Dominic Behan

Dominic Behan
Doiminic Ó Beacháin
Born (1928-10-22)22 October 1928
Dublin, Ireland
Died 3 August 1989(1989-08-03) (aged 60)
Glasgow, Scotland
Occupation Writer
Nationality Irish
Period 1959–89
Genre Songwriter, singer, short story writer, novelist, playwright
Subject Irish Republican struggle, Irish culture
Notable works "The Patriot Game", "McAlpine's Fusiliers" (songs)

Dominic Behan (Irish: Doiminic Ó Beacháin; 22 October 1928 – 3 August 1989) was an Irish songwriter, singer, short story writer, novelist and playwright who wrote in both Irish and English. He was also a committed socialist and Irish Republican. Born into a literary family, Dominic Behan was one of the most influential Irish songwriters of the 20th century.


Early life

Behan was born in inner-city Dublin into an educated working-class family. His father, Stephen Behan, fought for the Irish Republican Army (IRA) in the Anglo-Irish War. Dominic was the brother of Brendan Behan. His mother, Kathleen, a collector of songs and stories, took the boys on literary tours of the city. Behan's maternal uncle, Peadar Kearney, wrote "A Soldier's Song", the song the Irish National Anthem was based on. Another brother, Brian was also a playwright and writer.

At the age of thirteen, Dominic left school to follow in his father's footsteps in the housepainting business. The family house in which Behan lived was the property of Christine English, Dominic's grandmother, who owned several properties in the city. His father Stephen, was a member of the IRA and had been one of Michael Collins' "Twelve Apostles", who were responsible for the deaths of several officers from the British Army during the Irish War of Independence. He was banned from a professional future career for refusing to swear allegiance to the British Crown after the Irish civil war.

Republican and political activities

In 1937, the family moved to a new local council housing scheme in Crumlin. Here, Behan became a member of Fianna Éireann, the youth organisation of the IRA and published his first poems and prose in the organisation's magazine Fianna: the Voice of Young Ireland. In 1952, Behan was arrested in Dublin for leading a civil disobedience campaign in protest against the ruling government's failure to tackle unemployment and other critical economic issues. Behan was subsequently jailed for his part in other campaigns protesting the government's treatment of the working class in Ireland.

Behan the writer

On release from jail, Behan moved to Scotland for a time, living with the Scottish poet Hugh MacDiarmid in the South-side of Glasgow; Behan always credited MacDiarmid with much of his early development as a writer, coming to view verse as a more agile medium for his thoughts at that time – it would only be some years later that Behan would write his first play. Whilst living with MacDiarmid, Behan became involved in what is now known as the "Scottish Republican Army", channelling arms from the IRA with whom he had historical links to the SRA. It was during this time that Behan met his future wife, Josephine Quinn, the daughter of John Quinn, a cabinet maker and part-time journalist from Glasgow, and Bridget Quinn who ran a safe house for various revolutionary organisations. It was in Bridget Quinn's house that Behan was first introduced to Josephine Quinn, who married Behan in 1955.

Behan migrated to London, where he found work with the BBC, writing radio scripts, mainly for the Third Programme. His play Posterity Be Damned, produced in the Gaiety Theatre, Dublin, in 1959, dealt with republican activity after the Civil War of 1922–23. An autobiographical novel Teems of Times (1961) was received to critical acclaim, (particularly from the Observer theatre critic Kenneth Tynan, who was uncharacteristically effusive in his praise); the book was subsequently dramatised for television in 1977 by RTÉ. His autobiography, Tell Dublin I Miss Her, was also published in 1961 and sold well in the USA. A biography of his brother entitled My Brother Brendan appeared in 1965, but due to a legal wrangle Behan received virtually none of the proceeds of this book.

During the 1960s and 1970s Behan wrote almost 20 television plays for British television in showcases such as Play for Today and Armchair Theatre. One of these plays, The Folk Singer (1972) – a story that focused on the sectarian roots of the Northern Ireland conflict, was restructured for the theatre and presented during the height of the Troubles at Belfast's Lyric Theatre starring a young Scottish actor Ken Stott.

