As John Hewitt fans prepare to celebrate the poet's birthday on 28 October, a new book of his memoirs describes an encounter he had with the writer Brendan Behan in Belfast. We thought it timely to reproduce this vivid extract ahead of the play Brendan at the Chelsea returning to the Lyric.
I was undressing for bed, my braces off my shoulders, when the telephone rang downstairs. I was asked in a thick Dublin accent ‘Is dat John Hewitt? Ye won’t know me but I’m a friend of Ben Kiely’s. Me name is Behan, Brendan Behan. I’m ringin’ ye to find out if ye could let me have a bed …’ I asked him where he was telephoning from: ‘The top o’ the Falls’, that is, the Catholic side of the city.
In about half an hour the doorbell rang. When I opened it, a burly fellow lurched in, and, in the dim light of the hall, drew out of his pocket and showed me a letter from Radio Eireann to himself, as his visiting card. When we went upstairs to the flat, Roberta was up and had revived the ashes. She asked him if he would like a cup of tea, but as by an odd circumstance we had a single bottle of stout in the cupboard, he took that for preference.
His shoes were splattered with whitewash; his blue suit was crumpled; his open necked shirt not fresh that morning; from his upper lip a piece of sticking plaster hung by a single comer. I inquired about this. ‘Och, John. I ran inta a bit o’bother’, and that was all I ever learned about it. Regarding his shoes, he explained that he was a housepainter by trade, and was in the North, whitewashing lighthouses. This seemed to me so improbable an assertion that I felt instinctively that it could not be other than true: although there are, in fact, no lighthouses ‘up the Falls’.
Once we had established each others’ bona fides by way of cross reference, we settled down, we to listen, and he to talk. And it was soon clear that we were in the company of a master. Many of his stories that evening have since appeared in his published work, and although they may communicate to the reader, I feel, remembering that night and the stout fellow with the fat noble face and the black curls, talking and singing melodiously, effortlessly, as the old mother of James Hogg the Ettrick Shepherd, who said of her own stories and songs that ‘they were made for singing and no’ for reading… An’ the worst thing o’ a’, they’re nouther right spell’d nor right setten down’. But one sustained exercise has not so far to my knowledge been recorded. This was the description of the career of an imaginary young Irish Republican politician in the wee North; the sedition, the speech from the dock refusing to recognize the court; the prison months; the martyr’s home coming; the election, and the refusal to take his seat in Parliament; the taking of his seat and the seizing of the Mace in protest; the suspension; the re-election; and finally the seconding of the Speech to the Throne: each of these stages fully documented with news flashes, speeches, appropriate songs. And the whole performance, rich in its comedy, had also the cynical edge of one who knows how the bright ideals tarnish in the common air of day. We went back to bed about three o’clock.
In the morning by common agreement we let Brendan stay in bed; but talking over breakfast, we both thought that, although he had said nothing, he would very likely be hard up. So I left a ten shilling note with Roberta to give him if it seemed appropriate. When I returned at lunch time our guest had gone. He had had his breakfast, and when Roberta was ironing he had sat and chatted for awhile; then, suddenly, without warning, he leaped to his feet, grabbed her hand and shook it, said ‘T’anks a million’ and fled downstairs. Roberta was very put out that she had not had a chance to give him the note, and kept on reproaching herself for not asking bluntly if he stood in need of it.
Then a couple of days later, Brendan telephoned us from Dublin to thank us for our hospitality. This pleased us greatly, for nowadays the old custom of the bread and butter letter is dying out, and to have this courtesy from the great talker was more than we had expected. That overnight stay in its way became a little legend, which came back to us enhanced by its journey: one version ran that when Brendan rang me first, I asked where he was, and sent my car for him. At that time we had no car. The second version was that we not only sent the car for him, but pressed a five pound note in his hand when he departed. It is strangely flattering and embarrassing to have been given out as more generous than in fact you are.
Extract kindly reproduced from John Hewitt’s A North Light. Twenty-five Years in a Municipal Museum. eds. Frank Ferguson and Kathryn White (Four Courts Press, 2013; pp. 236-8).
Frank Ferguson and Kathryn White are both lecturers in the School of English and History at the University of Ulster and are both involved with the Ulster Poetry Project.