Brendan Behan

“I respect kindness in human beings first of all, and kindness to animals. I don’t respect the law; I have a total irreverence for anything connected with society except that which makes the roads safer, the beer stronger, the food cheaper and the old men and old women warmer in the winter and happier in the summer.” 

Brendan Francis Behan was a novelist, poet, playwright, songwriter and short-story writer. His writing depicts the life of ordinary men and women.

He was noted for his powerful political views, earthy satire, humour and heavy drinking.

Behan was born in Dublin’s inner city into an educated working-class family with strong Republican sympathies. His father Stephen was involved in the Irish War of Independence; his mother, Kathleen was a friend of Michael Collins whom she affectionately named ‘the laughing boy’ and his uncle Peadar Kearney was author of the Irish national anthem, ‘Soldier’s Song’.

“The big difference between sex for money and sex for free is that sex for money usually costs a lot less.”

Behan spent most of the years from 1939 to 1946 in penal institutions on political charges. It was during these years that he began to write.  His first play, ‘The Quare Fellow’ (1954), depicted events twenty-four hours preceding an execution; it attacked capital punishment and public attitudes toward sex, politics, and religion. Although it was turned down by the Abbey Theatre in Dublin it eventually gained critical success. Behan’s best-known novel, ‘Borstal Boy’ (1958), drew its material from his own experiences in prison and reform schools. Other dramas include, ‘The Big House’ (1957), and ‘The Hostage’ (1958). In his plays, Behan used song, dance, and direct addresses to the audience.

“I am a drinker with writing problems”

In 1955, Behan married Beatrice ffrench-Salkeld, a painter, and the daughter of a noted Dublin artist, Cecil Salkeld.  Critical attention came Behan’s way along with noteriety. During the 1950s he received a rapturous welcome in the United States. But he suffered from poor health fueled by his prolonged drinking bouts and he died in a Dublin hospital on March 20, 1964, aged only 41.

“There is no such thing as bad publicity except your own obituary.”

      

Brendan Behan (1923-1964)

Celtic Women

Celtic women were distinct in the ancient world for the liberty and rights they enjoyed. Although political and public life was largely the domain of men, women were not excluded from any occupation. They served as chieftains, druids, poets, healers, warriors, diplomats, judges, and mediators in tribal assemblies and disputes.

Celtic society was hierarchical and tribal. A woman’s role was dictated by her place in the social hierarchy and customs of the tribe. Unlike their counterparts in Greece and Rome, Celtic women were protected under the law; they were held in high esteem and had considerable influence – we know this because Classical European authors tell us about how different Celtic women were from the women with whom they were familiar.

Marriage was viewed by the ancient Celts as an equal partnership. By contrast, Roman law dictated that a woman was the property of her husband. Although marriages were arranged, a Celtic woman could not be married against her will; she was free to make their own choice of husband or could choose not to marry.

In some Celtic societies, women took more than one husband. Within marriage, a woman could retain her own name and she could own and inherit property. If a wife had a greater fortune than her husband she could control their combined property.

Divorce for the ancient Celts was relatively easy and could be requested by either party. The year-long trial marriages that began at the festival of Samhain could be dissolved if they proved impracticable. Women who divorced retained their share of the property and were free to remarry. A married woman could pursue a legal case without the consent of her husband and in some places, the custom was to name children after their mother.

It was common practice in Celtic society for women to bear arms. Wives often accompanied their husbands into battle. They made great use of psychological tactics to disconcert the enemy by screeching and dancing wildly. The Greek historian, Ammianus Marcellinus, writing around 400ad, gives us a vivid description of a Celtic warrior woman:

“A whole troop of foreigners would not be able to withstand a single Celt if he called his wife to his assistance. She is usually very strong, and with blue eyes; in rage her neck veins swell, she gnashes her teeth, and brandishes her snow-white robust arms. She begins to strike blows mingled with kicks, as if they were so many missiles sent from the string of a catapult.”

Celtic women were ruling queens and military leaders. Boudica (Boadicea) is probably the best known. She led the last major revolt against the Romans in Britain. In Ireland, Medb (Maeve) was Queen of Connaught and as such had authority over nine kings.

Some women became teachers of the art of war. Scathach, a female warrior, trained the great hero of Irish legend, Cúchulainn. Scathach’s rival, Aoife, was considered one of the fiercest warriors alive.

In Celtic mythology, we find women honoured for their intelligence and character. They are portrayed as brave, resourceful, clever, beautiful, and enchanting. Celtic women were certainly not ‘damsels in distress’ and their sphere of influence extended far beyond the home and children. They continue to inspire us today by offering us an intriguing example of what it meant to be a woman in ancient times.

