Thursday, August 17, 2017

Thoughts on Borstal Boy

I've been reading Borstal Boy by Brendan Behan, an account of his time in prison and (later) borstal-- what Americans would call juvie. He was a member of the IRA and convicted in London for possessing explosives, aged sixteen. He was held in prison before his trial and sentencing, but then sent to borstal, which was a new and more humane institution for juvenile offenders.

I enjoyed it well enough, but it became repetitive and I stopped reading it about three-quarters of the way through.

The book is more or less a work of reportage, and its virtues are those of good reportage. Behan doesn't dwell too much on his own thoughts and emotions, but concentrates upon what happened. Most of us will never be incarcerated, and nobody will ever again experience the particular regimes described in the book. Therefore the memoir is valuable as a record, a glimpse into a reality that once existed.

None of us want to go to prison, but we are all fascinated by prison stories-- in fact, we are fascinated by any confined situation. How many stories, from Robinson Crusoe to The Breakfast Club onwards, reflect this fascination? Indeed, we become nostalgic over situations of confinement and being subjected to strict rules, such as school days.

This is one of those matters where I find myself wondering how much my reactions have to do with my own psychology-- my own neuroses, perhaps-- and how much they have to do with social reality in general. For the truth is, I like limited, confined situations (and the limits can be physical or non-physical). So I could say: "Well, this is just a case of my own hang-ups, and of no general interest". But I'm not so sure about that, because most people betray a fascination or nostalgia with such situations. There seems to be a regular dialectic in human life whereby people seek the maximum amount of freedom (and convenience, choice, etc.) and then feel alienated by the very freedom (convenience, choice) they've achieved. We are seeing it today with mobile phones and the internet-- why have "digital detoxes" become so popular, and what are these but a self-imposed curb on personal freedom?

Borstal Boy is interesting to me on account of Behan's attitude towards religion and nationalism. The detainees in both institutions looked forward to religious services, as a break from routine, and something to do. Everybody is classed by religion-- Roman Catholics are referred to as "RC"s. In an early scene, the Catholic chaplain in prison urges Brendan Behan to renounce his republican views, and insists that he shares the excommunication of other militant republicans when he refuses to do so. Behan is particularly grieved when he's debarred from taking part in a benediction service at Christmas.

It's hard to get a handle on Behan's religious views. In the book, he presents himself as a tolerant sceptic, somebody who appreciates the aesthetic side of Catholicism, and feel a certain tribal allegiance to it, but who doesn't really take it seriously. "I had nearly lost interest in Sacraments and whether I was deprived of them or not. Walton scalded my heart with regard to my religion, but it also lightened it. My sins had fallen from me, because I had almost forgotten that there were such things and, when I got over it, my expulsion from religion, it was like being pushed outside a prison and told not to come back. If I was willing to serve Mass, it was in memory of my ancestors standing around a rock, in a lonely glen, for fear of the landlords and their yeomen...Walton had cured me of any idea that religion of any description had anything to do with mercy or pity or love."

Reading his life story, it seems that Catholicism became more important to him as he deteriorated into alcoholism and bad health, and that he disliked  excessive criticism of the Church. On the other hand, Anthony Cronin in his excellent book The Life of Riley describes Behan, before his success, having a strong animus against Catholicism.

Despite being in the IRA, Behan seems to extend this rather detached attitude towards his nationalism, too. When he is tried for his crime, he delivers a speech full of Irish republican rhetoric, but only to irritate the judge. As he explains to the reader: "I have a sense of humour that would nearly cause me to burst out laughing at a funeral, providing it was not my own, and solemn speeches are not easily made by me. I can't keep it up." 

This attitude of flippancy pervades the entire book. Behan is willing to mock, not only religion, but his own nationalist beliefs. He shows disdain for solemnity here, as elsewhere: "Nor was I one of your wrap-the-green-flag-round-me junior Civil Servants that came into the IRA from the Gaelic League, and well ready to die for their country any day of the week, purity in their hearts, truth on their lips, for the glory of God and the honour of Ireland. No, be Jesus, I was from Russell Street, North Circular Road, Dublin, from the Northside..."

Indeed, throughout the book, Behan represents himself as sharing the coarse humour and language of the other prisoners. A fellow Irish republican prisoner (who is also excommunicated, but remains pious nonetheless) expresses his disdain for such behaviour to Behan, at one point: "The prisoners, though, though they're all right in their own way, they have as much respect for themselves, or for on another, as animals. They talk about things, aye, and do things that the lowest ruffian in Ireland, Catholic or Protestant, wouldn't put his tongue to the mention of, things that you could be born, grow up, and die an old man in our country without ever even hearing the mention of."

(There is some internal evidence in the book to suggest this is true-- Behan, despite his rumbustious working class background, admits that he didn't know what Oscar Wilde was imprisoned for, and his mother avoided telling him when he asked.)

