Behan is widely regarded as one of the greatest Irish writers and poets of all time. He is also an Irish republican and a volunteer in the Irish Republican Army (IRA). Born in Dublin into a staunchly republican family, he becomes a member of the IRA’s youth organisation Fianna Éireann at the age of fourteen. However, there is also a strong emphasis on Irish history and culture in the home, which means he is steeped in literature and patriotic ballads from an early age. Behan eventually joins the IRA at sixteen, which leads to his serving time in a borstal youth prison in the United Kingdom. He is also imprisoned in Ireland. During this time, he takes it upon himself to study and he becomes a fluent speaker of the Irish language. Subsequently released from prison as part of a general amnesty given by the Fianna Fáil government in 1946, Behan moves between homes in Dublin, Kerry, and Connemara, and also resides in Paris for a time.
In 1954, Behan’s first play, The Quare Fellow, is produced in Dublin. It is well received, however, it is the 1956 production at Joan Littlewood‘s Theatre Workshop in Stratford, London, that gains Behan a wider reputation. This is helped by a famous drunken interview on BBC television. In 1958, Behan’s play in the Irish language, An Giall, has its debut at Dublin’s Damer Theatre. Later, The Hostage, Behan’s English-language adaptation of An Giall, meets with great success internationally. Behan’s autobiographical novel, Borstal Boy, is published the same year and becomes a worldwide best-seller.
He marries Beatrice Ffrench-Salkeld in 1955. By early March 1964, after developing diabetes, the end is in sight. Collapsing at the Harbour Lights bar, he is transferred to the Meath Hospital in central Dublin, where he dies at the age 41 on March 20, 1964. He is given an IRA guard of honour, which escorts his coffin. It is described by several newspapers as the biggest funeral since those of Michael Collins and Charles Stewart Parnell.