The Quare Fellow by Brendan Behan
A prisoner sings: he is in one of the punishment cells.
A hungry feeling came o’er me stealing,
And the mice were squealing in my prison cell,
And that old triangle,
Went jingle jangle,
All along the banks of the Royal Canal.
A Shape on the Air by Julia Ibbotson
Vivianne is trembling, afraid. She holds her breath. She hates this.
Lessons by Ian McEwan
This was an insomniac memory, not a dream. It was the piano lesson again – an orange tiled floor, one high window, a new upright in a bare room close to the sickbay.
Father by Allan Hudson
One hundred years ago the Hill brothers came to the shores of Canada to the east coast of New Brunswick. They rowed ashore to Rose Harbour and parted company where the Little River split.
I came to The Quare Fellow courtesy of an earworm. The song The Auld Triangle had been burrowing at my ear for nearly a week (and it’s still not completely gone) so I decided to find out more about it. The song was written by Dick Shannon of Inchicore, a friend of Irish writer Brendan Behan (1923-1964), who included it in his 1954 play The Quare Fellow set in Mountjoy Prison, Dublin.
The play, a comedy-drama in three acts, covers a period of twenty-four hours leading up to the execution of ‘the quare fellow’ who had murdered his brother with a meat chopper and cut up the body. Quare is the Hiberno-English word for queer meaning strange in this context. The play deals with capital punishment and the dehumanizing effects of the prison system against a background of class and the lingering remnants of colonialism. Behan himself had been imprisoned twice for Irish Republican activities, the first time, aged 16, in an English Borstal, the second in 1942 at Mountjoy Prison and at the Curragh internment camp in County Kildare. He was released under a general amnesty for IRA prisoners and internees in 1946.
The play is written with Behan’s characteristic wit and distinctive mordant humour. Act One begins in an area outside five cells and focusses on the prisoners. It is darkly humourous and introduces the range of prisoners from the old lags to the rowdy young men from the ‘juvenile’ section. As the play progresses and the time runs out for the quare fellow to be reprieved, the atmosphere darkens. The prisoners dig his grave while taking bets on whether he will be repreived. We also see the various characters and attitudes of the warders and other officials as well as the prisoners. The final act deals unflinchingly with the execution, which happens offstage. At no time do we see the condemned nor hear him speak and we never learn the reason for the killing of his brother. Behan shows the effect of the capital punishment on all those involved, including the public who call for it.
Even simply read on paper, the play is powerfully moving. But a play is meant to be watched to get the full effect. The play was made into a film in 1962 film starring Patrick McGoohan, Walter Macken and Sylvia Syms. A remastered copy is available on YouTube.
Unfortunately, although based on the play, the film is not faithful to it. The focus is mostly on the warders, Regan who has been a warder for many years and a new recruit from the west of Ireland, Crimmin. Regan is humane and no believer in capital punishment. Crimmin is young and naïve but over time comes to take on some of Regan’s views. His attitude to capital punishment alters too because of his encounters with Kathleen, the wife of the condemned man, who has come to Dublin to try to get a reprieve for her husband. She explains what drove him to kill. All encounters with Kathleen, who is not a character in the play, take place outside the prison so we get to visit a pub and Crimmins’ lodgings, see some nice views along the River Liffey and, as the film was made in 1962, get a glimpse of Nelson standing on his pillar in O’Connell Street. These scenes mean that, although filmed in the decommissioned Kilmainham Gaol, the film doesn’t fully capture the closed in and claustrophobic atmosphere found in the play. Much of rich and inventive banter of the prisoners is missing. They are almost minor players in the film. It actually takes ten minutes into the film before we meet a prisoner as a personality at all. Disappointingly, The Auld Triangle is barely sung and when it is, it is so soft that it could be missed. The film is fine of itself but it is not an encounter with Brendan Behan’s play.
Also available on YouTube is a radio adaptation of the play. There is no information on the YouTube post telling when it was made, but it was adapted by Philip Rooney who worked as a features editor and scriptwriter for Radio Éireann between 1953 and 1961 so I would assume it was made during this period. The radio adaptation is faithful to the play though there have been some excisions, changes and additions. The additions are minor and necessary for a production where nothing is seen. Some of the excisions I found initially puzzling. There is no mention of a prisoner who was doing time for homosexual ‘offences’, details of the way the quare fellow dismembered his brother’s body are left out as are some of the details in the prisoners and warders’ discussions of hanging. The murder weapon, a meat cleaver, is changed to a hatchet. In the final scene a prisoner calls the hanging in the manner of a race but the final sentences, dealing with the hanging itself, are excised. I suspect that, as the play was broadcast publicly these changes were made to tone it down in keeping with the mores of the time. Despite this, it can be considered a faithful adaptation but it is best listened to in the old fashioned way, as we did in the days before TV and all the other distractions, sitting quietly intent on the words and the vivid images they conjure. It is a powerful play with moments capable of bringing the listener to tears.
– In the radio adaptation, Brendan Behan is one of the singers.
– Nelson’s Pillar in O’Connell Street was blown up by the IRA in 1966. I read recently that when it happened not a window in the surrounding area was broken. Later, when the army arrived to demolish the column, every window in the neighbourhood was shattered.
Not book related but just for fun…
Crownies (Acorn) This 2011 series revolves around a group of newly graduated solicitors working at the New South Wales Office of the Director of Public Prosecutions. It has a good ensemble cast and follows both the professional and private lives of the solicitors. There is a good balance of humour and fun set against the ethical considerations and seriousness of the cases they assist in prosecuting.
Derry Girls (Netflix) I love Derry Girls and won’t admit to the number of times I have watched it. Season 3, the final season, has just been released and it is as good as the other seasons with its mix of sometimes over-the-top humour, sadness and hope. It ends with the Good Friday Agreement referendum of 1998.
For the record, my favourite characters are Sister Michael and Orla. And my recommendation is to watch Season 3, then go back and watch the whole three seasons one after the other.
And, finally, here is The Auld Triangle sung by the incomparable Luke Kelly.