Celtic Society

The Celts arrived in Ireland over the course of several centuries from around 500bc; it was a gradual assimilation rather than an actual invasion. They brought with them the Gaelic language, fine artistry, and a social order based on warrior values. They also brought the iron plough, making it possible for the first time to cultivate rich valley and lowland soils and to form settled communities. By 250ad Celtic culture was in place across the entire island of Ireland.

Celtic society was made up of extended families that were grouped together to form territorially based tribes. These were hierarchical and class-based ruled by a king or a queen, then a warrior aristocracy and grades of nobles. Druids, bards, judges, and artisans were the professional classes. They enjoyed special privileges having undergone years of intensive and difficult training. Then the farmers who paid rent to the nobles. Indeed, the whole Celtic economy was based on agriculture and livestock played an essential role serving as an equivalent to money. A Celt’s position in the social hierarchy was determined by the number of cattle he/she owned.

Iron Age Celts were highly skilled artists, metal-smiths, miners, road-builders, and farmers. They had strong trading links with Roman Britain and also traded for amber and precious metals as far as the Baltic coast and Mediterranean. Crafts such as cloth-weaving, basket-making, pottery, and leather-working were mainly undertaken by women.

Celts relied on the spoken word. Writing did not become highly developed until the arrival of Christianity, so their history, laws, and culture were maintained orally by bards and druids and passed down the generations by word of mouth.

Celtic spirituality was rooted in a reverence for the natural world, populated with many gods and goddesses and steeped in ritual. They had strict ideas about honour and responsibility. Celts took tremendous pride in their appearance and they were famous for their high spirits, love of liberty and courage in battle.

Ancient Irish myths describe a society dominated by the warrior hero. Single combat was one of the most effective ways for a warrior to gain status and prestige. Warriors would charge into battle fully naked, dyed blue, and with great leaps and screaming cries, thoroughly unnerving the enemy. For a time they were more advanced militarily than their Roman counterparts, with superior chariots, shields, and spears. They invented chain mail and iron helmets. They served as elite troops in many foreign armies including those of Hannibal and the Egyptian pharaohs such as Cleopatra who kept a band of 300 Celtic warriors as her personal bodyguards.

Despite their tremendous bravery in battle, they were no match for the war machine that was Rome – far superior in organization, authority, and discipline. The Celts thought and acted as individuals rendering their armies fragmented and unstable. Celtic Europe inevitably succumbed to the expanding Roman Empire. It was Ireland’s good fortune that Rome decided not to invade and Celtic Ireland continued to flourish.

A Celtic Feast

Celtic Spirituality

Celtic spirituality is based on a deep connection with the natural world. God is not a distant concept but a continual presence manifest in the whole of nature and deeply embedded in the world. For the ancient Celts, life itself was a ceremony, the whole of which was spiritually significant and magical. They considered the natural world divine and sensed the presence of their gods everywhere – in trees, rocks, rivers, bogs, and mountains.

These gods and goddesses were living forces of nature who reflected the earth’s majesty and expressed qualities such as inspiration, abundance, and eloquence. Celts worshipped their deities in woodland groves and near sacred water. Most sacred were the oak and mistletoe and no ritual was held without them. Druids were the teachers of wisdom and morality; a morality rooted in honour, family, and the sanctity of everyday life.

Central to Celtic spirituality was the belief in an immortal soul. Death was but another state of being, a transformation. Ancient Celts believed that alongside the ordinary world there existed a magical and mysterious realm called the Otherworld, a kind of Celtic heaven, the abode of the gods and the land of the dead. According to Celtic folklore, the Otherworld was the domain of a mythical race called the Túatha Dé Danaan, which means ‘the people of the goddess Danu’. They were Ireland’s original inhabitants descended from Danu, the mother goddess.

The Otherworld was a land of enchantment and contradictions accessible through lakes, caves, and fairy forts; a blissful place full of beauty, fine music, and delight; a place which held great treasures and brought inspiration to mortals who visited it. But it was also home to supernatural beings and monsters and a dangerous place to linger too long. At Samhain, our modern-day Halloween, the veil that concealed one world from the other became very thin allowing both the living and spirits to cross back and forth between the two realms. Holy sites of the ancient Irish, such as the Hill of Tara and Newgrange, were the dwelling places of the Celtic gods and the portals through which humans could enter the spirit world.

