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Brendan Behan and his paternal ancestors

Updated: Apr 25


Writer Brendan Behan was nothing if not a proud Dubliner. He was particularly proud that the Behans had old roots near the St. George’s Church and Temple Street areas of Dublin’s north city, the so-called ‘George’s Pocket’ that he knew and loved so well.


The records show a different story however. A generation back virtually all the Behans lived worked and died in a very small area of the Liberties of Dublin, within the parishes of St.

Nicholas, St. Kevin or St. Bride.


Nicholas Street, Bishop Street, Hanover Lane, Patrick’s Close, Wood Street, Bride Street, Plunket Street.These addresses, all within a stone’s throw of each other and of St. Patrick’s Cathedral, were the real home ground of the Behan family.


Brendan’s great-grandfather, Edward Behan,was a house smith (or black smith depending on which source is consulted) although he started out as a provision dealer in Nicholas Street. For most of his life he lived at various addresses on this street which gently slopes down from Christ Church to Patrick Street. He was especially associated with Numbers 16 and 27. Like all the earlier Behans, up to and including Brendan’s grandfather, Edward Behan had a preference for the “Beahan” spelling of the surname. This preference only died out in the time of Brendan’s father.


Brendan Behan’s great-grandmother, Eliza Keeffe, was also from in the parish of St. Nicholas. She married Edward Beahan there in December 1856. Eliza was the daughter of Denis Keeffe and Eliza Doyle of Plunket Street. Denis was a boot and shoemaker. The names of Edward’s in-laws would tend to suggest that they had Cork origins.


Edward’s own parents were James Beahan and Ann Swords (née Kelly) of 28 Wood Street. They were the earliest of Brendan’s ancestors that could be traced. It isn’t known for certain what James and Ann Beahan did for a living. The Treble Almanac for 1812 lists a James Beahan,card maker, at 121 Thomas Street. Although this is coincidental, it isn’t certain that this was Brendan’s direct ancestor.


It’s also possible that James Beahan may not have been a Dubliner. Two of his sons were christened Cornelius and Mortough which suggests that the family, like the Keeffes, had Cork or at the very least Munster origins.


Second marriages were a strong feature of Brendan Behan’s paternal family tree through successive generations and didn’t only begin in the time of his well-known paternal grandmother, Christina English (née Corr). This situation gave rise to numerous step-children, step-brothers and sisters.


For instance after Eliza Keeffe’s death, Edward Beahan married his second wife, Catherine Duggan, in 1879, and had a second family consisting of at least two sons before his own death in 1881 at his home at 7 Vance’s Buildings, which was located between Bishop Street and Lower Kevin Street. This now demolished row of model homes built to the so-called Peabody plan by local cloth merchant, Thomas Vance (1810-1889), was located beside the present-day National Archives.


Brendan’s grandfather, James Joseph Beahan, was the first in the family to become a house painter, or “whitener”. James spent his childhood and early working life in the Liberties and married his first wife, machinist Ann Dunne, in the parish of St. Nicholas in 1881. At the time the couple were living at Number 8 St. Patrick’s Close, adjacent to the cathedral. In 1887 the newspapers reported that James Beahan, now of 27 Bride Street, received life-threatening head injuries when he fell from a ladder while painting a house at Cork Hill.


James Beahan’s move to the Hardwicke Street, Temple Street neighbourhood of the city (the George’s Pocket referred to by Brendan) took place after his second marriage in 1891 to Brendan’s paternal grandmother, the redoubtable Christina Corr. At the time of his marriage in January of that year James Beahan was still living at 27 Bride Street.


The north side of the city was Corr territory. Christina’s parents, Margaret (Marcella) Banks and Mathew Corr, a law clerk who suffered from bad health, married in 1840 in the parish of St. Mary’s . The couple were associated with addresses such as Coles Lane and the now largely overlooked Off Lane, both near Henry Street. From the 1880s this family also had a long association with Number 2 Muckross Parade, which is near the Phibsboro end of the North Circular Road. This is the only address associated with Behan's paternal ancestors to have survived to the present day in original form.


Apart from Brendan’s father, Stephen, and a brother, James, who died fighting at Ypres during WW1 in 1915, James and Christina Beahan had a third son, George Vincent, who died while still an infant in 1895. George was buried in the grave plot of his Beahan grandparents, Edward Beahan and Eliza Keefe, at Glasnevin Cemetery.


There is evidence that James Beahan was struggling with ill-health himself by 1897.He was admitted to the North Dublin Union and stayed there for a few weeks in May/June and then for nearly a month through August and September of that year. His death from phthisis is recorded on December 6th,1897 with his final address being 21 Upper Temple Street. He was buried two days later at Glasnevin Cemetery with Christina as his informant.


Tuberculosis took an enormous toll on many members of Christina Corr’s family. Her father, Mathew Corr, died from the disease aged 47 in 1888 while her sister, Mary Ann, and brother-in-law, George Bendel, both succumbed to the disease a few years after James Beahan’s death. (Bendel an unusual name of English origin was concentrated mainly in Cork in the 19th century. )


James Beahan’s death in 1897 would have forced Christina back to the book folding trade which she had pursued before her marriage. By 1901, she was living with her two surviving sons at the house of her future mother-in-law, Margaret English, at 12 Russell Place. Her marriage to house painter, Patrick English, later that year gave rise to the family’s relocation to Russell Street where the rest of the story is well known.

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Historyeye | Statue of Brendan Behan by John Coll on the banks of the Royal Canal, Whitworth Road, Dublin.