Wild Irish Women:
Dancer in a Rough Field

“Portrait of Kathleen Behan,” by Sarah Henrietta Purser (1848 – 1943). Oil on board. (Photo: National Gallery of Ireland)
“Portrait of Kathleen Behan,” by Sarah Henrietta Purser (1848 – 1943). Oil on board. (Photo: National Gallery of Ireland)

By Rosemary Rogers, Contributor
October / November 2016

The extraordinary life of Kathleen Kearney Behan, 1889 – 1984.

℘℘℘

History has cast Kathleen Behan in supporting roles, reducing her to the “sister of” or “mother of” someone important. But she deserves so much more – Kathleen was a political powerhouse, raconteur, and gifted singer who, in the course of her long and often tragic life, managed to have a bit of fun along the way.

Kathleen Kearney was born in a Dublin tenement to a family of socialists and nationalists who spent evenings speaking Irish and singing patriotic ballads. But patriotism wasn’t enough to save the family from the destitution that forced the Kearney children into orphanages. Released in her early teens, Kathleen declined to join a light opera troupe, having sworn herself to the cause of Ireland’s freedom. She joined the Cumann na mBan, the women’s paramilitary group of the Irish Volunteers led by Countess Markievicz.

During the Rising, she was a courier darting through Dublin, running dispatches to and from GPO headquarters. Throughout the Irish War of Independence Kathleen was a Zelig-like figure, appearing everywhere, and with everyone. She was friends with all the leaders especially Michael Collins, her “Laughing Boy.” The Countess got her a job with Maud Gonne, employment that put her in contact with W.B. Yeats, whose poems she had memorized as a child, and artist Sarah Henrietta Purser, who painted a portrait of her that is now in the National Gallery of Ireland.

Kathleen’s brother, Peadar Kearney, joined the Irish Republican Brotherhood. Like his sister, he was an active participant in the 1916 Rising and, like his sister, was devoted to Michael Collins. Peadar is best known for writing the Irish National Anthem, “Amhrán na bhFiann,” or “A Soldier’s Song,” explaining he wrote it “to impress on Irishmen that they did not have to join the British army to be soldiers.” But when Collins was killed by a fellow Irishman, a broken-hearted Peader abandoned politics. The writer of Ireland’s national anthem became a housepainter, later dying in poverty.

It was through the Irish Volunteers that Kathleen met Jack Furlong, another 1916 veteran. Brought close by Republican fervor, they soon married and had a child, Rory (or Roger Casement Furlong), but Jack died of Spanish flu in 1918. Kathleen, now a widow with one small child and another (Seán) on the way, moved in with her mother-in-law, Granny Furlong, a rebel and seamstress who made uniforms for the Volunteers. Kathleen and Granny, fellow firebrands, saw no conflict in being devout Catholics and fierce Communists. Kathleen may have rocked her children to sleep singing “The Red Flag,” but her home was named “The Christlike Kremlin.” And Granny? When she was finally arrested for running an IRA safe house, Granny earned the distinction, at age 77, of being the world’s oldest political prisoner.

When Kathleen met IRA man Stephen Behan, it was for her love at first sight. During the Irish War of Independence, Stephen Behan, who once studied for the priesthood, became one of Michael Collins’s “12 Apostles,” the men who assassinated British Intelligence officers one Sunday in 1920. But Behan broke with him, rejecting the Anglo-Irish treaty that Collins had so painfully cobbled together and joined the anti-treaty forces during the Civil War. He was arrested again, this time by the Irish army, and confined to Kilmainham Jail.

Stephen was still in Kilmainham in 1923 when Kathleen gave birth to their first son, Brendan (who, in time, proved no stranger to prisons himself). In the stuff of opera, Kathleen stood outside Kilmainham on a freezing winter night, holding high her newborn. Standing at the window, looking through the bars, Stephen saw his son for the first time.

Now, with an infant, two small children and a husband on the inside, she had no choice but to live with her new and decidedly loathsome, mother-in-law. Stephen’s mother used the name of her (deceased) second husband, English, an almost comical moniker in this family of rabid republicans. Christina English, a greedy slumlady who tormented her tenants, ruled her empire from bed – a bed she shared with her grown son, Paddy. Once she even tried evicting Kathleen, who wouldn’t budge, snapping, “What I have, I hold.”

Stephen, having refused to take an oath of loyalty to the king, couldn’t return to teaching after his release from prison. Instead he became a housepainter, a profession oddly ubiquitous to the Kearney/Behan/Furlong/English households. After Brendan, other Behans arrived – Brian, Dominic, Seamus, Carmel and Fintan, who died in early childhood. Granny ignored her other grandchildren, having time only for her pet, “Bren,” whom she festooned in frilly shirts before unleashing him on the neighborhood to gather gossip. All of this horrified Kathleen, especially since Granny rewarded him with large servings from her teapot… filled with whiskey.

