Wednesday, May 13, 2015

Brendan Behan: The Anglo Irish

by Richard Mellor
Afscme Local 444, retired

I post this short commentary from Brendan Behan mostly for my own pleasure.  The Irish were colonized by the British long before India and Africa. They became, like the Native Americans here in the USA, landless and without rights in their own country, on their own land.

Oppression breeds great art simply because human creativity and yearning for freedom cannot be suppressed in the real sense, it comes out in any way it can. The jackboot's heel can be on the neck and the face thrust deeply in to the mud but the drive for dignity and for expressing it cannot be eradicated. Brendan Behan was a great Irish writer.

I worked for years on road gangs with mostly Irish immigrants. They were, like the Mexicans and other Latino's from our US southern border, rural people and this was in the 1960's.  They were often illiterate or semi illiterate the men I worked with.  Many had never left their villages in Ireland before being driven abroad to find work.  They were not sophisticated and liked the drink.  I used to make breakfast in the wagon we towed as we laid sewer pipe through the English countryside. I heard so may tails at that table I learned of bacoon and even bacooneen and sometimes bacooneenadn.  "Where does it stop?" I wondered to myself.

Their language, or should I say, their English language which is not their native language was littered with the most colorful and beautiful expressions, some of the most beautiful English I have ever heard spoken.  Like the old black blues guys who came to England and told the history of their existence in the apartheid US South through song, country blues, Mississippi Delta blues, the "Black White and Brown" that Big Bill Broonzy sang about, those Irish workers I worked with taught history through tales of life back home and humor.  The blues, what are often political songs and the tales and humorous anecdotes I heard every day are, historical accounts of life whether in the US or Ireland or as immigrants in a foreign country.

Doherty, who operated the backhoe or JCB as we called them, said maybe two or three times a day to himself but for us all to hear, "Have you ever been to Manchester?"  We waited with baited breath for the reply, "No, but I passed through it with a cable." This was a reference to those who worked laying cable and working so hard pulling that line that you could go through a major city and not notice it. "Up with the shlack" was another expression describing this line of work.

We were re-sodding a lawn we had damaged as we laid pipe through this village.  It was a fancy home, the residence of some rural petty bourgeois.  The ganger man was impatient.  The backhoe operator was taking his time bringing us new sod we had to lay pretty quick as it was pissing down rain.  Suddenly Doherty appeared on his big yellow machine.  The ganger man was no happier, "Look at Charlie shnailing along." he says to me.  Shnailing, now that's pretty slow, such descriptive power.

Behan once described himself as , "a drinker with a writing problem" and is also said to have commented, "I only drink on two occasions—when I'm thirsty and when I'm not". Alcoholism is a tragic disease but it doesn't always suppress artistic genius.

Not thought much about this post just watched Borstal Boy though, a film based on Behan's book of the same name. I preferred the book which is usually the case.  Watching it reminded me of those days laying sewers through the English countryside and the craic that kept us going.

Ireland has changed dramatically since the sixties and it should not be forgotten that it is the 500 year occupation of the Island by the English that prevented Ireland from developing a modern capitalist economy up to that point.

That work was hard and very unsafe as there was no hint of unions. I was young it was not so bad. I was strong enough then.  The Irish have songs about building up and tearing England down like this verse from a song of the same name:

In the tunnel underground
A young Limmerick man was found
He was built into the New Victoria Line
When the bonus gang had past
Sticking from the concrete cast
Was the face of little Charlie Joe Devine
A ganger named McGirck
Made Paddy hate the work
When a gas-main burst he flew off the ground
Oh they swore he said gone slack
I won't be there until I'm back
Keep on building up and tearing England down

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