Brendan Behan’s (Dublin, 1923-1964) Paris adventures stretch over several stays of varying length, the first one in 1948. Unfortunately, many of the accounts of his Paris sojourns go little beyond presenting Behan as a boozing anarchist intent on self-destruction. And some of the material is of questionable veracity. Did he actually make friends with Albert Camus, as Ulick O’Connor writes? And what are we to make of Behan’s own claims that he was a pimp at Harry’s Bar “procuring French girls for rich Americans on commission” (True, years later, when on a trip to Montreal, he introduced himself as “un ancien maquereau de Paris”.)? What seems more certain is that he spent seven months as a house painter in the French capital, living for a time on the rue des Feuillantines (5th arrondissement). Behan claimed as much in a hilarious interview that he gave to French radio at the time, a recording of which luckily still survives. Behan also wrote articles for the Irish press.
He arrived in Paris in August 1948 as a guest of Samuel Beckett's young cousin, John, in a room at the Grand Hôtel des Principautés Unies (2nd arrondissement Now the very swish Hôtel Luxembourg Parc, the American writer William Faulkner had stayed in the same establishment in 1925). However, after a couple of weeks, Beckett turned Behan out because of the latter's drunkenness and tendency to "spit on the floor", according to Brian Farrington. Behan was thus forced to find his own lodgings in the rue des Feuillantines (5th arrondissement). John Beckett, a composer, had his own eccentricities. Farrington tells us that he thought "that the safest way to cross the Paris streets..was to walk with your eyes shut."
Before coming to France, Behan had spent time in prison in Manchester for his part in a plot to spring some IRA men from prison. Unable to settle back in Ireland and barred from setting foot in the U.K., Paris seemed the nearest alternative. Shortly after his arrival, he added a French police cell to his collection, when he was arrested one night for being drunk and disorderly (Samuel Beckett bailed him out). But did he really paint a sign for a café in the Latin Quarter that read ‘The best fucking bar in Paris’ ?
While in Paris, aside from claiming to having written pornography for a living, Behan tried to offload a number of poems on Sinbad Vail, son of Peggy Guggenheim and editor of a literary magazine called Points. Vail described Behan thus: “(He) drifted all over Paris and in the end, I fear, he bored everybody who wanted to help him…(He) was awfully boring and abusive, insulting his friends, smashing their furniture and destroying pictures on the walls. In the end, most of us thought he was just a bloody, drunken show-off Irishman, the sort that is caricatured, and I think now he must have wallowed in it.” Other Parisian residents were more indulgent of Behan's behaviour and his story telling, including Norman Mailer, who bought him ham and eggs at the Café Pergola on the day he sold 'The Naked and the Dead'. Among the stories Behan told the American Stanley Karnow during their pub crawls was that he had earned a mint painting lighthouses on remote Irish islands. "Whether he was telling the truth scarcely mattered. I was mesmerized by his eloquence and listened to him spellbound," wrote Karnow.
Behan possibly found some sort of inspiration in Paris, though one doesn’t know whether he was sober when he wrote the following piece of doggerel, called Thanks to James Joyce (translated from the Irish by Ulick O’Connor):
Here in the rue Saint André des Arts
Plastered in an Arab tavern,
I explain you to an eager Frenchman
Ex-GIs and a drunken Russian.
Of all you write I explain each part,
Drinking Pernod in France because of your art.
As a writer we’re proud of you –
And thanks for the Calvados we gain through you.
If I were you
And you were me,
Coming from Les Halles
Roaring, with a load of cognac,
Belly full, on the tipple,
A verse or two in my honour you’d scribble.
In 1950, Behan undertook another trip through France, including a stop in Paris, in the company of Anthony Cronin. Behan had only £40 in his pocket—money he had received for the film rights to one of his short stories—but since it was a Marian Year, the two of them hoped to get down to Rome by living on their wits and claiming they were “deux Irlandaises en perinage à Rome” (sic.). During their short stopover in Paris, they stayed at the Grand Hôtel des Balcons on the rue Casimir Delavigne (6th arrondissement) and hitch-hiked through France, usually cadging a place to sleep from the local parish priest. The journey was not easy. Like countless Irishmen before and since, Behan found out that many French "wouldn't give you the steam off their piss". But they made it as far as Briançon in the French Alps before Behan turned back for Paris, where he fortuitously met up with Cronin again. They went to the Irish Embassy for repatriation money, which they swiftly drunk, and slept at the Hôtel d’Alsace in the rue des Beaux-Arts (6th arrondissement, the hotel where Oscar Wilde had died in 1900) because of its “reputation at being liberal with its credit”.
Brian Farrington, in his autobiography, mentions that he met Behan in Paris in 1952. Behan had been officially to represent Ireland "at some cultural jamboree at UNESCO". Farrington met Behan at an establishment called Le Bouillon de Buci at the corner of rue de Buci and rue de Seine (6th arrondissement). Farrington was impressed by Behan's ability "to talk easily to all and sundry, while making next to no concessions to the normal rules of French grammar and vocabulary". Behan travelled again to Paris on a number of occasions in the late 1950s and early 1960s. He honeymooned in Paris with his new wife, Beatrice, in 1955, and he saw 'The Hostage' triumph at the Théâtre de l'Odéon in 1959, where it won first prize at the Festival du Théâtre des Nations. According to his own account, on one of his last visits to the French capital, he made it out to Orly to grab an Air France flight back to Dublin. Alas, by the time the airplane took off Behan had had the “odd jar”. No sooner had the airplane gained height than it was caught in a storm and crossed a patch of severe turbulence. Behan panicked, went mad, and wouldn’t sit strapped in his seat. Unable to control the Irishman, the pilot decided to return to Orly where Behan was detained by the airport police. The following day, the French press reported that an Irish author had been borne off the airplane expressing virulent anti-French feelings and hollering “I’m not ready to die for France.” No doubt anxious not to be seen to slight the French nation, Behan later tried to correct this version slighlty, claiming what he had said was “I’m not ready to die for Air France.”
Behan's wife, Beatrice, gives a somewhat different account of the whole Orly incident. The plane, she says, was destined for London and it was forced to turn back not because of Brendan's antics but because the aircraft's radio aerial had been struck by lightning. Back at Orly, according to Beatrice, Behan caused a ruction when Air France refused to refund his ticket. For his troubles, he ended up spending a night in a police cell in Choisy-le-Roi where he taught Colonel Bogey to two fellow detainees. "We sang it all night just to annoy the screws," he said.
Brendan Behan My Life with Brendan (1973)
Beatrice Behan (with Des Hickey and Gus Smith)
Confessions of an Irish Rebel (1965)
Dead as Doornails: A Chronicle of Life (1976)
Brendan Behan (1970)
Paris in the 'Fifties (1997)
A Rich Soup with Additional Material (2010)