Papers of an Irish Rebel: Brendan Behan (1923-64)

The Manuscripts Division is very pleased to announce the recent acquisition of the Papers of Brendan Behan (C1596). He was one of Ireland’s most important 20th-century authors. Behan grew up in Dublin during the Great Depression and became an Irish Republican and rebel. In later life, he enjoyed spending time in New York, which he called “my Lourdes, where I go for spiritual refreshment.” His life was cut tragically short at age forty-one, largely because of alcoholism. Preserved by his wife Beatrice Behan, the papers include three boxes (about 1500 pages) of writing in English and Irish (Gaelic). While the papers are modest in volume relative to most modern literary archives, they still constitute the principal collection of manuscript materials available for the study of Behan’s life and work, from his formative years in a borstal (reform school for juvenile delinquents) and prisons, to his involvement with the Irish Republican Army and its junior branch (Fianna Éireann). The papers, rarely available before for research, provide insight into Behan’s literary career and working methods of writing and revision. Included are unpublished materials that complement published editions of his plays, prose works, and letters.

Michael G. Wood, Charles Barnwell Straut Class of 1923 Professor of English and Comparative Literature, Emeritus, notes: “During his much-reported lifetime, Brendan Behan’s gifts as a writer were often obscured by stories of his misbehaviour as the eternal bad boy of Irish legend—or rather of legends about the Irish. Behan died in 1964, and time has clarified the situation considerably. One critic said The Quare Fellow (1954) was the finest play to come out of Ireland since O’Casey’s The Plough and the Stars; and The Hostage (1958), written in Irish and translated by Behan himself, was in many ways an even greater dramatic success. Borstal Boy (also 1958), Behan’s memoir of his life in a borstal, remains the classic account of what it is like to find a community in a world of exclusion. The collection the Library has acquired, with its wealth of previously unavailable notebooks and other works, will allow scholars of Irish literature and language, and all those interested in the long historical moment of Anglo-Irish conflict, to explore these topics in unusual and extensive depth.”

Brendan Behan’s papers are in the form of autograph notebooks, manuscripts, and corrected typescripts, which are complemented by unrevised typescripts, selected correspondence, and ephemera. Among the major discoveries in Behan’s papers is a small orange notebook (see image below) containing autobiographical writings from 1948 at Mountjoy Prison, Dublin, possibly preparatory for Borstal Boy; his papers also include two corrected typescripts of Borstal Boy, which (though published in 1958) was banned in Ireland until 1970. The survival of these drafts was unexpected since Behan asked his editors to destroy any manuscript copies of the pre-edited version. Also in the papers are preliminary notes, drafts, or completed manuscripts of various works: Casad an tsugain eile [”The Twisting of Another Rope”], autograph manuscript draft in Irish for the first act of a play, ca. 1946, later published in English as The Quare Fellow; and his first play, An bhean cíosa (The Landlady), ca. 1943, 1946. Other notebooks contain notes in English and some Spanish relating to his writing, character development, and other wide-ranging topics; and an autograph notebook, with notes for an essay in English on the Irish people. Separate manuscript leaves contain commentary, poetry, street ballads, and autobiographical recollections, in English and Irish.

The Manuscripts Division already had Brendan Behan materials thanks to the generosity of Leonard L. Milberg, Princeton Class of 1953. The Leonard L. Milberg ’53 Collection of Manuscripts, Correspondence, and Photographs (C0962), includes an untitled typescript of a radio play, An Evening with Brendan Behan, in which the author plays himself (1962). The Milberg Collection also contains selected correspondence and manuscripts of other Irish authors, such as Maria Edgeworth, Sean O’Casey, Samuel Beckett, and Seamus Heaney. Other holdings relating to modern Irish authors include James Joyce-related materials in the papers of Sylvia Beach (C0108); selected papers and literary agency files for Irish-American author Frank Harris; correspondence of writers Sylvia and Robert Lynd, dating from 1905 to 1937 (C1554); papers of poet Theodore Holmes, Princeton Class of 1951 (C0805); and the recently acquired papers of poet John Ennis (C1563). These are complemented by the printed holdings of Rare Books for Brendan Behan and other Irish authors.

Once arrangement, description, and conservation work have been completed, the Papers of Brendan Behan will be available for research in the reading room of the Department of Rare Books and Special Collections. For more information, contact Don C. Skemer, Curator of Manuscripts, dcskemer@princeton.edu

Brendan Behan, Notebook, ca. 1948. In Irish, “leabhar cleachta” means lesson book.

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