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Friday 16 March 2012

Brendan Behan and St Patrick's Day Typewriting

The famous photograph of Brendan Francis Behan typing on a Remington portable, with a pint of Guinness beside him, was taken by Daniel Farson in McDaid’s pub on Harry Street, Dublin, on August 1, 1952, eight days before Behan’s 29th birthday. It was shot for Picture Post, a then prominent British photojournalism magazine. At the time, Behan – who described himself as a drinker with a writing problem - was working on his play The Quare Fellow, which was first staged in November 1954. In 1953 Behan’s The Scarperer (written under the pseudonym “Emmett Street”) was serialised in The Irish Times. In 1954, he also started writing a weekly column for The Irish Press, a newspaper for which I worked from 1972-1980.
Behan was far from forgotten at the Press or its immediate surrounds. It was interesting that The Irish Press had given Behan one his more significant starts in writing, yet it had been founded in 1931 by Éamon de Valera, with money raised by Irish sympathisers in the US during the Irish War of Independence. Behan blamed de Valera for the death of his mother’s beloved Michael Collins, as well as some of his more contemporary Irish Republic Army compatriots. When I worked there, de Valera’s son, Major Vivion de Valera, was the managing director and the Irish historical writer Tim Pat Coogan, a de Valera critic, the editor. Ah, the Irish, such a fair-minded people!
I have had some memorable St Patrick’s Days. One of the earliest I remember was when the Irish tenor Patrick O’Hagan came to my home town, a place forged with a strong Irish influence. As a fledgling reporter, I was asked to interview O'Hagan. I had to get the poor man up out of bed at an unseemly hour, take him down to a bar, and insist he be photographed drinking green beer (for a black-and-white photo!). O’Hagan was almost sick just at the sight of it, especially at that hour of the morning. And apparently it tasted as bad as it looked. I’ve avoided green beer to this day. Black stuff is far better. But it’s a pity I’ve not always avoided imbibing on Paddy’s Day. As Brendan Behan, once asked by Guinness to come up with an advertising slogan, duly pronounced, “Guinness makes you drunk!” It wasn’t, apparently, what Guinness had in mind.
St Patrick’s Day fell on a Friday in 1978. I was writing the “Dubliner’s Diary” page for Saturday’s Evening Press in Dublin at the time, and in my infinite naivety decided to give Liam the chauffeur the night off and forgo the usual round of social events. The Evening Press had long since learnt to lean to the safe side, and had employed Liam to chauffeur the diarist about the city, for fear the writer might be inclined to become just that little bit too sociable and endanger the citizenry.
Behan's Couplet to a Typewriter,
 written on the back of a letter to The Irish Times in 1956
Liam was astonished when I outlined my plan, and quite reluctant to play along. Perhaps he feared he’d get no pay for no work. But I assured him it was OK to take the company limousine and enjoy a night out on his own, that all would be well. Instead, I’d mapped out a pub crawl through the inner southside of the Liffey, and convinced our photographer, Austin Finn, to leg the distance with me. Austin, being Austin, thought the whole thing a hoot, regardless of having to lug his camera gear by Shanks’ pony.
Underwood standard typewriter with Gaelic keyboard
It was a relatively short tour from the Irish Press building on Burgh Quay across to Temple Bar, through to Nassua and Grafton Streets, and then back down Westmoreland Street to Fleet Street and on to Poolbeg Street, at the back of the newspaper’s offices.
The idea was that, since the town would be loaded to the gills with its annual influx of Irish-North Americans, we’d go talk to these tourists in the places to which they’d felt obligated to gravitate: Irish pubs, booming with Irish music and overflowing with spilt Guinness.
I wanted to get their impressions of Ireland on the day it honoured its patron saint, their thoughts of Dublin of this night of Irish nights.
We started at Oliver St John Gogarty’s, moved on to the Stags Head at Dame Court, McDaids on Harry Street, Davy Byrnes on Duke Street, then staggered back across Westmoreland Street to the Palace and eventually made it to Mulligan’s.
Liam’s misgivings about the exercise proved well founded. He’d determined to shadow us along the way. In each bar, as soon as we’d start to talk to and photograph tourists, it seemed everyone in the vicinity wanted to buy me a pint, as if they felt it was de rigueur, part of the spirit of the occasion – or maybe they just wanted to be interviewed and photographed for the next day’s paper, too. To add to our woes, we quickly became a green-garbed snowball, gathering a growing, intoxicated entourage, with each of the tourists we’d spoken to wanting to join us on the pub crawl.
By the time we reached Mulligan’s on Poolbeg Street, there must have 40 or more in the group. Of course, the barkeeps were delighted, but I was hazily conscious that I was already in no fit condition to wander back into my office and bang out 1400 coherent words on a typewriter. I asked if anyone in our moveable soiree was a typist, and a young Canadian lady stepped forward, volunteering to help out. Of course, in keeping with the travelling bonhomie we’d created, several others decided they’d tag along as well.
Behan memorabilia in the Dublin Writers Museum
Imagine the look on the faces of the Irish Press’s night sub-editors as a party of drunken North Americans, dragging along with them a hugely embarrassed and none-too-sober himself journalist, stormed on to the editorial floor at close to midnight.
I found an Underwood standard typewriter on a desk as far away from the workers as I could, and while I dictated from scrawled, beer-splattered notes, the Canadian tried to type. Her efforts were not helped by constant interruptions, as our fellow imbibers attempted to ensure they had some input into this multi-authored column.
We did get a diary out. That it was not just readable, but read reasonably well, was a miracle, no doubt blessed in its successful execution by St Paddy himself. And, best of all, none of us – Liam, Austin, myself or our team of casual, one-night-stand drunken reporters – got sacked.
The pub crawl I’d planned was one which the Irish poet, playwright and novelist Brendan Behan might well have taken. Behan died on March 20, 1964, aged just 41. It was a fortnight before my 16th birthday, eight years before I arrived in his beloved Ireland. But his ghost could still be heard.
