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Imprints Literary Supplement

The Best Books You've Never Read

Borstal Boy

By Jack Purdy | Posted 10/13/1999

Borstal Boy

Brendan Behan

Reprinted by Godine in 1999

The Irish memoir now threatens to become its own genre. But in 1958, playwright/journalist/house painter/IRA terrorist Brendan Behan published what is still the best of the lot—Borstal Boy. The story opens in 1939 with a near-bang, as British coppers rush into the 16-year-old Brendan's Liverpool boarding house as he tries to dispose of the explosives he's brought from Dublin to blow up British ships. So begins a lad's journey through the British penal system. It's a lucky one, though, because Behan could only be sentenced to three years in borstal—British reform school—because of his age. If he'd been a year older, he might have gotten 14 years in prison.

And the world wouldn't have this frank, funny, remarkably self-effacing story of a product of Dublin's working class (albeit one from a very creative family long active in the IRA) who found his true vocation when he entered a borstal writing contest for the prize of 100 cigarettes. Filled with criminal slang, Irish songs and history, and Behan's remarkable generosity toward all races and nationalities (excepting officials of any race or nationality), Borstal Boy is the most enduring prose statement from the man who called himself "a drinker with a writing problem."

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