A Desperate Chancer

In reference to the Irish writer James Joyce, Martin Amis writes in the footnotes to his memoirs, Experience:

“It has been said that there are two types of Irish male, the hard man, and the desperate chancer. In life Joyce was a desperate chancer. But in his work he was a hard man. Tell a dream and lose a reader, said Henry James. And we all know that the pun is the lowest form of wit. Joyce spent 17 years punning on dreams. The result, Finnegans Wake, reads like a 600 page crossword clue. But it took a hard man to write it.”


A desperate chancer he may have been, but Joyce was hardly in the same league as another Irish writer, Brendan Behan. No need to superimpose a glass of Guinness in Brendan’s case.

Indeed one story goes that Guinness asked Brendan to come up with a slogan and gave him a few crates of the product for inspiration. The Guinness men returned next day hoping for a gem of an advertising slogan, only to find Brendan stretched out drunk amidst empty crates and crumbled bits of paper. “I’ve got it!’ exclaimed Brendan, ‘Guinness makes you drunk!’


Clearly, Brendan was a man who enjoyed the craic.

Craic: (pronounced crack) An Irish word for fun/enjoyment particularly when mixed with alcohol and/or music.


My first introduction to the author was a yellowed 1987 Arena paperback edition of The Scarperer, Behan’s only novel. Here’s the written introduction in that book:

Brendan Behan was born in Dublin in 1923.  A member of the I.R.A., he was sentenced to three years in borstal in 1939, and to fourteen years by a military court in Dublin in 1942.

He became a dominant literary figure almost overnight with the 1956 production of his play The Quare Fellow, based on his prison experiences. This recognition was reinforced by the success of Borstal Boy and his second play, The Hostage.

Brendan Behan described his recreations in Who’s Who as ‘drinking, talking, and swimming’, but no factual description could do justice to his flamboyant, larger-than-life character. Generally regarded as irreverent and unpredictable if not actually dangerous, there was nonetheless no publicity which ever obscured his marked talents or his understanding of human nature.


Originally published in 1953 in serial form for the Irish Times newspaper under the pseudonym Emmet Street (the name of the street opposite the street Behan grew up in in North Dublin), The Scarperer was first published as a book in 1966.

Sadly, Behan didn’t live long enough to see his name in print.  He died an alcoholic at the age of 41 in 1964.


At 152 pages, The Scarperer is shorter than Finnegan’s Wake by 448 pages. It was written in weeks rather than years. It took a desperate chancer to write it.

After having a first draft accepted, Behan removed himself to the Aran Islands to finish the story in peace and without interruption. Within a few days his money was gone and he wired the Irish Times to ask for an advance, which they duly gave him so he could finish the story.

It has been said that Behan preferred the splendour of talk to the drudgery of writing and this becomes apparent (as does his talent) when you read The Scarperer, which is written in his Dublin vernacular.


(Images of Brendan Behan’s NUJ card and Remington portable no.2 typewriter can be seen here.)

3 thoughts on “A Desperate Chancer

  1. Images of Behan’s typewriter and NUJ card, and many other Behan typewriter-related images, can also be http://oztypewriter.blogspot.com.au/2012/03/st-patricks-day-typewriting.html
    I was a little too late arriving to get to know Behan or Brian O’Nolan, but Behan started writing for my old newspaper The Irish Press way before he appeared in the Irish Times. My former colleague Paddy Purcell gave him his first break, working for the Press.
    I did have the pleasure of seeing Ronnie Drew and Niall Toibin perform The Bells of Hell at the Gaiety Theatre in Dublin in 1974, a rare and unforgettable occasion. The Captains and the Kings from The Hostage is one of the great songs.


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