Christopher Cahill, who edited The Recorder, the journal of the American Irish Historical Society, once wrote to The New York Review of Books that “When new works by Brendan Behan continued to arrive in a flow uninterrupted by his death, it was said in Dublin that you could hear the typewriter clicking away in Glasnevin, the cemetery where Behan is buried.”
John Banville as I remember him
Cahill’s letter was actually a response to review of Samuel Beckett’s The Painful Comedy by Irish Booker Prize-winning novelist John Banville. Can you believe it? John Banville was one of The Irish Press sub-editors whose late night peace was disrupted by we raucous Paddy’s Day revellers in 1978. Banville worked at the Press as a sub-editor to supplement his then meagre earnings from writing.
There are more substantial degrees of separation from Behan. At The Irish Press I worked alongside Pádraig Puirséil, who was at the time the chief Gaelic Athletic Association sports writer for the Press (I have never seen a man with longer fingernail using a typewriter!).
Pádraig Puirséil (Patrick Purcell) had been the literary editor of The Irish Press in April 1954 when Brendan Behan first started writing his weekly column for the newspaper, and Behan apparently never forgot Paddy for giving him that big break in print. But Paddy was to live to regret it, if ever so briefly.
Paddy and his wife Úna Uí Phuirséil lived at Kenilworth Park and after work each evening, Paddy would catch a Rathmines bus from Westmoreland Street. On one such occasion, he was standing at the end of a queue of what Paddy considered to be snobby, West Brit, Anglo-Irish neighbours. Suddenly he saw Brendan Behan stagger around the corner from the Palace on Fleet Street and head in his direction.
Paddy grabbed the Evening Press from under his arm, opened it up - it was a big broadsheet - and pressed it as close to his nose as possible, without looking conspicuous. From underneath it, he could see Behan’s wobbly, muddy shoes wander on past him. “Thanks be to God,” murmured Paddy to himself. “He hasn’t spotted me”. Too soon …
Behan had got no more than got three or four feet beyond Paddy when he stopped and wheeled around, placed his arms akimbo, and declared to the queue, at the top of his voice, “Ladies and gentlemen, I’d like to introduce you to Pádraig Puirséil … one of the best!”
“Thanks be to God again,” thought Paddy: “That could have been a lot worse.” Once more, too soon …
“One of the ****ing best!” roared Behan. The glow from his red face shone brightly through the pages of Paddy’s Evening Press.
Behan alights from a London taxi, a little worse for wear
As with all great Irish characters, the stories about Behan are legendary – yet most have been heavily embellished and, unlike the one above, many are simply untrue.
Now that Behan’s Remington portable typewriter is on display at the Writers Museum on Parnell Square in Dublin, along with his National Union of Journalists’ Press Pass, it is generally described as the one Behan once threw through a window at McDaid’s in a fit of pique.
If this is the same typewriter, it survived to be taken into the care of Behan’s friend Seamus "Jimmy" de Burca, who much later gave it to the Old Dublin Society. But Behan, like Tennessee Williams, was more often fond of borrowing other people’s typewriters, then hocking them to buy his next pint of Guinness (In Williams’s case, it was usually the rent).
The night after J.P.Donleavy and Behan had gotten into one of their drunken brawls on Fleet Street in London, and Donleavy had knocked Behan down, Behan turned up at Donleavy’s flat the next morning thinking that for his black eye he was owed a favour. He asked for Donleavy’s Hermes portable, to write something for an American magazine, but was turned down, Donleavy saying Behan just wanted to pawn it and go boozing. Behan cheerfully admitted that was indeed the case.
The architect Sam Stephenson moved into a flat in Leeson Close in 1958. “Brendan Behan was living upstairs. He barged in one morning to use the phone; he wanted to ring the pawn shop to see how much he'd get for his typewriter and when he saw the state of the place he gave my young bride some typical Behan advice “Don't worry, all you need is a bed, a table and a corkscrew anyway.”
TV scriptwriter Ian Kennedy-Martin recalled he would run into Behan “in most bars in Dublin, being feted with the endless rounds of drinks that eventually killed him. [He was always] getting his typewriter out of hock as I walked into the shop to pawn mine.”
A lady called Brigid “Daisy Bell” Lee started working for £1 a week for the Florence McCarthy Typewriting and Duplicating Office on Nassau Street in Dublin in 1940. “Gaelic work” was a “speciality” – that is, typing in the Irish language, with characters quite different to English. Miss McCarthy died in December 1957 and left the business to Miss Lee. Using an Imperial standard typewriter, Miss Lee transcribed The Bible in Irish and Latin.
Miss Lee's Gaelic keyboard. The "I" appears to have worn off!
Among Miss Lee’s clients asking for manuscripts to be written in Gaelic was Brendan Behan. A friend recalled, “When our great writer (but rough diamond) Brendan Behan came into the office, her boss [Miss McCarthy] used to send her on an errand because Brendan used profane language and her boss did not want Daisy to hear it! Well, she was just a young lady at the time …”
Swear? Moi?
One last story concerning The Irish Press, where my Olivetti Lettera 32 portable typewriter churned out many hundreds of thousands of words. Being right outside the back door of the Press building, Mulligans on Poolbeg Street was the staff’s local drinking hole. Many's the hour I spent there imbibing with colleagues and members of the Irish rugby team.
Many years after I had returned to Australia from Ireland, my dear friend, the late, great columnist Maurice Desmond Bernard Carr, a character not unlike Behan himself, decided to snatch his time in Fremantle and head to the West of Ireland, to write the great Australian novel in Mayo or thereabouts.
Before he left, I advised him that, while in Dublin on his way west, he should drop in at Mulligans and introduce himself.
Maurie did just that. He asked the publican, “Do you know my friend Robert Messenger?”
“Know him?” replied the publican as he reached down below the bar. “He’s on my ****ing postcard!”
Sure enough, he showed Maurie the postcard, one of those items that are very popular with tourists to Ireland, showing the ornate fronts of old Irish pubs. And there, in the photo of the front of Mulligans, was me.
I went back to Dublin almost two years ago and went into Mulligans, asking for a copy of the postcard. “Sold out,” said the barkeep. “They were very much in demand!”

