I only found out about the event, by chance, one day when I was reading a book by Brendan Behan, The Quare Fellow. At the time I must have been fourteen or fifteen. It was a warm summer’s day, and my Grandfather came round – betting slip in hand (he was living next door to us) to the garden where I was sitting and reading the book, wanting me to run down the bookies to put a quick bet on for him.
“Wha’ yer readin’ there, hairoil?” he asked me casually. I gave him a flash of the bookcover. “Wha’ is it, I haven’t got me glasses?”
“Brendan Behan, Granda. The Quare Fellow.”
“Brendan Behan, yer say?”
“Brendan Behan, yer say?” he repeated.
“Did I ever tell yer about the time I ran into tha’ fella down near Boland’s Mill on the Grand Canal Dock?”
“Listen till I tell yer…”
And so my Grandfather went on, telling me how the great Irish writer-to-be – then just a teenager himself and a few years older than my Grandfather – was picking on one of my Grandfather’s pals for some reason or other. My Grandfather told Behan to leave his pal alone and that if he didn’t he’d get to meet the end of his fist. My Grandfather said that Behan just laughed at him and told him ‘to go an’ shite’, at which point my Grandfather belted Behan a few times. Behan, it turned out, according to my Grandfather, ran off like a little girl and was never seen in Ringsend again, according to my Grandfather. Now, you can just imagine how I – then an impressionable teenager – took it. I was proud of my Grandfather and proud of the fact he had some small connection, no matter that it was a bad connection, to Brendan Behan, a person who went on to write some of arguably the best literature in mid-twentieth-century Ireland. Yes, my Grandfather, John Mary O’Reilly, general labourer, did that.
I always had the story in my mind, and even sometimes boasted about it to any interested parties: My Grandfather beat up Brendan Behan, a man that as a young fella knew how to use his fists, who was sent to a borstal, and who was a general loose-cannon. Yes, my Grandfather battered him.
Over the years, though, things began to change a bit regarding the story and how it was told. Since that time, I can remember two other versions, all including Behan and my Grandfather as the main protangonists, but that was as far as the similarities went in regards to the original story.
Version 2: My Grandfather was younger than in the original version by at least two or three years. He was also nowhere near Pearse Street and Boland’s Mill, but somewhere near the Poolbeg Lighthouse. He was fishing, supposedly, and Behan, according to my Grandfather, was making fun of him and telling my Grandfather how to catch ray. My Grandfather – like Behan in the first version – told the writer-to-be ‘to go and shite’. Words were exchanged, fists flew. End of story. Behan was on the floor – or maybe that was the Irish Sea – with more than a few bruises.
Version 3: Took place in Ringsend, on Thorncastle Street. My Grandfather was playing soccer with a few pals when Behan – who in this version had a few confederates with him – asked my Grandfather and his pals if they could join in for a kickabout. My Grandfather and his pals duly obliged. Now my Grandfather was playing in goal, and according to him, he was a better goalkeeper than Irish international Tommy Godwin was at that age, whom he went to school with. So here he was – a-better-goalie-than-Tommy-Godwin – in goal and defending the honour of the Southside from the evil hordes from North of the Liffey. Something or other happened, because my Grandfather said that Behan kicked the ball out from his hands when he caught it fairly. Well that was it. There was another fight, the third such one. And guess what? My Grandfather won again. That was O’Reilly three, Behan nil. Are you keeping the score?
Over the years the story changed, and even with those three main variations, there was always some additional piece of information I’d never heard before that got put in, on the sly, for reasons, no doubt, because as a mind gets older, it forgets. I tend to believe the original version of the story to be the closest one to the truth, though.
And the final question: Do I believe my Grandfather and his story how he taught the rough and tough, no-holds-barred, rebellious writer-to-be a thing or two about a thing or two? I have to say I do. And it’s more that I need to believe it anyway. No matter what colourations my Grandfather added to it, it is still and always will be a great story to me.