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Dinner for four … then in lurches a drunken Behan wearing a filthy raincoat

THE QUARE FELLOW: Brendan Behan hard at work, August 1952.
Photograph: Daniel Farson/Getty Images

By JOHN JACKSON

It is not often that a quiet restaurant dinner for four is interrupted by one of the greatest writers of his time falling drunkenly out of the kitchen and pulling up a chair.


But when I reveal that the person in question was Ireland’s Brendan Behan perhaps it becomes clearer.


After all the great Dublin-born poet, playwright, author described himself as “a drinker with a writing problem”. He said he only drank on two occasions – “when I’m thirsty and when I’m not”.


Our memorable encounter occurred in 1960 when Behan, then enjoying the successes of his plays The Quare Fellow and The Hostage, plus his autobiographical novel Borstal Boy, made a brief, unannounced visit to Manchester.


 He said he had two missions: Firstly to seek out Shelagh Delaney, the Salford-born writer whose play A Taste of Honey was receiving rave notices, whom he described as “the only flower left in this cultural desert”.

And secondly to revisit Strangeways Prison where he was imprisoned in 1947 after he had tried to free a fellow IRA member.


At that time I was a reporter on the Manchester Evening News and a few days earlier had interviewed two former French Legionnaires who were opening a restaurant in the then rougher part of the city, Moss Side.


 My wife Barbara and I decided to try out this new establishment. With us came Jack Macnamara, then at the start of his 36 years as the highly respected rugby league correspondent of the MEN (and like Barbara a New Zealander), and his friend Una.


We were enjoying the ambience and food of the small restaurant when a sudden commotion caused all eyes to turn toward the entrance to the kitchen. Out stumbled this dishevelled man in a filthy raincoat, and immediately recognisable as the famous Irishman pictured in the latest evening papers.


 Now I have a reputation within my family of attracting drunks who others are trying to avoid. Maybe I appear a kindred soul but there have been many instances of friendly banter and offers of drink (Eastern European boatmen with their vodka, slivovic, tuica especially). 


 “Dad attracts them like flies” is the usual comment – and that night in Moss Side was no exception.


Brendan Behan grabbed a chair from a nearby table and shoved it between Jack and me. Then he lifted his chubby arms and placed them round our shoulders. Through his glazed eyes he stared across at the dumbfounded Barbara and Una and said in his thick Dublin accent:  “Aw right. I know what you’re t’inking. We drink too much, we smoke too much and we go out with too many women. But I’ll tell you one t’ing – we fuckin’ love you”.


With that he pushed back his chair, stood, looked around and made a beeline for the chef who had come out to see what was happening. 


Behan grabbed him by his shirt and seat of the pants, raised him in the air and shouted: “Three cheers for Monsieur le chef”. He then dropped him unceremoniously and staggered out of the door, never to be seen again.


Four years later the drinking got the better of the writing and he died, aged 41. 


JOHN JACKSON is author of Reflections of a Mirror Man (Amazon)


 26 February 2024