A splendidly uncivil servant

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The Independent Online
BEATRICE BEHAN has gone to God, departing this earth peacefully in her sleep. She was an excellent woman, born with the splendidly Norman name of ffrench-Salkend, which she translated into Behan when she met her fate in, as I recall it, Grafton Street in Dublin. Another version has it that her father, an eminent painter, brought Brendan home after being captivated by his company in a public house. Brendan was in the trade himself at the time, being a house painter by profession.

I had no sooner mentioned Beatrice down in Torula's, a wine bar and restaurant in Dalkey, than Basil, who is as frequent a customer there as I am myself, produced a letter which he happened to have on his person. It is dated 9 August 1950, and addressed to the Irish Lights Office, Dublin. As it contains perhaps the most fulsome stream of compliments ever paid to a great writer, I do not mind quoting it here.

'Sir,' it reads, 'I have to report the painter B Behan absent from his work all day yesterday and not returning to station until 1.25am this morning. No work has been carried out by him yesterday. I also have to report that his attitude here is one of careless indifference and no respect for Commissioners' property. 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 store door. His language is filthy and he is not amenable to any law and order.

'He has ruined the wall surface of one wall in No 1 Dwelling by burning. He mixes putty, paint, etc with his bare hands and wipes off nothing. The paint 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.

'He is the worst specimen I have met in 30 years' service. I urge his dismissal from the job now before good material is rendered useless and the place ruined.

'Your obedient servant D Blakely, Principal Keeper, St John's Point Lighthouse, Co Down.'

I wonder what Brendan was doing (apart from neglecting government property) in Co Down in 1950? Some lapse of security, surely, as he had just been released from custody in the republic under an IRA amnesty and Co Down was, and still is, in the United Kingdom. There is work here, I think, for a competent biographer. My friend Garech Browne, who was often host to Brendan at Luggala, tells me that there were several of his house-painting colleagues present at Beatrice's funeral. (I was absent in Cork; I have, in any case, buried quite enough friends in the last year to be getting on with.)

The interior geography at Luggala is intricate and can be baffling to newcomers. (A particular hazard is the Passage Room, through which it is necessary to pass while en route to other bedrooms. Mary Finnegan recalls having to avert her eyes from an act of congress there while going about her business. 'When I came back,' she swears, 'the same fellow was at it, only it was an entirely different woman under him.')

I fell down the stairs there in the middle of the night, seeking easement, and banged up against the door at the bottom. 'How strange,' said Garech. 'Brendan did exactly the same thing, but he was wedged there all night, for Beatrice was fast asleep and couldn't hear him roaring.'

They are now, I hope and presume, in heavenly conjunction, and Beatrice well able to hear Brendan roaring, if that is still his habit.

ST PATRICK'S DAY came and went peacefully enough. I went out to Luggala to enjoy it while I still may. We have the peculiar custom here of expressing our veneration for the national saint by pretending it is Sunday. This means, principally, that the pubs are shut between the hours of two and four and a veil is drawn over those departments of supermarkets that sell booze. I find this a particular inconvenience as these are the hours when thirst is most likely to strike me. Most of our politicians leave the country this day also, largely to beg for money from Americans or Australians. This I do not find in the least inconvenient.

My friend Allanah Hopkin has written an excellent biography of the saint, wherein she reveals there may have been two of him, as his recorded lifetime spans more than is given to mortals. He was a Welshman from Northumberland with rough manners and indifferent Latin. The direct antecedent of another friend, John de Courcy, stole his bones and those of St Bridget. The family has had no luck since. Patrick's feast is timed precisely so as to give us a break in Lent. This being the case, it seems perverse to me to devote two hours of it to teetotalism, but then I have never understood the mentality of politicians, or publicans or policemen, either.