When I first met Dominic Behan, he was singing on Eel Pie Island. The last time I saw him, he was wrestling with police in the moat under one of the two fountains in Trafalgar Square.
Eel Pie Island sits in the middle of the Thames, connected to Twickenham via a narrow footbridge. Apart from a hotel and boathouse, most of the island was a bird sanctuary. I lived in the hotel, a former whorehouse for American airmen during WWII. According to the guide on a passing tourist boat, “Charles Dickens lived here on Eel Pie Island while he was writing the Pickwick Papers.” The tour guide did not explain whether the hotel was already a whorehouse when Dickens resided there.
Every Saturday evening, the bird sanctuary was disrupted by loud music from the hotel ballroom, mostly traditional jazz, with occasional folk music. Arthur Chisnall, owner and operator of the club, had recruited me as his doorman.
Dominic Behan was a fountain of creativity. Like his older brother, Brendan, he wrote plays, novels, short stories, poems and biographies. But unlike his brother, he also composed about 450 songs. In his Eel Pie Island concert, Dominic put on a one-man show, playing all of his most popular songs.
Arthur usually invited performers to dinner after their show. He must have had a premonition that ‘dinner’ with Behan would turn into an extended pub crawl–he gave me a handful of ten-pound notes and asked me to entertain the performer. I figured unless Dominic was a gourmet, I would come out ahead on that deal. I think I had a meat pie and a bag of potato crisps at the first pub, while Dominic ate nothing. He drank a lot of black-and-tans with Irish whiskey chasers, while I drank a lot of lager.
At closing time, I figured I was finally off the hook.
“Dominic, I’m going to head over to the Nucleus—a coffee shop where they have all-night jam sessions.”
“You do what you have to do. But you can drink round the clock in London. You drink with the newspaper men on Fleet Street, and then you hang out with the porters in Covent Garden. I usually drink until the coppers arrest me. “
“I’m ready to quit, but if you want to keep going, here’s some more of Arthur’s money.”
“Okay, it’s been a lot of fun. You’ll live longer than me, because you’re not such a wild child. Be sure to come see my play at the Irish Theatre, two weeks from now. Here’s a ticket for opening night, paid for with Arthur’s money. Tell all your friends about it. “
The Irish Theatre had a long bar inside the auditorium. It was probably a mistake to stage Dominic’s play in a theatre that allowed uninterrupted drinking.
His play, ‘Posterity Be Damned’, was a one-man show. Billed as a study of republican activity after the Irish civil war, it seemed more like a systematic attack on various political and religious groups. Progressively more violent audience reactions culminated in a brawl. The play ran for just a week—not because of a limited audience, but because each performance ended in a costly riot.
Every year on Guy Fawkes Night we went to Trafalgar Square to watch college students fight the police. The object of the game was to knock cop helmets into the fountain moats. The police were usually good-natured about the event.
That year, Dominic Behan was the star. He laid claim to three of a total of seven helmets under the fountain. Unfortunately, the police had started to become paranoid about IRA terrorism, so they brought in a riot squad. They arrested Dominic and hit him with some heavy charges—inciting a riot, assaulting police officers, resisting arrest, etc. So Dominic had to serve some real jail time instead of just sleeping overnight in a holding cell.
Dominic subsequently moved to Glasgow. His forecast that I would outlive him proved accurate. He died in 1989 at the age of 60, while in 2014 I’m still alive and kicking.