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Borstal Boy by Brendan Behan

Borstal Boy (1958)

by Brendan Behan

Other authors: See the other authors section.

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7921518,450 (3.9)29
'I have him bitched, balloxed and bewildered, for there's a system and a science in taking the piss out of a screw and I'm a well-trained man at it.'So writes Brendan Behan, poet, writer and literary legend, of the episode that coloured his life. Arrested in Liverpool as an agitator for the IRA, he was tried and sent to reform school. He was sixteen years old.The world he entered was brutal and coldly indifferent. Conditions were primitive, and violence simmered just below the surface. Yet, Brendan Behan found something more positive than hate in borstal- friendship, solidarity and healing flashes of kindness. Extraordinarily vivid, fluent, and moving, it is a superb and unforgettable piece of writing.… (more)

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» See also 29 mentions

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Behan's memoir depicts his time as an underage IRA man held up and imprisoned in the UK, first awaiting his judgement, then in a young offender's institution out in the countryside. ( )
  mari_reads | Sep 7, 2019 |
We spent just a few days in Ireland on our honeymoon trip last summer. I resolved to read more Irish writers. They churn them out.

Behan was arrested in England as a 16 year-old I.R.A. soldier and bomb maker, and this is his memoir of his time in borstal (juvie).

This is a different sort of prison book than last week’s A Gentleman in Moscow. The English juvenile justice system of the early 20th century was not the Metropol Hotel. But it ain’t the gulag neither.

Much of it was fairly impenetrable, notwithstanding the slang glossary in the back of the Knopf hardcover copy I have. A few helpful entries also serve to give you a glimpse into the subject matter:

giving the nut: butting with the head

grass: squealer, spy, informer (from grasshopper; rhyming slang for copper, “policeman,” and probably also for shopper, “informer”)

sea-pie: a kind of Irish stew, made with suet instead of potatoes

The peculiar kind of Irish Catholic hyper-religiosity coupled with anti-clericalism is there, heightened by the fact that Behan was more or less excommunicated for being an I.R.A. man, as the church was doing to I.R.A. leaders back in Ireland at the time (the setting is the late 1930s). But notwithstanding his excommunication, the padre tapped him to assist at mass because he knew his way around the Latin.

He is sympathetic towards not just his English fellow prisoners but also his jailers. The superintendent of his institution, whom they called “the squire,” is positively revered for his humanity and fair play.

The book has much fine humor, song, and dirty verse to recommend it.

On our recent trip we were only in Dublin for two nights and so didn’t get to see Kilmainham jail, but it was a queer feeling seeing other Republican sites and monuments. My general aversion to revolutions was heightened by the historical recency and cultural-linguistic links. It was bizarre to be walking through battlefields of a revolution only one hundred years old, a revolution that I wouldn’t have supported (for reasons that have nothing to do with whether it was right or wrong—I just always imagine myself on Team England). I don’t know quite how to explain it. Someone please explain to me what I was feeling.

Behan was dead of alcoholism at 41.

Any other Irish writers you recommend, besides the regular ones? I’m going to try William Trevor next. ( )
  k6gst | Feb 21, 2019 |
As the year closes I'm finishing those final PopSugar reading challenge categories, and political memoir was one I struggled in choosing. Most popular memoirs are heavy-handed propaganda released immediately before an election or simply very very long, and while I am certain that Nelson Mandela's [b:Long Walk to Freedom|318431|Long Walk to Freedom|Nelson Mandela|https://images.gr-assets.com/books/1327997342s/318431.jpg|2501119] is a book very much worth reading, it definitely had too high a page count for the rush towards the end of the year. (I still have one category left, and I can make it.)

So I ended up here, on Borstal Boy. I heard about Brendan Behan when I was sixteen or seventeen I imagine and had read some of his poetry for certain, and always thought I'd give this book a chance. I can't remember how I came by Behan's name--perhaps it was to do with knowing there was a film of this book--and it was good to have a reason for picking it up, although the pressure of the year's end might have impacted my pleasure in reading it. It was interesting to find out about the lives of boys in prisons and borstals in England at the time, a life quite different from what I would ever know, and to learn about the perspectives of a radical IRA youth, and to see what commonalities he ultimately finds between himself and the other boys in the borstals, Saxons though they may be.

As with Joyce, I found the rhythm of the writing lends itself to an internal Irish voice. He also captures the voices and manners of the other youths and officers around him in a very realistic and distinct way. However I somehow have no idea of how to star-rate this book.
  likecymbeline | Apr 1, 2017 |
Brendan Behan’s account of his days in jail and a youth detention facility in England after being arrested at 16 with bomb-making material. The early days of his incarceration are rough, due to his IRA affiliation and penchant for talking back. “I was never short of an answer, historically informed and obscene.”

After he is sentenced and sent to a youth borstal his situation is improved. Behan relishes in the companionship of other young men, some in for serious crimes, and seems to get along with even the staff. Reading is a balm for Behan throughout his incarceration.

Borstal Boy is an extremely well-written book, full of energy and personality. ( )
  Hagelstein | Sep 18, 2016 |
I read this years ago. Back then it reminded me of a stint in boarding school I'd gone through. Now with some professional experience of these institutions I can still reflect that it's a good story well told. Behan famously drank himself to death, but his writing was magical. Recommended, but it's twice the value if you can get a hold of Ulrick O'Connor's biography of Behan and read that first, or in some fashion weave the two of them together. ( )
  nandadevi | Dec 21, 2013 |
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» Add other authors (2 possible)

Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
Brendan Behanprimary authorall editionscalculated
Kiely, BenedictAfterwordsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
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"...One crew of young watermen or postboys...roared and shouted the lewdest tavernsongs, as if in bravado, and were dashed against a tree and sunk with blasphemies on their lips.  An old nobleman-for such his furred gown and golden chain of office proclaimed him-went down not far from where Orlando stood, calling vengeance upon the Irish rebels, who, he cried with his last breath, had plotted this devilry..."
 - ORLANDO: Virginia Woolf
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Friday, in the evening, the landlady shouted up the stairs: "Oh God, oh Jesus, oh Sacred Heart, Boy, there's two gentlemen to see you."
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