Behan was a self-educated man whose intellect was such that he numbered many respected thinkers among his friends including the likes of Hugh MacDiarmid the Scots poet with whom he lived for three years, Louis MacNeice who became for a time a writing partner – mostly for the BBC overseas program and H. A. L. Craig the screenwriter who produced the script for the film of Waterloo. Behan did however work in education, having been identified by the Strathclyde Region education dept as the "Writer in residence" for the Region's secondary schools. Behan enjoyed this role for more than five years, as he saw it, helping young talent get recognition and encouragement.


Arguably, it was as a songwriter that Behan excelled. He was a prolific composer and had more than 450 songs published during his lifetime. His songs were very popular in Ireland and also among the Irish living in Britain, especially "The Patriot Game", "McAlpine's Fusiliers", "Avondale", and "Liverpool Lou". In 1958, he released The Singing Streets: Childhood Memories of Ireland and Scotland on Folkways Records along with fellow folksinger Ewan MacColl. Behan, who was unequivocal in the defence of his copyright, publicly accused Bob Dylan of plagiarizing "The Patriot Game" in writing his own "With God on Our Side".[1]

In 2009 The Patriot Game from Easter Week and After: Songs of the IRA originally issued by Topic in 1960 was included in their 70-year anniversary boxed set Three Score and Ten as track twenty-two on the third CD.

Pop culture references

Dave Cousins of the band Strawbs wrote his song "Josephine, for Better or for Worse" in honour of Josephine and Dominic Behan. This song has been recorded several times; the best-known version is on the album Dragonfly by Strawbs in 1970. Bob Dylan's 1963 song "With God on our Side" uses the melody and narrative framework of Behan's "The Patriot Game", as well as being influenced by its theme. The melody, as Behan admitted during a correspondence in The Guardian with Michael Grosvenor Myer, was actually derived from a version of the traditional song known as "The Nightingale", "The Grenadier and the Lady", "The Month of May", &c.

The Liverpool folk/poetry band The Scaffold produced a version of Behan's song "Liverpool Lou" in 1974 which became a top 10 hit in the UK and spawned covers in various languages across Europe. On the original Scaffold pressing, the writing credits were incorrectly attributed to Paul McCartney who had produced the record on behalf of his brother Mike McGear; Behan advised the relevant authorities and had his rights to the song reinstated quickly receiving an apology from McCartney; Behan accepted McCartney's explanation that his mother had sung the song and he thought it was a traditional work. Later pressings of the song were then correctly credited to Behan; the early McCartney-labeled pressings are particularly rare and collectible.

In a well-publicised interview, John Lennon dismissed the 1960s folk scene in his own country, describing it as "College students with pints of beer going hay-nonny nonny" but in the same breath, he praised Behan, from neighbouring Ireland, whom he said he liked.[2] On Desert Island Discs in 2007, Yoko Ono selected Behan's "Liverpool Lou" as her husband had sung it to their son as a lullaby.[3]

Behan is discussed briefly in Bob Dylan's documentary film Dont Look Back but it is clear that the enmity between them was palpable.

Behan's death

Dominic Behan died at home in Glasgow, aged 60, on 3 August 1989 of complications arising from pancreatic cancer, shortly after the publication of his critically acclaimed novel The Public World of Parable Jones. He was survived by his widow Josephine and two sons, Fintan and Stephen. He was cremated in Glasgow and his ashes were scattered at the Royal Canal Dublin, near his birthplace, by May MacGiolla the wife of the Workers' Party of Ireland Dublin West TD Tomas MacGiolla. His oration was given by his lifelong friend Seán Garland, general secretary of the Workers' Party of which Behan had been a staunch supporter for many years.






Standalone poems


  1. Shelton, Robert (1986). No Direction Home: The Life and Music of Bob Dylan. New York: Beech Tree Books. p. 213. ISBN 0-688-05045-X.
  2. "Power To the People", John Lennon and Yoko Ono talk to Robin Blackburn and Tariq Ali for their underground magazine "Red Mole", 21 January 1971.
  3. Yoko Ono on Desert Island Discs, 10 June 2007.
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