Kathleen Behan

(19/09/1889 - 26/04/1984)

I last saw my grandmother, Kathleen Behan, in the early 80’s in her room at the Sacred Heart home in Sybill Hill.  At the age of ninety-one she’d been persuaded to record onto tape many of the songs she’d been singing all her life — to quote her, “You may as well sing grief as cry it.” She also allowed my father Brian Behan to tape her talking about her long and fascinating life; the songs became a record and the memories became a book. Below I’ve taken the liberty of quoting freely from that book, Mother of All the Behans, our own inimitable Kathleen, in her own words.

I  was born at 49 Capel Street, right in the middle of Dublin, in September 1889.  My grandparents had a farm in Rathmaiden, near Slane in County Meath. Mother was born in 1861; the Famine was in 1845, and her mother lived all through it.  She told my mother how she saw the canal boats weighted down with grain while people starved along the banks.  Was it not a terrible thing to do, to fatten cattle before people?

Mother and Father didn’t drink or smoke, but they had a lot of children.   He ran a grocer’s shop and an off-license.  So at the start of their married life my parents were very well off. But then they lost all they had. I heard from older members of the family that Father, instead of minding his businesses, used to go off to see what was happening in the courts.  He began by taking just a passing interest in the law; then like everything else it went too far.  He thought he was a judge and used to spend all his day there in the law courts. He would dress up in a swallow-tail coat, white gloves and a tall black hat.

Once the shops were gone, my father was finished.  He thought he was a grand gentleman, but he died in one room, a terrible old room in a tenement house in Sean MacDermott Street. He told Mother,

“I could have done better”, and, poor woman, all she said was

“Well, we saw the two days, one wet, one fine.”

He was very intelligent.  He taught us all the national songs, and when my sister brought her school books home the first thing he did was rip out the picture of Queen Victoria.

My mother couldn’t manage and in the end my sisters  and I had to go into an orphanage. I went into the orphanage on 29th March 1898 – a dull cold day to go into a dull cold place. After 7 years  I left the orphanage and lived with Mother and Maggie and Maura in Sean McDermott Street.  It was just one room, but we were very happy.

It was in 1915 that I was introduced to Jack Furlong by my brother Peadar (lyricist of the Irish National Anthem) at a dance in aid of the Cumman na Mban the women’s movement of the IRA. He was a member of the Irish Volunteers with my brother Peadar and so with the Republican Movement – and that meant we had everything in common.

Soon after we were married came the Rebellion.  I remember that Easter Monday, the weather was great, you could have fried a rasher on the ground. The fighting began at noon.  I was given messages to carry; the very first was to Pearse and Connolly who were occupying the General Post Office. The men of my family and my husband were all in Jacob’s biscuit factory in Wexford street; Jacob’s Garrison we called it. The Volunteers had taken it and defended it all the week.

I could have been happy all my life with Jack Furlong, but we were married for less than three years.  He died in the great influenza epidemic of 1918.  I was left a widow with one son, Rory, and carrying another, Sean. After Sean was born I went out to look for work while my mother-in-law, Mrs Furlong, minded the boys.  Madame Markiewitz  asked Madame Maude Gonne MacBride to find me a job in her house at St Stephen’s Green. Didn’t we have a lot of gentry on our side? I was four years a widow.  After a while I left Madam’s McBride’s house got a job with the Dublin Corporation, five pounds a week – more than Jack had been getting as a compositor.

As a widow I could do whatever I liked.  But then I met Stephen Behan. Stephen was a foreman house-painter and decorator, the very best tradesman in Dublin – for fifteen years he was President of the Painter’s Union. He came to a party at Mrs Furlong’s and I loved him the very first time I saw him.  Men don’t marry women you know, it’s the women that marry the men, and we were married in no time. Soon I was expecting a baby – Brendan.  But trouble also came quickly.  It was 1922 and Ireland was in a state of civil war. We’d thought all we had to do was get rid of the the Brits and we’d be on the pig’s back.  But the Dail voted for the Treaty, and now it was brother against brother. Stephen was arrested and was two years in Kilmainham, the prison for IRA men. The Civil war was a terrible time to be alive. Was there ever a nation with such a spiteful face towards each other as ours?  Our biggest industries are undertakers and glaziers.

