- Play title: The Quare Fellow
- Author: Brendan Behan
- First performed: 1954
- Page count: 91
The Quare Fellow is a comedy-drama by Brendan Behan. The play is set in a Dublin prison and the focus of the work is the planned execution of an inmate called the “Quare Fellow”. The list of characters for this work is extensive but may conveniently be divided into prisoners, prison officials and warders, a few clerics, and the English hangman plus his assistant. Through the course of three acts, Behan presents prison life from the perspectives of prison newcomers, recidivists, and prison warders. The time span covered is merely twenty-four hours, and events begin with prisoner speculation about a possible reprieve for one of the two death row prisoners. The “Quare Fellow” is a name that denotes not only that the central character is sentenced to death but also that his identity is somehow odd and his crimes taboo. However, several of the other prisoners describe the horrific details of the murder at the centre of this drama. Behan’s play is widely recognized by critics as being opposed to capital punishment, and judicial hangings were still being carried out in Ireland during the 1950’s (Russell 73).
Ways to access the text: reading.
Behan’s works are generally not easy to source online. However, there are copies of several of Behan’s plays, including The Quare Fellow, available through the Open Library (registration needed, but not payment details). The play is reader friendly but does contain some Hiberno-English and prison slang which may not be familiar to all readers.
Unfortunately, there is no audiobook version of this play. The 1962 movie entitled The Quare Fellow is indeed based on Behan’s original play but is an adaptation by Arthur Dreifuss and the focus of the movie differs from the play.
Why read The Quare Fellow?
Behan was vehemently opposed to capital punishment (YouTube). The Quare Fellow was also certainly influenced by the hanging of a man that Behan knew, Bernard Kirwan, who was executed in 1943 (Russell 73). Kirwan’s crime was practically identical to the murder carried out by the fictional “Quare Fellow”. While some readers may consider capital punishment an anachronistic topic for a play, unfortunately it is still practiced in many countries and was obviously in use in Ireland when the play was written. The fact that Behan served a total of eight years in prison (Russell 75) and was familiar with stories of hangings and some of the victims, results in a genuinely affecting piece of drama. It is important to note that the playwright does not focus on the reactions of the man due to be hanged but focuses instead on all those around him. Behan critiques a system in its entirety from the judiciary, government officials, prison workers, prisoners, even down to the clerics. The convicted man at the drama’s centre remains silent symbolizing his utter powerlessness. Within the play, details are provided about hangings which are quite horrifying. One point that Behan makes clear is that society funds such punishments, and his aim is to expose the sordid details of a barbaric practice that crucially relies on public support to continue. In short, any system of justice is only as healthy as the society that supports it, and the playwright confronts this thorny issue.
In theory, a prison should hold characters who are basically rotten apples, some more rotten than others, but at least all criminals. However, Behan avoids the kind or binary simplicity that suggests that the prison walls separate a good society from those who are feared and justifiably locked away. Indeed, within the play, readers bear witness to highly subjective views expressed by prisoners and warders alike that serve to muddy the crystal-clear waters of our judgment. Not all of the prisoners’ crimes are revealed but we do learn of a murderer, sex offender, petty criminal, smuggler, and embezzler. Yet, the hierarchy of crimes especially as judged by prisoners themselves leads to some confusion. For example, the two murderers are treated entirely differently both by their fellow prisoners and indeed in judicial terms too, hinting strongly at the influence of class distinctions. Then, the sex offender whose specific crime is never revealed shows his disgust at being housed amongst murderers while the other prisoners treat him as a pariah. However, the sex offender ironically shows respect for the Holy Bible. The petty criminal, called Neighbour, is obviously a recidivist but has not done anything worse than steal insignificant amounts of money and alcohol. Yet, Behan presents this character who is most familiar with jail, as arguably the most malign figure of the play. The playwright is not rehearsing what is nowadays considered an obvious and tired motto, that incarceration becomes a school for criminals. He suggests instead that imprisonment rots a man’s character, and this is an issue separable from actions such as the crimes themselves. The playwright presents a nuanced depiction of good and bad that is thought provoking.
