Brendan Behan, lighthouse painter


I once learnt in the Maritime Museum in Moville, Co. Donegal, that the Irish writer Brendan Behan had spent some time as a young man working as a lighthouse painter. This was in that time after his second spell in jail for IRA-related activities, but before his literary career had become a success.

He wasn’t very good at painting, possibly to the longer-term gain of Irish literature. The museum has a letter from the Principal Keeper at St John’s Point lighthouse asking that he be sacked immediately. The local paper, The Down Recorder had an article when the letter came to light later.

“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.”

Here’s the letter.


I was thinking of this because I was listening to Philip Chevron’s version of Behan’s lyric, “The Captains and the Kings”, with its precise disdain for England and the Empire:

We have many goods for export, Christian ethics and old port

But our greatest boast is that the Anglo-Saxon is a sport

On the playing fields of Eton we still do thrilling things

Do not think we’ll ever weaken of the captains and the kings

Behan wrote the song for his play The Hostage. While I was looking for the Chevron version, I found a recording by Behan himself, singing it in his “Oxford accent”:

 

 

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