Both my mother’s in law were extraordinary women, but that was all they had in common. Mrs Furlong was always good to me, but Stephen’s ma – the Grannie we called her – didn’t like me one bit. I remember years before, looking down over the terrible broken-down dirty tenement houses of Russell Street and saying to my sister-in-law Chrissie, “Do you think I could ever live in one of those?” Well in the end I had to live in one and be grateful because the Grannie owned them all.

When Stephen first came out of prison he was a long time walking about looking for a job, but for the Grannie we would have starved. She had a great old saying: ‘To Hell with poverty, let’s kill a chicken!’ and many and many’s the goose or fine fat turkey she slung into our kitchen – you could eat until your jaw dropped off.  She might have been mean to others but I can’t think what we’d have done without her, for as it was I felt scourged with poverty.

I’d been on at Stephen for years to move away from Russell Street, but he had always hated the idea. We had gone down, year in year out, to the Housing Department of the Corporation.  Well, one day Mr Marks, in the office told me,

‘Good news Mrs Behan.  There’s a house in Crumlin for you if you want it. Do you?’

‘Would a duck swim’, says I, grabbing the key.

I dragged Stephen out to look at the house on the Sunday before we moved.  We had the trams that time – they ran out to Dolphin’s Barn and then you walked. It was miles away.  Sacred heart of god, I nearly died. It would put your heart crossways, just looking at miles and miles of new roads. No lights.  The wind would take the skin off your bones that day. Stephen cursed and swore about being miles away from his work but I didn’t care — he didn’t have to put up with one lavatory used by seven families because he spent most of his time in the pub so Russell Street suited him.

At last we reached Kildare road. The little house was lovely.  I wouldn’t call the queen my aunt just to be there. Is there anything better than the smell of fresh paint?  I was delighted, tiny it was, with a little front parlour and two little bedrooms, but that was still better than all of us stuck in two rooms. Even then, Stephen didn’t want to take it, making up all sorts of excuses.

“There’s no buses”, says he, “no trams, no schools, no pubs, no nothing. Only miles of these houses stretching away into nowhere.”

Well I went for him, I told him move we would, hell or high water.  And we did.

Soon after we moved there began our hardest time of all, the great building strike of 1936.  It was nine months long. Stephen, as leader of the union, couldn’t go back to work until it was all over.  It had been bad enough when he first came out of prison, but at least then there were fewer children and the Granny often helped out.  Here on our own in Crumlin we nearly died.  I begged and implored him to go to work, to let us eat at least.  His principles he said, wouldn’t allow it.  I needn’t tell you what I nearly said, but what I did say was,

You can’t eat principles, can you Stephen?”

During the second world war I fought a battle with the Crumlin butchers. Although Ireland was not at war we had food restrictions similar to those in Britain, and there were price controls on meat so that the poor could afford it.  But did the butchers take any notice? Now they were charging twice as much or even more. One day the worst case of all came up.  I was buying the Sunday joint in a shop full of women on the same errand.  When I reached the head of the queue I said,

“That’s not the price of that!’

‘It’s my price,’ the butcher said.

‘But it’s not the government price,” said I, “I will let you see!” and I went straight down to the police barracks. None of the women in the shop would come to back me up.

“Who’d mind that bloody old Communist.” was all that they’d say.

So then I had to take that butcher to court all by myself.  I reported two more as well.  One of them said to me afterwards,

“I never thought you would do that on the likes of me.”

“Do your children eat meat?” I asked him

“Of course they do, Mrs Behan.”