The bog-man savage, the native beast, the pig.
Brendan Behan’s play shows how the trajectory of the “Quare Fellow’s” story is largely predetermined by the context of the times. This context includes a newly independent Irish State, the remnants of an old class system, and the negative power of classifying someone as inferior. The playwright goes on to use the simile of pig slaughter to make several salient points and crucially, expose the injustice of capital punishment.
The “Quare Fellow” is depicted in a specific environment and historical era. To fully appreciate Behan’s critique of the Irish justice system of the 1940’s and 50’s requires a reader to have a little background information. In the first place, the playwright himself was imprisoned on two separate occasions for Irish Republican activities (Kao 51). This fact exposes his personal disdain at continuing British involvement in Ireland, specifically Northern Ireland. However, in The Quare Fellow, the playwright also strongly hints that the changes from British rule in Ireland to the Irish Free State (meaning a self-governing Southern Ireland), are merely superficial changes. For instance, the character Dunlavin says, “the Free State didn’t change anything more than the badge on the [prison] warders’ caps”. It is an historical fact that the newly independent Irish State inherited and then largely maintained the former British legal system and not just the laws were inherited but also the old physical structures like prisons. In the first act of the play, we are told that the word “Silence” is written on the prison wall in Victorian lettering. This single observation conjures up images for the reader of an environment shaped by a different century. It is also historically accurate, as depicted in the play, that the Irish State always employed an English hangman as it had no executioner of its own (The Irish Times). In these respects, Ireland’s criminal justice and correctional system could be described best as neo-colonial (Russell 90n34) rather than postcolonial. The examples of laws and prisons show that there is no real sense that British influence had been left behind, but instead, that it is now kept alive by native administrators. This background information does not fully explain yet begins to provide a foundation of understanding about why a “bog barbarian” is executed while another murderer is reprieved in the play.
Behan opens a debate about Ireland’s post-independence, class system. Like most playwrights, he prefers to show rather than explain. He employs a series of interesting mirror effects in the play which serve to question the inevitability of certain outcomes. Take for example, Dunlavin and his friend Neighbour who are mirrored by the youthful prisoners, Shaybo and Scholara. Will the youths experience the same tragic fate of recurring imprisonment? If not, then what precisely will alter the path upon which they are already firmly set? Then there is the prison system itself, originally operated under British rule but which looks strangely unchanged under new Irish rule. A flawed, outdated system will continually lead to flawed outcomes, without intervention. Behan exposes a form of stasis in the system which paralyses any prospect of change. The starkest example of mirroring is that of the two murderers who both await death sentences at the beginning of the play. Why, as an exception to the rule, do these mirror image prisoners have entirely different outcomes. If young prisoners normally become old prisoners, and the prison system is sadly emblematic of times past, then why do expectations change regarding two men on death row? The simple answer is intervention, but this intervention seems to be based solely on the disparate class backgrounds of the two prisoners. Behan inserts an ironic twist in the mirror effect which clearly exposes discrepancies in prisoner treatment.
