Marching to a Drumlin Beat – Frank McNally on Brendan Behan’s ‘mad republican’ from Monaghan

An Irishman’s Diary

In his prison memoir Borstal Boy, the supposedly militant Brendan Behan, rebel teenage son of Dublin, is surprised to find himself outgunned by a "mad republican" from Monaghan named Callan.

That Behan should use the phrase "mad republican" about anyone is itself telling. He was in Borstal for his (failed) attempt to bomb Liverpool during the IRA campaign of 1939.

Callan was in for stealing the overcoat of Harry Lauder, the Scottish vaudeville star: hardly a crime for which you could claim political status.

But once locked up, the coat thief proved himself a fearless soldier of the Republic, to Behan’s repeated discomfort.


The Monaghan man’s talent for annoying prison officials including an uncanny ability to ventriloquise the sound of bagpipes, so that he could play “O’Donnell Abu” in the exercise yard, encouraging prisoners to march while causing consternation among warders, without anyone knowing where the sound was coming from.

In Behan’s account, an innocent inmate from Glasgow was instead collared – “Arrh, you Scotch bastard. Want to play your bleedin’ bagpipes, do you?” – and dragged off to explain himself to the Governor.

A brief silence followed that, until from somewhere the drone resumed: “And then, in despair because we couldn’t help it, our steps tramped in unison and our backs straightened and our heads went up. Callan was at it again.”

Ventriloquising pipes aside, however, the Monaghan man made no secret of his loyalties and was always ready to suffer the consequences. In the carpentry shop one day, when someone criticised the IRA, he went after him with a “wood chisel” and “nearly caused a riot”.

He also liked to shout “U-u-u-up the Rep-u-u-u-ub-lic” from his cell at night, abandoning ventriloquism in favour of a foghorn voice while also calling out his fellow patriot Behan – who was in the cell above – to join in.

This happened one evening as the Dubliner, a voracious reader of anything he could get from the prison library, was settling down for a quiet night with “Mrs Gaskell”, the 19th-century novelist of Victorian manners.

His heart sank when he heard the Farney freedom fighter starting up again and implicating him too.

Eventually, Behan was shamed into contributing a muted “Up the Republic” and “To Hell with the Empire”.

But as warders broke into Callan's cell to administer a kicking, a relieved Behan returned to Mrs Gaskell and had resumed his pose of quiet readership in bed by the time a warder peered in.

What starts as a comic interlude turns into the book’s central epiphany.

Frightened by his early experiences in Walton Jail, Behan had already decided that pragmatism and the need to survive trumped the ideological purities that had brought him to England.

He agreed in principle with “this goddamned Callan” that the Bold Fenian Men still needing avenging. “Yes, but for Christ’s sake not here […] where they could get you kicked to death for a Woodbine, or an extra bit of bread, if they didn’t want the trouble of doing you in more officially.”

Also subversive, in its own way, was the fairness with which most people in Borstal treated Behan, inmates and “screws” alike.

As the world found out later, he was charming company, so they couldn’t help liking him. But that in turn made even the warders hard for him to hate.

I don’t know what became of the infamous Callan afterwards, or even if that was his real name. It’s a common one in Monaghan, especially south Monaghan, Kavanagh Country.

The poet's grandmother was a Nancy Callan. In "A Christmas Childhood", his father's melodion music floats "across the wild bogs […] to Lennons and Callans". And there is even the strangely named townland of Callenberg, which may be no relation but which produced the "Bard of Callenberg", Inniskeen's other 20th-century poet

Kavanagh was certainly no mad republican. His and Behan’s politics differed sharply. And although they were to be comrades of a kind in another movement, the literary one, that relationship too grew strained eventually. The former Borstal Boy became a prisoner of his own popularity in the end: it turned into a death sentence. But in the meantime, he and Kavanagh were mutually allergic.

Behan could have been talking about his future relations with the poet when he described his first encounter with Callan: "Outside the doctor's one morning I met another Irishman. He was from Monaghan and I am ashamed to say that he might [as well] have been from the moon as from Monaghan for all I had in common with him, outside of being for Ireland, against England."