In the fifth century, a new religion arrived in Ireland in the form of Christianity. With its emphasis on love and individual salvation, the new faith preached by Saint Patrick, appealed to the Celtic spirit. Christianity adapted and absorbed many elements of the local religion allowing the Celtic people to embrace the new teaching while maintaining many of their ancient beliefs, customs, and practices. The Celtic church was more loosely organised than its Roman parent and operated, in many respects, outside the authority of the Roman church. Thus it avoided many of the conflicts and doctrinal wars that plagued Rome developing its own distinctive character – one that was more taken with the mystical.

A golden age of Celtic Christianity arose; it flowered in the form of independent monasteries that sprang up all over Ireland. Monks devoted themselves to lives of study, work, and prayer. The writing of books and gospels grew to become an exquisite art. By copying precious texts by hand, Celtic laws, annals, and myths were rescued from oblivion. Irish monasteries became renowned far-and-wide as sanctuaries of learning, and Ireland, enjoying a relative peace, was transformed into ‘the land of saints and scholars’.

 

 

The Celtic Calendar

The four primary seasonal celebrations of the Celtic calendar are:

  • Samhain – winter
  • Imbolc – spring
  • Beltaine – summer
  • Lughnasadh – autumn
Masque of the Four Seasons, by Walter Crane

In the Celtic word view, seasonal changes were magical times, turning points in the calendar when the powerful forces of the universe could be accessed to promote the health and prosperity of the tribe. Celebrations involved ritual, dance, feasting, songs, games, competitions, trading between tribes, settling debts and disputes, arranging marriages, and offerings to the gods.

Ancient Celts organized their lives according to the rhythms of nature. In addition to their spiritual significance, the festivals were vital agricultural markers used to determine the times for ploughing, sowing, harvesting, birthing of livestock, and other tasks necessary for survival.

Samhain, October 31

Samhain, meaning summer’s end, marked the start of winter, the dark half of the year.  It’s probably the oldest and most important festival of the ancient Celts. This was the beginning of the Celtic New Year, time to take stock of the herds and grain supplies and decide which animals would be slaughtered in order to dry or salt their meat for winter. Feasts and gifts were shared. Blessings were given and invoked.  The approaching darkness was regarded with suspicion and some fear. With the community bonfire ablaze, all other fires were extinguished and each family then solemnly lit its hearth from the common flame thus bonding the tribe together.

At Samhain, it was believed that the veil between this world and the Otherworld became so thin that spirits could walk the earth. Communion between the living and the dead was possible. Traditionally, this was the most fortuitous time of year to practice divination. Our modern-day Halloween is rooted in Samhain’s traditions. In Ireland, the custom of leaving food for the family spirits continues in some places. Children wear masks to frighten and confuse malevolent spirits, while the jack-o-lantern (originally a turnip) is lit to guide friendly spirits on their way home.

Imbolc, February 1 – 2

Spring symbolized new life the promise of returning light. Imbolc was the beginning of the agricultural year, the time for ploughing. The plough was decorated to celebrate its importance. Preparations for spring sowing of crops included blessing seeds and agricultural tools.  Pieces of cheese and bread were placed within the newly turned furrows as offerings to the nature gods.

Imbolc honours Brigid, Celtic goddess of poetry, metalwork, and healing. She is also associated with fertility. Many Irish traditions involve seeking her blessing. The festival of St Brigid in the Christian year is also marked at this time.

Beltaine, April 30 – May 1

Beltaine means ‘bright fire’. This celebration marked the beginning of summer,  season of growth and blossoming. It’s associated with the sun god, Belenus. On this day, great fires were lit on mountains to affirm the return of the sun. Farmers moved their herds to rich pastures. New couples proclaimed their love for each other when they went walking in the woods. Trial marriages which commonly began at Samhain or Lughnasadh and which hadn’t worked out would end at Beltaine. If a woman could not conceive with her partner she could take another lover at Beltaine for a one-off pairing.

At Beltaine,  ritual fires were kindled and their flames deemed to have protective power. Cattle were driven between two bonfires as a form of purification and to encourage their fertility. Wood from the Hawthorn tree was used as a Maypole and its branches used to decorate homes as a blessing of protection. This time of year was open to the Otherworld so there were also rituals of protection against mischievous fairies.

Lughnasadh, August 1

Ancient Celts imagined the earth as their mother; she was the goddess, Danu. The sun god, Lugh, was her husband. Their union was a symbol of balance and health for the Celtic tribe. At Lughnasadh, Lugh was honoured as the god of light and master of all skills.

Lughnasadh (autumn/fall) was a time of thanksgiving for completion of the harvest which meant the tribe’s survival during the dark winter months ahead. It was a celebration of the peak of the agricultural season, associated with hand-fasting, marriage, fertility, and abundance. Communities celebrated with music, dancing, feasting, and competitions. All that gave life its goodness and richness was affirmed.