Brendan Behan, auld pink triangles and a yes vote

Sam Ford, TCD student and Dublin tour guide, tells of his revelations in the run up to the Marriage Equality Referendum on May 22nd


There are 12 bronze faces tucked away at the back of Saint Patrick’s Park that I pass by almost every time I’m leading a tour group: Jonathan Swift, Eilis Dillon, James Clarence Mangan, Oscar Wilde, George Bernard Shaw, William Butler Yeats, John Millington Synge, Sean O’Casey, James Joyce, Brendan Behan, Austin Clarke and Samuel Beckett.

I bring the plodding tourists along with me. As I condense the life and work of these various writers into a few crude sentences, some listen, some take photos, some stare into space. Bellies rumble. On a particularly bad day, it might sound something like this:

“Jonathan Swift wrote Gulliver’s Travels and then he got Alzheimer’s and he thought he was going mad and he ran up and down the stairs because he thought that would help but it didn’t and then he died and all the fishwives were very sad and made a big bonfire.”

“Eilis Dillon wrote great children’s stories but there are probably more deserving women writers and I don’t know why Seamus Heaney isn’t here to be honest.”

“James Clarence Mangan loved opium. Loved it so he did.”

“Oscar Wilde died in Paris in 1900 surrounded by tacky wallpaper.”

“George Bernard Shaw is the only human in history to have won a Nobel Prize AND an Oscar. Fair play to George.”

“William Butler Yeats was really great and he once said, ‘Don’t step on my dreams you’ll make them dirty.’”

There is a gap in the plaques here and on hot summer days there’s a Mister Whippy van. Myself and The Man have an unspoken agreement that evolved organically where I casually suggest that the tourists take an ice-cream break at this juncture and after they have spent their pennies he hands me an obscenely large 99 with a flake smothered all over with sprinkles and strawberry sauce, and we exchange a knowing nod but no currency. I consume this before proceeding.

I clear my throat and begin again.

“Synge went to the Aran Islands and wrote everything the culchies said into his notebook and that’s how The Playboy of the Western World happened.”

“O’Casey was a Protestant with glasses”.

“Joyce wrote a big hefty tome called Ulysses and the whole thing happened in one day and he had terrible trouble with his eyes and he tried to operate on himself which made the whole thing much worse and in the end he had to write with a big blue pencil lying backwards on his bed.”

After Joyce we reach Brendan Behan. I usually say something like “If I could bring one of these lads back to life for one night only, it would have to be Behan… He was a fun guy. Big fan of the gargle. Great craic.” And I tell them about his book tours to America and Canada and the hilarious things he said to the journalists:

AMERICAN JOURNALIST: Mr Behan! Do you usually have a police escort when you’re at home in Dublin?

BEHAN: I do yeah… But I’m normally handcuffed to them!

CANADIAN JOURNALIST: Mr Behan! Why are you so drunk all the time?

BEHAN: Well, I seen a placard back in Dublin wan time and it said Drink Canada Dry… So I’ve started!

Weh weh weh. Gas man. Tourists smile or chortle. And then I give them a blast of The Auld Triangle in my best Brendan Behan/Ronnie Drew twang:

In the early mornin’

The screw was ballin’

Get up ya bowsie

And clear out your cell!

And the auld triangle

Went jingle jangle

All along the banks

Of the Royal Canal.

In the female prison

There are 75 women

And it is among them

I wish I did dwell.

And the auld triangle…

Just those two verses. Tourists smile and applaud. And on we go… Clarke, Beckett, etc.

I did two tours in one day last week and I should have studied when I got home, but I didn’t. I was too tired. Instead, I turned on the telly. Nothing good on so I went into the planner and found a documentary about Brendan Behan called The Roaring Boy that the mother or father must have recorded.

A few minutes in and I started to feel guilty for portraying Behan as a one-dimensional alcohol-fuelled clown. Here was a truly complex character with serious thoughts and artistic merit. Here was a man who really struggled with fame and expectation and the pressures of potential.

We learn about his dysfunctional upbringing in the North Inner City and his suffocating grandmother and his one-man mission to blow up the Liverpool Docks. And we also learn about his time in borstal, his overcoming of his learned hatred of Britain, and his bisexuality.

In the light of the current debate in Irish society, I can’t help but hone in on this last aspect. Behan had various sexual encounters with the lads in prison and even wrote about these fleeting love affairs in the first draft of The Borstal Boy, although this was later removed.

When he married his wife Beatrice, he told her he didn’t believe any man who claimed not to have had some kind of homosexual experience at some point. In Behan’s latter years in New York, he attempted to explore this side of himself, away from the constraints of Ireland, but he was hampered by a New York society that just wanted to see him pissed drunk and making a fool of himself. He had been off the booze before arriving but was pressured into starting again, with various journalists even going as far as to spike his drink in the hope of getting a good scoop. There is a suggestion that his inability to express himself in the sexual sphere contributed significantly to his alcoholism and early death by brain haemorrhage.

I did the washing up while listening to The Auld Triangle on the soon-to-be-extinct iTube, and the song seemed to have taken on a whole new power.

And this may sound pretty forced, but it made me think of the pink triangle signs around town that say VOTE YES FOR YOUR BROTHER and VOTE YES FOR YOUR SISTER, and I think somebody should make one that says VOTE YES FOR BRENDAN BEHAN.

I think about the horrible NO posters that are lining our streets.

I think about the two young midlands women in Elephant & Castle the day after Trinity Ball who said homosexuality was a “disease caused by excess of oestrogen” and that two men or two women bringing up a baby was “unnatural” and how they denied everything when we asked them to clarify their stance.

I think about people that literally have thumbnails that say NO EQUALITY on their Twitter.

I think about all the people out there who waste so much of their short lives and precious mental resources blocking out perfectly natural infatuations between people of the same sex.

I think about Oscar Wilde writing The Importance of Being Earnest in 1895 and being arrested the same year for homosexuality and sentenced to two years hard labour and how I sometimes don’t say that bit when there are certain sorts of people on my tour.

I think about the other day when I wanted to explain the mural on George’s Street to a bunch of drunk German stags as I walked them towards The Porterhouse but I didn’t. And why the hell didn’t I?

I think about the badges and the leaflets and the profile pictures and whether they will have an impact.

I think about how being gay was actually ILLEGAL here until 1993 and how absolutely insane that is.

These thoughts are pretty overwhelming, but then they start to take a turn for the positive…

I think: In the 25-odd years since Norris vs Ireland, we as a nation are on the verge of making marriage equality a reality, a massively positive step towards making Ireland a healthier and happier place; the sort of place where a modern-day Brendan Behan could actually kiss other men and write plays and drink tea, instead of drowning himself in Guinness and crying in his metaphorical prison cell.

I want to live in a country where there is no shame or guilt to be overcome when it comes to same-sex attraction.

I want to live in a country where nobody feels like a lesser citizen or an outsider because of who they fall in love with.

I want to live in a country where everyone is equal.

Most importantly, I want to be able to watch the 2015 episode of Reeling In The Years far in the future and say, “Ah yes, I remember that day – the 22nd May – the day where everything was a-ok!”

It’s not a foregone conclusion. Far from it. There could be more closeted no-voters out there like the infuriating Elephant & Castle duo. But I’m fighting. And I’m going to ramp it up. And you should too. Because this is too important.

Get out yizzers auld (pink) triangles. Do it for Brendan. Do it for all of us.

Photo: An Post