In The Quare Fellow, class appears to tilt the scales of justice. The man who receives a reprieve, “beat his wife to death with [a] silver-topped cane” and is therefore known as “Silver-Top”. The cane itself plays the ambiguous role of murder weapon and symbol of a superior class. It was a gift presented to the man from the “Combined Staffs, Excess and Refunds branch of the late Great Southern Railways” indicating his former professional career and social standing. “Silver Top” is said to have a “good accent” and as Dunlavin humorously comments, “that’s a man that’s a cut above meat choppers”. Even though “Silver-Top” and the “Quare Fellow” both murdered a single victim, one his wife, the other his brother, it is the post murder events that seemingly differentiate the two men. The “Quare Fellow” scandalously “cut the corpse up afterwards with a butcher’s knife”. Such barbarity would indeed fuel public outrage and influence the original sentence, but it does not conversely explain why “Silver-Top” is reprieved. Both men murdered their victims in a barbaric manner. The crux of the problem is certainly exposed with the reprieve of “Silver Top”. The official reprieve is most unsettling and unsatisfactory to a reader, as it is not accompanied by an explanation, it is an act of mercy based on criteria invisible to public eyes. The courts handed down two separate sentences of death by hanging but only one is overturned. The furore around the butchering of a dead body obscures our view of how the justice system should work. The way a murderer disposes of a body is certainly relevant but surely not of primary concern. Behan’s sympathies lie with the sufferings of the living, not the dead. Evidence of this is the way the playwright destroys the long-held illusion that hanging delivers an almost instantaneous death. We are subjected to the discomfort of a discussion on how long it takes a hanging man to die. We may compare this with the fate of “Silver Top’s” wife who undoubtedly died a cruel death. Therefore, in summation of this point, the shattering of the mirror image between the two death row prisoners is only attributable to class in the context of the play. In this way, Behan exposes a definite class inequality which the reader cannot ignore. The “Quare Fellow” is not executed just because of barbarity but because he is from the wrong i.e., lower class. The continuing presence of such a prejudiced mindset within the Irish justice system would also reflect an age-old English perception of the Irish as savage, untrustworthy, and dangerous. But how would such a mindset persist in an independent state?
If subconscious class prejudices do exist within the system that Behan depicts, then terminology is a good starting point for an investigation. The derogatory title of “bog-man” is used by prisoners to describe the “Quare Fellow” and within this term are echoes of British colonial era disdain for the native Irish. The bog stands for everything outside the borders of Dublin’s metropolitan area, the land of the ‘natives’ and traditionally an area prone to rebellion. The Ireland that Behan describes in the play is not a class-less republic, but a society still obsessed with class. The prime example is that England is still used as a gold standard by which all things are compared. Therefore, prisoner A. boasts of being incarcerated in England as if this were a mark of distinction. Warder Regan perceptively replies, saying, “there’s the national inferiority complex for you”. Class distinctions also become clear between the prisoners. Prisoner D. states that he has a “gold medal in Irish” and is one of “the Cashel Carrolls” which apparently signify a model Irishman in terms of language skills and genealogy. Yet, prisoner D. is oddly unable to converse with prisoner C. who is a fluent Irish speaker from Co. Kerry in the Southwest, and so we detect a distinct hybrid of Irishness and upper-class superiority in prisoner D. Furthermore, prisoner D. has a nephew attending Sandhurst (English military academy) which suggests that his family may in fact be Anglo-Irish, the traditional ruling class in Ireland. Prisoner D. also name-drops his influential friends and this supports one’s belief that he moves in a powerful social circle. Overall, prisoner D. represents conservative, upper-class power in Ireland and crucially, he defends the very penal system in which he is incarcerated. To support such a system indicates that it poses no significant threat to him. While prisoners A. and D. assert their superiority in several ways including references to England, other prisoners like C. and the “Quare Fellow” are subjected to a negative classification, most notably with the term “bog barbarians”. When Dunlavin describes the murder committed by the “Quare Fellow”, he says it was a “real bog-man act”. It is evident that prisoners see themselves as still existing within a hierarchy of classes and it is impossible to disassociate this from the residue of English class snobbery in Ireland. The unnamed “Quare Fellow” who comes from the bog contrasts with Prisoner D. whose identity rests on a distinguished family name and possible ancient estate. Behan uses terms that reveal the clear dividing lines between men based on class, even within a prison environment. Prison walls are not sufficient to confine such views so one assumes that class and its repercussions were a societal problem.
The converging influences of the state, class system, and devaluing terminology serve to seal the fate of the “Quare Fellow”. There is an injustice revealed in Behan’s play which is only revealed when we witness that “Silver Top” need not die. It is the undoing of the death sentence that exposes a stark inequality. Behan repeatedly confronts us with graphic details of what the “Quare Fellow” did, and as shown, these details serve to blur our vision of how justice should work. However, by looking more closely at the gruesome details one may learn more about Behan’s overall message on capital punishment. After all, the main point of the play is the inhumanity of one man taking another’s life, even if a court of law legitimizes the taking of that life as the price for a serious crime.