Irish Press rugby XV v French Press
1977, Stradbrook Road, Dublin
Same jersey, eight years later!
St Patrick's Day, Fremantle, 1985
*It turns out I have another close degree of separation from Brendan Behan. The letter in typewritten Gaelic at the top of this post refers to help Behan had received from Deliah Murphy, the Irish singer and collector of Irish ballads whose notable voice gave her the nickname the "Queen of Connemara". In 1924 Delia Murphy married Thomas J. Kiernan, an Irish diplomat. The couple were posted to Australia, where Kiernan served as Irish High Commissioner and later first Ambassador in Australia. Their grand-daughter Carol (daughter of Delia's only son, the late Colm Kiernan), is now in Washington DC. She is a good friend of mine. Carol claims to have thoroughly enjoyed a talk I once gave at The Irish Club in Canberra, called "Travels with My Typewriter in Ireland", in which I used my old Olivetti Lettera 32 portable as a prop. Naturally, anyone who has pleasant memories of such a thing has to be regarded as a good friend.
Details of the letter, from The Letters of Brendan Behan, edited by E. H. Mikhail, are:


Bill M said...

And since I cannot reproduce the accents; A Happy St. Patrick's Day to You Robert.

Thanks for all the work you do and post on your blog.

I wanted a green ribbon for St. Patrick's Day and forgot to order one, but I did not forget the good ole Irish whiskey.

maschinengeschrieben said...

I didn't know there was an irish keyboard until this post. Fascinating!