An impression has developed over the years that Behan was an unruly prisoner, a James Cagney-type from the Dead-End Kids films popular at the time. Like Cagney, he was short but ready to deliver a punch, regardless of whether or not he was behind bars. While his pugnacity on the streets of Dublin would become known, misbehaviour inside jail was rare, particularly during such serious imprisonments as those in the UK and in Ireland, notably following an incident at Glasnevin cemetery outside Dublin. If anything he was courteous before his masters and commanded their attention on interesting matters. A prison photo taken in 1940 shows the large-headed, curly-haired youth with protruding Adam’s apple and tomahawk-shaped nose. He stands (at that time) at five feet, five and a quarter inches in height. His complexion is described as fresh. The photograph does not show his tiny feet and hands, key aspects of his so-called ‘tulip shape’, nor does it in any way indicate his aggravating stammer. His inextinguishable humour seems to have been a source of amusement, if not mystification, to his English ‘gaolers’, as shown by his letter of December 23, 1940, a year after his capture in Liverpool. The letter is from a C. D. Robinson of Hollesley Bay Borstal to a M. H. Whitelegge of the prison Commission, Oxford.
“There is at Hollesley Bay Colony a youth named Brendan Behan, one of those convicted in connection with I. R. A. activities, and the time has come for considering his discharge, for which, in the opinion of his housemaster and of the governor he is ripe . . . Bradley, the assistant commissioner who looks after Borstal institutions, saw Behan at a recent visit to Hollesley Bay and, in expressing the opinion that he is ready for discharge, Bradley says:
‘He is a profound republican, but he assured me he had abandoned all ideas of violence . . . . I consider he was sincere in this assurance. He wants to be expelled to Ireland, for all his relations are there. He feels that the expulsion order will clarify the position and help him. He would go to sea if this was insisted upon, but he says he is always seasick and, being a good Irishman, he has a good deal of respect for Wellington but none at all for Nelson.’
Particularly striking is posthumous correspondence from C. A. Joyce, the Hollesley Bay borstal. A week after Behan’s death 24 years after the two men first met, Joyce wrote a letter to the Sunday Telegraph newspaper in London, very much a conservative establishment journal, in London referring to Behan’s Borstal days. By this time, his own days as a prison governor were behind him. He was with the public relations office in an institution called the Ranier Foundation. The letter centred on Behan’s continued torment over being excommunicated; it made particular reference to Joyce’s efforts to alleviate the young Irishman’s pain. It said:
“Would you be surprised to know that he was an intensely religious boy? He came to me as a member of the I. R. A. and, as such, was excommunicated. It worried him a great deal. He said to me one day: “You must understand, sir, that the freedom of Ireland is me second religion. I was bred to believe in and work for it.’ But very often he would come and say, ‘Governor, couldn’t you persuade the father to let me go to mass, for i feel all lost without its consolation?”
“I did ask the priest and he explained, so I told Brendan and he was very sad. Then I said, ‘Listen, son, I’m not a Roman catholic, but I would like to go to Mass with you. We’ll sit together and I cannot receive it for one reason and you for another, but I shall say my prayers to the same God as you will’.”
The formula was ingenious and the two individuals put it to work. Sometimes the governor played the organ, the two joining in hymn singing. But there was also an impasse: “Brendan, I cannot recommend your discharge unless you promise you won’t go back trying to kill my countrymen when you know that we are already fighting one enemy. Do you see?”
“The humour and wit of his character came up forthwith,” said the governor.
“’Sure, I’ll promise not to do anything until we’ve done with this bastard Hitler and after that I can always consider it again, can’t I?”
Said Joyce: “He never lost touch with me over the years – often by telephone at 1 a.m. but never mind. You may think of him as the genius and the drunkard but I remember him as a boy of 19 (sic) who wanted to serve God and who loved his mother and his country.”