Imelda May rocks as The Mother of all the Behans

In Crumlin she was ever “the dirty auld Fenian” – and proud to die as one.

by Rose Barrett
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When I first read Imelda May would be undertaking the role of Kathleen Behan in the stage adaptation of Brian Behan’s book on his incredible mother, I thought it odd and a strange challenge to undertake.

But I shouldn’t have doubted the talents and strengths of the Liberties-born singer who has re-invented herself many times, all resulting in further success. “The Mother of All the Behans” was written by Brian Behan, another of the talented and colourful brigade born to Kathleen Kearney Furlong and Stephen Behan.  Brendan, is of course immortalized for his works “The Hostage” and “The Borstal Boy”, and notorious for his drinking!

Joining Cllr Larry O’Toole (SF for Beaumont Donaghmede) and a crew of culchies from Co Wicklow, we began and ended our night out at Brogan’s, one of my favourite ‘real’ Dublin pubs. Then we toddled to the Olympia to see how Imelda May took on the larger-than-life persona of Kathleen Behan.

A simple but effective stage set was the backdrop for the play: an elderly Kathleen in bed within a nursing home with a large Georgian window her access to the sights and sounds of the outside world.

Directed and adapted by Peter Sheridan who had met the Behan Matriarch in 1969 at a staging of The Hostage in Tallaght, he did steer May adeptly and convincingly into the role. At first, I thought it odd that May had not been made to look like the 95-year-old character she was playing.

Above, Marie Whelan, Jackie McGuane and Natasha Gleeson after the show.

However, as May transported us back to her childhood –  happy early years on a farm in Co Meath before her father lost his good fortune and the three Kearney sisters found themselves submitted to a convent – the un-aging of May was a clever stage ploy.

May as Kathleen exited the convent as a teenager, met and married her first husband, Jack Furlong with whom she had two sons. A feminist long before the word was even derived, we were transported into a Dublin under British rule, through the Easter Rising when the rebel leaders were denounced as trouble-makers before their elevation to beloved martyrs following their execution.  

A young Kathleen proudly spoke of running as a courier between the battle barricades “dodgin’ bullets all day”, a Fenian even then, and noted her brother Peadar Kearney wrote our national anthem. Every now and then, May burst into song – “Johnny, I hardly knew ya” and “All around my hat” albeit with an Irish trilby.

Widowed as a result of the 1918 Spanish Flu, again we experience a changing Dublin as it survives the War of Independence and then the Civil War, and the death of the much loved “Laughing Boy” Michael Collins acknowledged with another song. The young widow falls for the enigmatic Stephen Behan, his own mother a larger-than-life personality running rentals in the poverty-stricken tenements.

As her brood increases, May takes us through the 1930s when her mother in law finally passes and leaves all her wealth to another son, Paddy who manages to drink it within nine months. She describes the family’s move (with resistance from Stephen) to Crumlin where there literally was nothing – no schools, no shops and no pubs, a Behan priority! No work either as the city is consumed by the 1936 builder’s strike.

Above: Alison and Greg Clarke, from Amica Hair Salon, Castleknock at the show

We learn how Brendan ever the rebel is jailed more than once for his IRA activities, and how when Brendan is incarcerated in the Curragh – which he loved – his brother is one of the guards on duty! But Brendan’s pen produces The Hostage and further works and her son is immortalized as a genius. Many of her sons immigrate and eventually Brendan dies, heartbreak for both parents. May delivers “The Auld Triangle”  – whether acting or singing, any doubts as to her ability have long since evaporated.

Alone in the nursing home, Kathleen Behan bids her final adieu via a touching rendition of Molly Malone. Once the Queen of Russell Street herself, she recalls that in Crumlin she was ever “the dirty auld Fenian” – and proud to die as one.

Imelda May – compelling and convincing as Kathleen Behan in the Mother of all Behans running at The Olympia until Saturday next, August 26.

Below Cllr Larry O’Toole, Maura Allen, Declan Murray and Margaret Lynott in Brogan’s after the show.

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