Publication details

Reimagining Carceral Tradition in Brendan Behan’s Borstal Boy


LITTLE James Joseph

Year of publication 2018
Type Appeared in Conference without Proceedings
MU Faculty or unit

Faculty of Arts

Description Reflecting on his time incarcerated in Arbour Hill in Confessions of an Irish Rebel (1965), Brendan Behan mentions the 1916 leaders buried there: ‘I knew their names and all belonging to them as well as I knew my own.’ In another memoir, Borstal Boy (1958), Behan’s references to writing by and about Wolfe Tone, Thomas Clarke and Roger Casement—as well as his short-lived co-option of Oscar Wilde as an ‘Irish rebel’—make clear the extent to which Behan’s work is influenced by the tradition of Irish nationalist prison literature. Nevertheless, this is a tradition whose representation of masculinity Behan continually subverts. In an early draft, Behan compares his sex life with the ‘borstal boys’ of Hollesley Bay Borstal to that described in T. E. Lawrence’s Seven Pillars of Wisdom. Like Lawrence, Behan redacted explicitly homosexual material from his published text. Behan would have been aware of the legal risks of publishing such material, particularly given his mentor Seán O’Faoláin’s protest in the early 1940s against the banning of Kate O’Brien’s Land of Spices for indecency. Lawrence’s text, I argue, provided a discursive model for Behan as he redrafted the gendered dynamics of nationalist carceral space while drafting Borstal Boy in the 1940s and 50s. Taking into account Behan’s avant-textes alongside his social and political contexts, this paper contends that, in its reimagining of carceral tradition, Borstal Boy can give us a new understanding of the political dynamics of gender and sexuality in mid-century Ireland.
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