On March 13th 1961, a beaming Brendan Behan and his somewhat less enthusiastic wife Beatrice arrived in New York on the Cunard Liner Queen Elizabeth. As the ship docked at Pier 90 near West 50th Street on the North River, a photographer from the Daily News captured him, calmly sipping tea and smoking a cigar. “I’m off the drink for Lent,” he told reporters, “and for breadth too!”
That the paparazzo felt him worthy of this attention at all speaks volumes about the type of celebrity he had become during his previous sojourn in the city. If the shot is very much a portrait of the artist in repose, it was to be at odds with so much of what happened to him for the rest of his stay.
Once they heard he was coming back to town, the Gaelic Society of Fordham University had invited him to march in the St. Patrick’s Day parade in Manhattan that Friday. Just like tens of thousands of Irish and Irish-Americans were due to do. Except, there was one slight problem. Behan was regarded as radioactive by the organisers of the event. They’d seen the havoc he’d wreaked across the city over the previous autumn, endured the constant negative headlines, and moved quickly to ban him from marching. The Gaelic Society of Fordham was disinvited too.
“We have a semi-religious, almost sacred feeling about this parade,” said James J. Comerford, a Justice of the Court of Special Sessions, a member of the parade organising committee, and a Fordham alumnus. “We don’t want a personality who has been advertised so extensively as a common drunk.”
Those who knew him would have expected nothing less from Comerford. A judge who used to denounce critics of his draconian sentencing as “liberal liberals”, New York magazine once described him as “a stern and sour arbiter of morals, given to tough sentences (30 years and 30 Hail Marys!) – a no-nonsense man whose vision of right and wrong is as clear as Waterford glass.”
The irony is that Behan and Comerford had a lot in common. Both had enjoyed paramilitary careers with the Irish Republican Army as young men before going on to achieve greater renown without weapons in their hands. Born on the family farm in Coolraheen, County Kilkenny in 1901, Comerford joined the F Company Third Battalion of the Kilkenny Brigade of the IRA at the age of 16, reaching the rank of captain before his 21st birthday.
“We heard through the grapevine that all Behan wanted to do was get in the parade and then break out of it at the reviewing stand to shake hands with Cardinal Spellman,” said Comerford. “He thought this was a way to get his book sanctified.”
Well, if Behan did want publicity for his book (which hardly needed it given the American edition of “Borstal Boy” had sold 20,000 copies in just one month), he got plenty of it via the decision to stop him from marching. During the one time of year when all things Irish are in vogue in the American media, the New York papers suddenly had a good old-fashioned ruckus, some ethnic infighting punctuated by colourful intervals of public name-calling.
“By Jaysus,” said Behan of the parade organisers, “they’d put years on you with their plastic shamrocks and their green socks,”
Willy Brandt, the Mayor of West Berlin, was the esteemed guest of honour for the parade but his presence was reduced to the status of a sideshow by the Behan row.
“While the parade committee was beckoning Herr Brandt with one hand,” wrote the New York Times, “it was barring Brendan Behan the Irish playwright with the other.”
Once news broke of his expulsion, the invitations started to come in from parade organisers in other cities. Boston was quick off the mark, so too Holyoke, a town in Western Massachusetts initially settled by emigrants from Dingle and once known as Ireland Parish. London, Ontario made an attempt to bring him north of the border. In the end, he opted for somewhere closer to his temporary home.
“We’re not running a high-brow silk stocking Irish event,” said Edward Casey, chairman of the Jersey City St. Patrick’s Day festivities when Behan accepted their offer to receive the key to the city on March 17th. “We have a quart of milk ready for him. If he doesn’t want to drink it straight, he can use it in his tea.”
Of course, Behan wasn’t done with the crowd in New York yet. He threatened to march anyway, regardless of the ban, joking that he’d opt out before the reviewing stand in case Comerford spotted him and gave him “six months”. It says much for his standing in the country that Newsweek magazine offered him a platform to address the controversy. He didn’t hold back with his retaliation. The polemic included an attack on Irish-Americans for their attitude to March 17th…
“…I suppose there are some prudish people in America, just like everywhere. They want to look like Queen Victoria’s husband. If someone drank a glass of Irish whiskey or stout, it would do a lot of good for the old country, rather than hanging shamrocks around your ears…”
Then, there was his trademark gag laced with bitterness…..
“…I now have a new theory on what happened to the snakes when St Patrick drove them out of Ireland. They came to New York and became judges…”
And the inevitable show of erudition…
“…I recommend the judge to read the Confessions of St Patrick, in which he said, ‘the honest man must walk as warily as a deer, not so much for fear of the enemies of Christianity as for fear of those who pretend to be better Christians than the Apostles’. I do not set myself up as an Apostle but I think that I can afford to be more open with my sinfulness than Judge Comerford…”
The press loved the whole brouhaha. Well, most of them did. In a sign that perhaps the city, or at least some of its most prominent residents, was tiring of the Behan show, the New York Daily News took the side of the parade organisers in an editorial on March 16th.
“For our part, we’re glad Justice Comerford thumbed Behan to the sidelines,” went the piece. “Tomorrow’s parade should be much the better for the absence of a show-off whose antics, frankly, are threatening to become as boring as Lady Loverley’s chatter…Jersey City can have him.”
An estimated 125,000 marched up Fifth Avenue on St. Patrick’s Day. The sky overhead was pristine blue but a cold breeze whipped along the city streets, ensuring the parade before a reviewing party of Mayor Brandt, Cardinal Spellman and New York’s own Mayor Robert F. Wagner moved at pace. The crowds gathered to watch could often be seen marching on the spot to try to keep warm. Behan was not among them. He was on his way to Jersey, travelling in a Cadillac that he felt “befits my station”. Of his journey across the river, he later remarked: ”At one end of the Holland Tunnel lies freedom. I choose it.”
On the steps of Jersey City Hall, a large group had gathered, mostly men in suits and fedoras, some holding up “Welcome Behan” signs like groupies at an election rally as Behan posed somewhat sheepishly for photographers as he collected his prize, the key to the city, from Mayor Charles Witkowski. Beatrice stood between them, a fur stole draped over her shoulders, her handbag in front of her, as the cameras flashed.
“This has moved me more than I can say. This is the best St. Patrick’s Day ever for me,” said Behan to reporters covering his appearance. “Maybe I should send a note of thanks to those in New York for not letting me wear myself out marching so I could be over here enjoying myself. The people of New Jersey made up for it. New Jersey is the Latin Quarter of New York. New York is the duller part.”
In some of the photographs taken that day, Behan, wearing a garish green tie under his suit, is captured waving a 100-year old Blackthorn shillelagh stick in the air. Indeed, at one juncture, he posed near the Jersey docks, pointing across the river, cocking a snoot at New York in the background. Following the key-giving ceremony, the party moved on for luncheon at Casino-in-the-Park where Behan gave his audience the type of performance they expected. After the food, the singing started and, despite drinking nothing stronger than Club Soda, he delivered several of his party-pieces, including “Molly Malone”, much to the delight of all present.
“His cousin, Paul Bourke, who lived in New Jersey, drove us across for the ceremony and Brendan entered into the celebrations as though he were at the White House,” wrote Beatrice Behan much later. “He could count Irish-Americans among his friends, but I knew by now that the attitude of some of them annoyed him.”
They knew that too.
- excerpt from Behan in the USA: The Rise and Fall of the Most Famous Irishman in New York.