Brian Behan

Martin Spellman mspellman at
Wed Nov 6 10:40:23 MST 2002

Obituary of Brian Behan who died a few days ago and one of his better known
songs. He also wrote 'McAlpine's Fusiliers'


Oh, I won a hero's name with McAlpine and Costain
With Fitzpatrick, Murphy, Ash and the Wimpey's gang
I've been often on the road on me way to draw the dole
When there's nothing left to do for Johnny Laing
And I used to think that God made the mixer, pick and hod
So a Paddy might know hell above the ground
I've had ganger's big and tough
Tell me "tear that hole out rough!"
When you're building up and tearing England down

In a tunnel underground a young Limerick man was found
He was built into the new Victoria line
When the bonus gang had passed sticking from the concrete cast
Was the face of little Charlie Joe Divine
And the ganger man McGurk said "Big Paddy ates the work"
When the gas main blew and he flew off the ground
Oh they swore he'd send down slack
I'll not be there until I'm back
Keep on building up and tearing England down

I was on the shuttering jam on the day that Jack McCann
Got the better of his stammer in a week
He fell from the shuttering jam
And that poor old stuttering man
He was never ever more inclined to speak
And I saw old Balls McColl with a big flyover fall
Into a concrete mixer spinning round
Though it wasn't his intent he got a fine head of cement
When he was building up and tearing England down

I remember Carrier Jack with his hod upon his back
How he swore one day he'd set the world on fire
Well his face they've never seen
Since his shovel it cut clean
To the middle of the big high tension wires
Oh the more like Robin Hood he rode through Cricklewood
Or dance around the pubs in Camdon Town
Oh but let no man proclaim sure old Pat could die in vain
When he's building up and tearing England down

So come all you navvy's bold
Do not think that English gold
Is just waiting to be taken from each sod
Oh the likes of you and me will never get the OBE
Or a knighthood for good service to the hod
It's the concrete master race
That would keep you in your place
And a ganger man to kick you to the ground
If you ever try to take part of what the bosses make
When you're building up and tearing England down

Brian Behan
· Brian Behan, writer, born November 10 1926; died November 2 2002
Writer and self-publicist who revelled in his family's rebellious reputation

Martin Green Tuesday November 5, 2002 The Guardian

Courageous, contentious and exhilarating, the writer and playwright Brian
Behan, who has died aged 75 following a heart attack, never missed the
opportunity to remind the world who and where he was; this could include
plunging naked into the sea in Brighton to the consternation of elderly
ladies, and thus, on one occasion, triggering the mobilisation of a rescue
helicopter. In 1984, he published Mother Of All The Behans, "an
autobiography of Kathleen Behan as told to Brian Behan", a delightful memoir
of that most extraordinary family. This was turned into an award-winning
one-woman show.

His enthusiasm for self-proclamation also led to a series of dramatisations
in which he played various parts himself. There was The Begrudgers, set in
postwar Dublin, about the literary rivalry between Brendan Behan, Brian
O'Nolan and Patrick Kavanagh; Brother Of All The Behans; and Barking Sheep.

His also wrote two novels, neither of which attracted as much attention as
his personal escapades - Time To Go (1979), and Kathleen (1988), inspired by
his mother. Two years later, his play, Boots For The Fearless, was performed
at the Tricycle theatre in London. His satirical play, Hallelujah I'm a Bum
(1995), depicting a Conservative prime minister having a homosexual
relationship with his minister for the family, aroused an appropriate level
of media attention.

Brian was born four years after his most famous brother, the playwright
Brendan, and two years before the slightly less famous Dominic, into a
family of staunch Irish republicans. There was also a sister, Carmel, and
two step-brothers. During the 1916 Easter Rising in Dublin, Brian's mother
had acted as a courier for James Connolly and Padraig Pearse. She lost her
first husband in the 1918 influenza epidemic, and married Brian's father,
Stephen, in 1922.

The family fortunes were in a state of flux; following a removal to a
crowded open-hall tenement in Russell Street, north Dublin, the children
slept six to a bed. In 1937, Brian, who recalled that he took up "the cause
of anarcho-syndicalism at an early age", was sent to Artane industrial
school, run by the Christian Brothers, after an incident of petty thieving.
He said the Brothers scarred him for life. He then had a stint with the
Irish Army construction corps.

In 1950, he went to London with three shillings and four pence (17p) in his
pocket; England was, he wrote in his 1964 autobiography, With Breast
Expanded, the land of "big money and small shovels". He became a hod
carrier. An active trade unionist, his campaigning, while working on the
Festival of Britain building site, earned him a brief spell in prison in
1951 - as did his later efforts, in 1958, on the nearby Shell Centre site.

He joined the British Communist party, and became an executive member -
though even on a party tour, during which, he said, he met Stalin and Mao
Zedong, he was unimpressed by Eastern Europe, the Soviet Union and China. He
was slightly disconcerted by the amount of work women appeared to be doing
while the menfolk were attending meetings, and was deeply depressed by
Russia, which he thought very Victorian - and non-revolutionary.

In 1956, Brian left the Communist party following the suppression of the
Hungarian uprising, and moved on to the Socialist Labour League, a
Trotskyist group then being set up by an authoritarian fellow Irishman,
Gerry Healy. Behan was seen as a significant recruit - he became the group's
secretary - but it was not to last. Like many others, he was expelled for
"deviation ism". Healy, he observed, was "bald, with the little sore eyes of
a new-born pig".

I first met Brian in 1964, when I was working for MacGibbon & Kee, the
publishers of his memoirs. This came about because the chief editor, Timothy
O'Keeffe, had previously been the publisher of Brendan Behan's Borstal Boy.
Brian and I became great friends, and I was a frequent visitor when he moved
to a houseboat in Shoreham, with his hospitable first wife, Celia.

Brian had suffered some minor arm injury, which put an end to his career in
the construction industry. With his skill as a bricklayer removed, I
suggested he might become a mature student at Sussex University - and he
did. From 1969, he read history and English, before taking a teaching
course, which, in time and turn, led to a lectureship in media studies at
the London College of Printing, from 1973 until 1990.

During those years, Brian once brought his mother - who died in 1984 - to my
local pub, the Hope, in Tottenham Street, central London. There, she
enchanted a large group of admirers with part of her huge repertoire of
songs, many of which had been passed on to Brendan and Dominic.

The publicity instinct never deserted Brian. As recently as last year,
following a brisk television exchange with Germaine Greer, he announced that
he was setting up an anti-marriage society.

Brian and Celia had three daughters. By his second wife, the artist Sally
Hill, who died two years ago, he had a son and daughter.

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