A summer in Co. Down with Behan

A summer in Co. Down with Behan

By Ciara Colhoun

ONE of Ireland's most irreverent writers caused havoc when he was employed to paint St. John's Point lighthouse over 60 years ago, according to documents recently unearthed.

Retired local lighthouse keeper Henry Henvey has personally recalled the irritation Brendan Behan caused his former employer when he arrived at St. John's Point in the summer of 1950.

Mr. Henvey, who was a teenager at the time, befriended the budding playwright and has pleasant memories of swimming together in the open sea and enjoying long conversations in the family kitchen.

He recalls Behan spending a lot of time with a neighbour, Miss. Montgomery, who was regarded locally as an intellectual, and says he was later delighted to receive postcards from Behan when he moved to Paris, urging Henry to consider relocating due to the opportunities available in the French capital.

But Henry's positive experience is at odds with that of the principal lighthouse keeper at the time, Mr. D. Blakely, who was so horrified by Behan's behaviour that he penned a letter to his boss, calling for his immediate dismissal.

Mr. Henvey keeps a copy of this letter, alongside other documents relating to Behan's employment, in historical files belonging to the lighthouse.

In it, Mr. Blakely describes Behan as "the worst specimen" he has met in 30 years of service and accuses him of showing "careless indifference" and no respect for property.

He said Behan, who had been released from borstal just four years previously for being a member of the IRA, had failed to turn up for work one day, not returning to the station until 1.25am.

"He is wilfully wasting materials, opening drums and paint tins by blows from a heavy hammer, spilling the contents which is now running out of the paint stores.

"Drums of waterwash opening and exposed to the weather, paint brushes dirty and lying all around the station — no cleaning up of any mess but he tramps through everything.

"His language is filthy and he is not amenable to any law or order.

"The spare house, which was clean and ready for painters has been turned into a filthy shambles inside a week.

"Empty stinking milk bottles, articles of food, coal, ashes and other debris litter the floor of the place which is now in a scandalous condition of dirt."

Mr. Blakely ends his letter with an urgent call for Behan's dismissal "before the place is ruined."

Despite this call, however, Mr. Henvey says Behan was retained by the Irish Lights Office, who held Behan in high regard.

Rather than being dismissed, Behan was retained for a second summer stint as a lighthouse painter, before moving to Paris where he settled into his career as a writer.

Although he kept in touch with Mr. Henvey by postcard, the two men never met again as Mr. Henvey was working at sea when Behan returned to visit the area. However, he says he keenly followed his career, enjoying each piece of Behan's work as it was published.

"Even as a school boy I was very impressed by Behan, who was already writing s for plays at that time," he said.

"He told me all about being in jail in Liverpool and said the warden had picked him out from a line-up of boys as an intellectual.

"He saw that he was different from the rest and gave him books to study to try to keep him on the straight and narrow.

"Every Christmas Eve, even after he returned to Dublin, the warden phoned him to see how he was doing.

"Behan kept in touch in Paris but when he moved onto New York I never heard from him again. Like many a good man, he succumbed to beer."

Mr. Henvey said he had been asked to lend the letter about Behan to a man to photocopy years ago and was disappointed that the original letter was not returned to him. He said the postcards Behan had written to him were now in England.

Just four years after his unsuccessful stint as a lighthouse painter, Behan sealed his place as one of Ireland's best known writers and talkers with the production of his first highly acclaimed play <I>The Quare Fellow<$>. Four years later again, he made use of the irreverence that so troubled his lighthouse employers to create his best-selling autobiographical book <I>The Borstal Boy<$>, which told the story about his own time spent in prison.