There was indeed a strong tradition of puritanism in Irish cultural nationalism, and it's one which I admire. Even before I was a Catholic or a conservative, and though I've been a lifelong admirer of Yeats, I felt more sympathy with the Irish theatre audiences who protested Playboy of the Western World on account of its raciness, than I did with Yeats and the other intellectuals who lambasted them. I felt that the audiences were trying to maintain a standard, while the intelligentsia were trying to dispense with a standard, and that the former effort was intrinsically more noble. I realize that the intelligentsia would claim they were holding to a standard-- freedom of expression-- but that doesn't rally wash with me. Puritanism is harder than liberalism, and more easily lost.

Here is a post I wrote about "priggishness", which is the single post which means the most to me out of the hundreds I've written on this blog. This essay-poem on solemnity is also relevant to this subject.

I'm generally favourable towards rules and standards, when they are not actually oppressive, and even if their justification is debatable. This often gives me a different attitude to some of my colleagues in the library. I've had lots of arguments with library liberals who think everything should be allowed and every rule should be waived where possible. I'm of the opinion that, within reason, an institution is not under an onus to justify its regulations, but that the onus should be on the visitor to respect the institution. I was arguing this with a Spanish colleague who has something of the anarchist about her. I said: "If I went to somebody's house and they asked me to take my shoes off before I walked on the carpet, I might think that was a stupid rule, but I wouldn't argue. I'd just do it, out of respect." She said: "Well, I ask visitors to my house to take their shoes off". Of course, she claimed she had a good reason...

Even rules that seem arbitrary have this benefit; that they create an atmosphere of respect. They make the situation special, distinctive, creating a mental boundary between one place and another, or one time and another. I greatly approve of the bookshop in Dublin which asks customers to switch off their mobile phones.

However, I've drifted from my subject somewhat. I was writing about Brendan Behan's attitude to religion and nationalism.

I hardly need to critique his religious attitudes here. Religion without dogma is a bad joke.I suppose, if it comes to a choice between outright irreligion, and a vague, tribalistic, sentimental religion, the latter is better-- if only because it might blossom into something more, and it will prevent its bearer from becoming an out-and-out enemy of the religion.

I think a similar point applies to Behan's attitude towards nationalism. The Behan attitude towards Irish nationalism seems to have become popular, especially via its influence on Shane MaGowan of the Pogues. That is, Irish nationalism allied with a kind of anarchism; rules and conventions are to be despised, irreverence is the order of the day, and nothing should be taken too seriously.

My problem with this attitude is that it's taking a free ride on the reverence, seriousness, and effort of other people-- it's squandering the funds they worked up. Behan inherited a tradition of Irish cultural nationalism because other people, who came before him, took it seriously. You only have to look at a character such as Miss Ivors in "The Dead" by James Joyce to see a portrait, presumably recognisable, of an earlier Irish cultural nationalist. She is somewhat narrow-minded, chauvinistic, intense-- the characteristic vices (if they are vices) of pioneers. Movements only get off the ground because people are willing to take them seriously. Decadence has set in when a mellow, easy-going, self-mocking attitude takes over. As Nietzsche put it: "All creators are hard". All preservers, too.

And the reason I think this is particularly lamentable in Behan is because Irishness was his gimmick. He drew constantly on Irish ballads, sayings, history, and culture in order to give his works a distinctive flavour. But he seems ultimately to have been a proponent of the same limp liberalism and cosmopolitanism favoured by most literary people of his time, and of our own. This is reflected in his writing, as well as his life. Literary modernism, pop culture, gutter speak-- all of it got thrown into the pot along with the Irish ballads and folklore. How can anything fine or distinctive survive that kind of free-for-all?

I've mentioned Behan's use of folk ballads in the book. It's well known that he grew up in a home (working class intelligentsia like my own) where folk ballads were common currency. His brother became a well-known writer of folk songs, one of which he quotes in the book. Reading Borstal Boy, I felt an all-too-familiar shame and envy that I know so few folk ballads, that I'm so deficient in oral culture. I'm working to fix this, though.


  1. He and his family seem to have had a coldness towards Matt Talbot, largely because Talbot wasn't a supporter of Larkin. I think this was mentioned in a later book or interview. His claims that the mother of a large family used Matt's penitential bed for firewood and that his father replaced it with something picked up at the docks for the sake of the pilgrims coming to Dublin for the Eucharistic Congress seems a bit spurious though. Realistically, was it at all likely that his father would have met an overseas visitor in a pub who started showing off the splinter relics he had pilfered?

    1. No, it doesn't, and Mary Purcell has documented the truth about Matt Talbot and industrial action. He wasn't any kind of strikebreaker or opposed to unions.


  2. I'll have to try typing it in , it wouldn't work.... Matt, unions, socialism, communism...
    It seems an ambiguous relationship. The first thing I'd ever read on Ven. Matt mentioned that the communist Yugoslav government in the 60s disliked any mention of him because he DID strike. Perhaps if he didn't join in the Larkin strike it's because he was concerned about Larkin's perceived socialist leaning? And Irish trade unions have lauded Talbot in the past also. Yet... Some countries, Australia definitely, had unions-strikes and all-with a strong proCommunist infiltration during the same period. Irish-Australians are very much effected by this and the unions' involvement with Australian Labor. Had the Behans lived here they would have been pretty involved too.