Granny barely tolerated her son Paddy, disliked her son Stephen but more than anything, despised her daughter-in-law. She called her the “ugly wan” while the neighbors, alternately, addressed her as, “Lady Behan” or “Commie Fenian.” Kathleen remained indifferent to all until a local priest asked her for a contribution to help African babies “see the face of God.” This, finally, was too much, “Don’t they have enough gods of their own without ours?” Why, she demanded, didn’t he take up a collection for the children of Dublin who have no shoes? The priest countered, calling her a “Red.” Kathleen corrected, “I’m not red, I’m scarlet.”

The children may have slept six to a bed but their evenings were filled with music and books. Kathleen sang ballads or arias from her huge repertoire of over 1000 songs or the family would read – aloud – Greek classics, Irish drama and poetry, the works of Zola, Dickens, and Karl Marx. More than anything, they talked of freedom and rebellion. Kathleen took her young brood on walking tours of Dublin visiting the haunts both Ireland’s writers and rebels. She showed them the sea.

When Granny English died in 1935, her tenements were condemned and her will gave the go-by to the Behans as she left her hefty fortune to her bedmate, Paddy. The family moved to a suburb, Crumlin, which Kathleen said looked like a “a place where people eat their dead.” The situation got worse during the Depression of the 1930s when the Behans were starving, once forced to dine on a pin cushion stuffed with oatmeal. Still, the house was filled with lively talk as a steady stream of visitors – union agitators, anarchists, IRA men and communists – came to call. Locals would identify their house simply as the “Kremlin.”

The Behan offspring received their mother’s political ideology – her stories and songs permeated their consciousness and work. Dominic, playwright, poet, singer and songwriter wrote what would become an international anthem, “The Patriot Game.” Brian, author of several books and plays, was a radical trade unionist in London whose strikes included a bricklayers’ shutdown where he denied entry to outsiders, including the queen.

But it was her son Brendan, genius and wildman, who became one of the 20th century’s most legendary writers. Brendan joined the IRA at 16 then took it upon himself to bomb England – alone. Arrested in Liverpool on explosives charges, he was sentenced to three years in a British reformatory or “borstal.” There he wrote his mother that her hatred of the English fired his passion: “It is entirely attributable to yourself that I am here.” His stint in the borstal and later, an Irish prison, inspired The Borstal Boy (1958) and the hit plays The Quare Fellow (1954) and The Hostage (1957).

The Hostage included an homage to Michael Collins based on one of Kathleen anecdotes. In 1923, the once-close friends accidentally ran into each other on a Dublin street, Kathleen was pregnant with Brendan and her husband in prison for fighting Collins’s Free State Army. Her “Laughing Boy,” not one to hold a grudge, slipped Kathleen a lifesaving 10-pound note; 35 years later, her son, remembering this kindness, wrote a song “Laughing Boy” for The Hostage. It ended, “I’ll praise your name and guard your fame, my own dear laughing boy.”

Because of his talent, Brendan became instantly famous and because of his drinking, instantly infamous. Formerly a talking/drinking/fighting fixture of Dublin pubs, he now took his act on the road, carousing and getting arrested in London, Paris, and New York. The world, it seemed, always forgave him – he was gifted and he was as lovable as he was outrageous. Many times he wandered onstage during Broadway performances of The Hostage, improvising dialogue, delighting the audiences and the cast.

Even at the peak of his fame, Brendan would drag the rich and famous, the down and out, to Mother’s house to partake in her gargantuan (and, by all accounts, none-too-tasty) pot of Irish stew. In front of this captivated audience Kathleen would entertain with her beautiful voice, her performances now flourished with elaborate hand gestures and dance steps.

At the age of 41, Brendan died of alcoholism. His mother kept a vigil by his hospital bed, briefly reprieved by a nun who adjusted his pillows and wished him a blessing. Brendan, always partial to nuns, opened one eye. “Thank you, Sister, and may all your sons be bishops,” he said, and died. Kathleen returned to find that her son was gone or as she put it, “his race was run.” She wrote of this moment in her autobiography, a universal keen of every mother who’s outlived a child, “My little poet, my heart, my life. I had seven sons, then one died, but still I thought I had six to carry my coffin. Now there were five. There is no love like a mother’s.” Many years later, as Kathleen was planning her own funeral, she insisted that a song be sung, a family favorite that echoes the wild and fearless spirit of all the Behans:

Hey ho slainte the revelry,

The singing and dancing and drinking so merrily,

Red nights, which we will never see again

For down in the village we tarried too long. 

Twenty years after his death, a new biography of Brendan Behan was published revealing his homosexual activities. His compatriots, fans and friends were outraged at the disclosures. Not so his mother, who loved the biography and relished the sexual content, finding it, well, gay. She traveled to London to celebrate the book’s publication and sang heartily at the launch party, upstaging and outsinging Dominic. The crowd loved her.

At last, Kathleen’s time arrived. She took her singing and storytelling public, was on the radio, BBC and RTÉ television. She recorded a folk album and wrote her autobiography, which was later made into a popular play, Mother of All the Behans. Now she was famous in her own right. It took her until she was in her mid-90s, but finally, Kathleen Kearney Behan was the star she was always meant to be. ♦

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