Behan, Brian Finbar Oliver Plunkett (1926–2002), writer, radical, and bohemian, was born Brian Desmond Behan (the name appearing on the birth certificate) on 10 November 1926 in the Rotunda hospital, Dublin, while the family were residing at 14 Russell St., the third of five children of Stephen Behan, house painter, and Kathleen Behan (qv) (née Kearney). Educated initially at the North William St. school of the French Sisters of Charity, where he flourished, after the family's move to Crumlin he attended Francis St. national school. Hating the bleak and lonely new surroundings, finding diversion in truancy and petty delinquency, he was sent at age 12 for three years to Artane industrial school. After service in the youth construction corps (1941–3), he worked as a builder's labourer, a carter, and in a turf camp, punctuated by spells of unemployment when he roamed the mountains and seaside. Attracted to Marxist politics, he organised dairy operatives into a farm workers' union; arrested for this activity, to avoid a custodial sentence he enlisted in the Irish army (1945). Emigrating to London (1950), he worked on building sites, joined the Communist Party of Great Britain (serving for a time on the national executive), and was a militant shop steward in the Amalgamated Union of Building Trade Operatives. A vigorous campaigner for improved safety standards in the building industry, and a forceful orator, he was prominent in several disputes, most notably at the Shell Centre site on the South Bank, during which he served the last of several prison sentences arising from his trade-union and political activities (1959). While visiting eastern Europe, the USSR, and China in 1951, he met Stalin and Mao Zedong, but was disillusioned by the contrast between the privileges enjoyed by the party elite and the drab frugality endured by the masses. After quitting the Communists in protest at the 1956 Soviet suppression of the Hungarian uprising, he joined the Trotskyite Socialist Labour League, but soon clashed with its mercurial leader, the Cork-born Gerry Healy (1913–89), and was expelled for ‘deviationism’. He wrote a short tract, Socialism and the trade unions (1958). His wanton, bohemian individualism rendering him restive in any organisation, Behan was subsequently expelled from an anarchist group, the British Labour Party, and two trade unions, and worked intermittently as a carpenter and bricklayer while evading industry blacklists. While attending Sussex University on a mature student's scholarship, he lived on a houseboat in Shoreham, making news headlines in 1970 when an unknown assailant fired gunshots at the craft. Graduating in English and history, and taking a teaching diploma, he lectured in media studies at the London College of Printing (1973–90).
Although Behan published an autobiography, With breast expanded, in 1964, he turned to a literary career in earnest only later in life. After writing a novel, Time to go (1979), he ghosted his mother's best-selling 1984 autobiography, Mother of all the Behans. After recycling his mother's life-story as a novel, Kathleen: a Dublin saga (1988), in the 1990s he concentrated on the theatre. Savaged by critics and attacked for ethnic stereotyping (against which his defence was that he regarded ‘being stage-Irish as a trade like any other’ (Ir. Times obit.)), his first play, ‘Boots for the footless’ (1990), was a London box-office success. ‘The begrudgers’, set in 1940s literary Dublin, was performed in the Dublin theatre festival, while the political farce ‘Hallelujah I'm a bum’, ‘Brother of all the Behans’, and ‘Barking sheep’ were all staged in Brighton. His radio plays included ‘Wild cat’ and ‘The turf game’. The brothers Behan (1998), co-written with Aubrey Dillon-Malone, is largely a memoir of his brother Brendan (qv). Essentially a yarn-spinner, Behan produced work that was anecdotal and episodic, but unstructured in form, a technique that could be engaging as prose memoir, but disastrous on stage. His bitterly acrimonious and highly public feud with his brother Dominic (qv) ran for many years, climaxing in a 1988 television appearance when, disdaining direct address, they traded invective through their host. He married first (1951) Celia Johnson, daughter of his communist London landlord; they had three daughters. The marriage was dissolved in 1975. He married secondly (1988) painter and sculptor Sally Hill (d. 2000); they had one daughter and one son. After his retirement from teaching he moved to Brighton, where he died of a heart attack on 2 November 2002.