‘Chairman Mao Tse Tung will soon put a stop to your f-----g gallop, ye creepin’ Jesus’s ye.’ The singing ended on various notes while he flung the fragments across the road towards Mooney’s, bellowing away.

(It should be noted that Brendan Behan, later in his short life, became much more pious, though no less uproarious. Indeed, it would seem that he had been a very pious child, and that this anti-Catholicism was a mere interlude.)

I mentioned that this is only the first part of the story. Cronin goes on to describe how both Behan and himself had to flee from the carollers, who pursued them a considerable distance-- indeed, if memory serves, Behan had to jump into a hedge or some such refuge in order to escape them.

I like this story for a few different reasons:

1) It satisfies my romantic perception that Dublin life of that time was one long romp.

2) The idea of two literary figures leaving a pub to go to another pub, where the drinks and the literary discussion would continue to flow, is very pleasing.

3) I like the fact that the carollers, instead of just swallowing the insult to their faith, were ready to give the blasphemer a beating.

4) Even in this anecdote, Behan's anger towards the Church doesn't seem out of place or even-- somehow-- all that irreverent. Anger towards the Church is just another way of relating to the Church. The powerful emotions that would lead one to rip up a placard obviously indicate a love-hate relationship. Indeed, the story goes that Behan, when asked if he was a Catholic, once replied: "What else is there?" A good answer, in my view, and one that echoes St. Peter: "Lord, to whom would we go?".

5) A related point to the previous one; all the Marxism and radicalism and anti-clericalism amongst Irish intellectuals, around this time, seems to me to have been no more than a kind of refraction of the surrounding Catholic piety. I like Kavanagh's lines on this subject:

They are not Liliputian cranks, as some outsiders deem;
They are the Official Liberal Opposition and part of the regime.

Of course, Kavanagh was denouncing them, and denouncing the regime. I quote the lines in a different spirit entirely. 

George Bernard Shaw once said that Hilaire Belloc, being a natural scoffer, clung to the Church because "its desecration would take all the salt out of blasphemy". Not true of Belloc; but there is a sense in which the sacred is needed even for irreverence, and rebellion, and all the posturing beloved of teenage boys and intellectuals. I sometimes take a rather benign view of this.

6) One of the great things about Christmas, and public piety, and national feeling, is that it provides what it provides in this story; a backdrop, something happening in the background, a sense of bustle and atmosphere and even of opposition. This is probably my favourite aspect of the story.

I always think it is better to live in a society with some kind of piety, some kind of vibe, than amidst a bland pluralism. We can affirm it, or we can battle against it, or we can reject some parts of it and celebrate others. But it gives us something to whet our own personalities and ideas against, one way or the other.

1 comment:

  1. I'm not very familiar with Behan's writings, but we're all familiar with Behan himself, he almost seems to be his own greatest expression.
    That's just a preamble... If you have no luck or no time trying Gardner Street church for an image of St Francis Xavier, another idea would be the Sacred Heart Church in Limerick which was Jesuit but is now the Institute of Christ the King. They have images of him and five other Jesuits over the sanctuary. Canon Wulfran LeBocq is on chn.lebocq@icrsp.org or www.institute-christ-king.ie From what I hear he's really helpful (don't know about during the Triduum though)