Where We Live: The Behan

This week’s Where We Live comes from Thom Dunn, mastermind behind 5×500. Thom Dunn is a writer, musician, and theatre artist originally from New Haven, CT. His plays have been produced in Boston and in Hollywood. He was once paid $200 to dress up like Spider-Man and sign autographs at Wal-Mart in Lynn, MA, and his life has pretty much been downhill ever since. He currently lives in a sitcom with his girlfriend, gayfriend, and chinchilla in Jamaica Plain, MA. He brews his own beer, enjoys being Irish, and has much better taste in music than you. Visit thomdunn.net for more ways to waste your time.


I’ll have a Guinness, please.

Brendan Behan was a great many thing – he was a writer, a musician, a brother, a soldier in the Irish Republican Army, and perhaps most famously, he was a drinker. “I only drink on two occasions,” he once wrote, “when I’m thirsty, and when I’m not.” Behan’s prose was renowned for its blunt and brutal honesty, depicting the often difficult truths of Irish life in the 1900s. Like most Irish writers of the era, he spent a considerable amount of time as an expatriate in Paris, and upon his return to Ireland, came to embody the archetypal caricature of the drunken Irish storyteller. He spent his days not in seclusion, but in the comfort of the local public house, drinking and writing and drinking some more, sharing his stories with anyone that was willing to listen. He became a self-proclaimed “drinker with a writing problem,” and reveled in his infamy until the day he died sitting atop his favorite barstool at the Harbor Lights Bar in Dublin.

It’s fitting, then, that the greatest and most authentic Irish bar in the notoriously Irish city of Boston should be named after such a man.

The Brendan Behan Pub hides itself from the eyes of the average tourist, inhabiting the lower half of a triple-decker home on Centre Street in the typically residential neighborhood of Jamaica Plain. While the more well-known Irish bars certainly have their history – the ever-popular Purple Shamrock or the Roisin Dubh in Fanueil Hall, for instance – they’ve since lost the distinct character that makes an Irish bar worth a visit.

In that regard, the Brendan Behan Pub upholds the tradition of character established by its namesake. It’s small and dark, with only natural light during the day and small candles to illuminate the evening. The wooden stools and bar look like they may have been fine antiques once upon a time, had they not been stained with scratches and beer along the way. The clientele is a colorful cross-section of lively locals, and its history can be found in the graffiti and band stickers that decorate the bathroom walls. You’re free to bring your dog or dinner to the bar (there’s no food menu here – only booze), and there’s not even a television set to distract you.

In short, it’s the perfect place for writing.

For some strange reason, pub writing never caught on in America the way it has in Europe (in case you haven’t noticed, America has a strange relationship with alcohol). Instead we go to coffee shops – coffee, which is still a drug, and still not good for your heart, but still somehow more socially acceptable. I try to avoid coffee for a number of reasons, and while not every bar is conducive to a writing environment, the Behan (as it’s so affectionately called) is the best alternative.

Sure, you might want to avoid pub writing after, say, 9pm, when the bar becomes full of rowdy drunks (unless you’re one of them, in which case, carry on). But during the day and early evening, it’s the ideal atmosphere. Sip your pints slowly, just enough to soothe your inhibitions, and soon your pen is jigging down the page, spilling ink and brilliance. Just – be careful to stick to the lower alcohol drinks, and take your time with each. You’ll want to pace yourself, if for no other reason than so you don’t end up like the other midday drunks that line the bar beside you.

That’s another benefit of midday pub-writing (besides the fact that day drinking in general is always pretty great). The types of people that frequent bars like the Behan are, if not fellow writers, often distinct and vivid characters in and of themselves. Listen to their stories, and stretch your skills as an observer. The day crowd at the Behan is typically made up of artists, immigrants, and blue collar workers. Go ahead – eavesdrop on their conversations. Watch where they sit, and the way their shoulders hunch over bar as they try to engage the bartender in some deep conversation, mouthing off their politics, however poignant, insightful, or misinformed they might be. See how they signal for another round, and track the way their passions change and grow with every shot of Jack and a Bud Heavy chaser.

(Occasionally, one of these characters, let’s call him “Christof,” decides to become your friend and buys you a shot of some weird green stuff called chartreuse [or hopefully whiskey, if you’re lucky] while you’re trying to write, which you of course have to take because it would be rude not to, and then he starts talking you up and asking about whatever it is you’re working on and then he buys you another round or two or three and telling you about this awesome idea he had for a book one time and oh my god can you believe his ex-wife did that and next thing you know you’re back at your apartment and he’s throwing up off the back porch and you’re not sure how to get rid of him because it’s 4pm and you’re already drunk but at least he paid for all the drinks right?

But I digress)

And then there is perhaps the greatest advantage of pub writing to which most of us (or maybe it’s just me) would rather not admit: discipline. Which, yes, is rarely a word that accompanies drinking in any form, especially during the day. But bear with me, and consider this – how many times have you sat down to write, whether it’s home, at a coffee shop, library, or somewhere else, and ended up wasting half of your time screwing around on the internet and finding more and more excuses not to write? It’s one thing to hang out at a coffee shop alone with a laptop in the middle of the day, talking about being a writer and otherwise twiddling your thumbs. Now transplant that same activity to your favorite pub; suddenly, I image you’re feeling a bit self-conscious about it. It’s 3pm on a Tuesday and you’re at a bar by yourself, playing around on Facebok? I should hope not!

But if that’s all you’ve been doing at home instead of writing, it might help you to relocate to the pub and do some actual writing. Take that shame that you would feel updating your profile at the bar, and turn it into something productive. Turn it into discipline. Turn it into words. Because you’re a writer. And there is absolutely no shame in that.

Plus, hey – everyone loves a Guinness.

The Where We Live series is chance to travel to all the different places that writers and readers live, in a deeper sense than simply geography, but the mental and emotional space they inhabit during their creative lives. Interested in contributing your own Where We Live? Check out previous entries and send us what you got.

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2 thoughts on “Where We Live: The Behan

  1. […] Posted on January 26, 2011 by thomdunn| Leave a comment Every Wednesday, literary blog The Things They Read has a feature called Where We Live that focuses on, “the different places that writers and […]

  2. Jason says:

    Oh man, that “Christof” story is a blog post all in its own!

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