“Well the children in Crumlin don’t, but as far as I’m concerned I will see that they do, as far as I can and I’m not one bit sorry that I summonsed you.”

When the case came up in court the judge looked down and saw that I was the witness for all three.

“You’re a great woman, Mrs Behan,” he said.

At the end of the thirties, Brendan went over to Liverpool and, as everyone knows, was sentenced to three years borstal for possessing explosives.  Brendan’s imprisonment in England was shock enough for us all, but we had to live with it.  He came back to us at Christmas 1942 but within a few months he had been arrested again, after firing at a detective who was following a march at Glasnevin. The first we knew of the whole business was when the special branch superintendent came to the house and said,

“Your Brendan’s as good as dead Mrs Behan.  We’ll shoot on sight.”

There was to be no warning. I cried my eyes out until Stephen came in for his tea.  When I told him what was the matter he didn’t say anything, but just went out and walked the town until he found one of his old IRA butties who was in a position to have the order lifted.  Stephen saved Brendan’s life, that time.

All our relations were republican — to understand Brendan you have to understand that.  Probably no one would have heard anything about us but for Brendan. He swung the world by the tail, I tell you. He took us all over to England to look at the first night of his play The Hostage at the Theatre Royal, Stratford East.  We stayed with the Guinness family, Lady Oranmore and Brown and their son Tara.  We went to ‘The Hostage’ in style — arrived in a Rolls and came back in a Daimler.

After that I went on television for the BBC’s Tonight programme.  It was my first time on telly – we didn’t even have one at home in Dublin then. Well, the interviewer though he had me. Before the show he got me to say what awful trouble I had had with my sons, particularly Brian.  But when I went on, you should have seen his face!

“Mrs Behan,” says he, “you must have suffered seas of sorrow in rearing this crew.  Didn’t you have a lot of trouble, especially with your son Brian?”

Brian was leading a big strike on the South Bank in London at the time

“Not a bit of it,” said I, “You couldn’t wish for a better set of sons.  They couldn’t be better to me.  They never forget to send me money any week of their life.”

Well he nearly died.  He coughed, spluttered, and then he said,

“But what about all these strikes your son Brian is organising over here?”

“Well,” says I, “what about them?  Sure the working man never got anything without fighting for it, did he?”

Brendan died on 19th March 1964.  Stephen and I went to the Meath; when I looked at Brendan I thought my heart would break, if it wasn’t broken already. His lovely brown hair tumbling down. Our Golden Boy.  My little poet.  My heart, my life. There is no love like a mother’s.  There is not a single day I haven’t thought about him and all my little ones.


Up until now I have felt like a young girl. I suppose what’s kept me young has been good humour, singing and dancing and jumping around in general.  If anyone wants to live to my age, let them be happy and singing all the time.  Let them avoid drink except a little.  We’re allowed a bottle of Guinness in here for a tonic but I don’t like it.  One time, one of the Guinness family said to our Brendan,

“We’ve been very good to the people of Dublin”

“They’ve been even better to you,” said our Brendan.

Throughout my childhood I regularly visited 70 Kildare Road, with its picture of Christ hanging between photographs of Connolly and Lenin. It was a house where politics, songs and laughter held sway —there were arguments too, but that’s all families isn’t it?  From that last visit to the Sacred Heart Residence I have a memory of a  strong, optimistic woman, very much the queen of Sybill Hill, who retained a great sense of herself and a lively, loving interest in her relatives and friends, ready to burst into song at the drop of a hat or a drop of the hard stuff (well diluted). I remember thinking what an amazing role model she was, still looking forward, still so involved with the world around her.  During that visit she confided to me that she had been diagnosed with cancer: even so, when, a year later, I heard that she had died I was genuinely shocked. I had thought her immortal. And in the hearts of all who’s lives she touched, in my heart and the hearts of my siblings and cousins, I think perhaps she is.

Janet Behan.


Person Photo
Connection with area: Republican and folk singer who lived on Kildare Road, Crumlin.