Behan depicts a barbarian’s act of murder. Or maybe he merely depicts the disposal of a body. The question mark over the murder is reflective of the real-life case of Bernard Kirwan who was sentenced to death based on the discovery of his brother’s butchered corpse (Russell 77n12). This niggle of doubt is an important introduction to what Behan achieves via the imagery he uses in the play. Behan uses the simile of slaughtering a pig to describe the murder itself, but the simile also supplies important insights on nationality, infighting, class, dehumanization, and greed. It is therefore a complex simile within the play.
One may begin with a discussion on nationality. The playwright simultaneously underlines the “Quare Fellow’s” identity as Irish while also partially redeeming this figure. This is achieved by references to food and most recognizably to the most traditional of Irish meals of bacon, cabbage, and potatoes. The foundational link between food and the murder is that the “Quare Fellow”, a native Irish man, “cut[s] his own brother up and butcher[s] him like a pig”. This prisoner then requests two rashers (pig meat) for his last breakfast and more importantly, he “kicked up murder” when a previous day’s request for the same breakfast was impossible because “some hungry pig ate half his breakfast”. These are subtle prompts that guide one back to the real-life case of Bernard Kirwan who apparently murdered his brother over a dispute involving the family farm (Russell 77n12). Against such a backdrop, terms like getting ‘his cut’ of things, or being allowed to ‘bring home the bacon’ transform what may seem like a mindless crime into a crime possibly motivated by unfair treatment. The play begins with a prisoner in the isolation cell singing, “a hungry feeling came o’er me stealing” and one may broaden this sentiment to refer also to impoverished, subsistence farmers in rural Ireland. Was the “Quare Fellow” deprived of what was rightfully his and then retaliated with awful consequences? Do not we witness something similar when a fellow prisoner eats the food from the “Quare fellow’s” plate. Behan’s portrayal of the “Quare Fellow”, as described through prisoner C’s words, is undeniably sympathetic. Prisoner C. says of the “Quare Fellow” after speaking with him in the prison yard, “I don’t believe he is a bad man”. The playwright was unlikely to have used an unsympathetic figure to challenge the status quo on capital punishment. Behan’s “Quare Fellow” is not villainous, and the man is unquestionably representative of Irishness in regard to his typical rural background and traditional diet. As such, the simile of pig slaughter reveals, upon first investigation, a counter argument or at least some amelioration of the image of the savage murderer.
If one seeks to find Behan’s critique of certain elements of Irish society in the simile then this is also present. As James Joyce once wrote, “Ireland is the old sow that eats her farrow” (221). Behan creates his own twist on this theme of Irish, self-destructive infighting primarily through his depiction of the character of Neighbour. Like the sow that eats its own, Neighbour looks at the convicted man’s open grave and callously says “we’ll be eating cabbages off that one in a month or two”. The grave of the “Quare Fellow” will become the rich soil of the vegetable garden. The idea of feasting on the misfortune of a fellow prisoner exposes Neighbour’s inhumanity. Neighbour even bets his “Sunday bacon” that the “Quare Fellow” will be hung, thereby inviting other bets on the event. As noted earlier, Neighbour is the archetype of the rotten apple in prison, the one who is morally corroded and goes on to corrode those around him. Behan also refers to the next generation of Irish people who will become the ones who feast on other’s misfortunes or are feasted upon. We learn that Scholara’s girlfriend “had a squealer for him” (a term equally attributable to a child or piglet). If one accepts that flawed judicial systems and personal bad behaviours are cyclical, then Scholara’s girlfriend is now the mother of one of the next generation’s sacrificial victims, in keeping with the theme of slaughter. Behan nimbly alternates between an obviously malign individual like Neighbour who openly seeks to benefit from a man’s death, and a new generation of lower-class children who have little hope in life. The playwright is exposing a cancer in society, a society where one’s neighbour, in name alone, will look to benefit from his fellow man’s downfall. Like Joyce, Behan’s vision of Ireland is pessimistic.
The most apparent significance of the simile of pig slaughter links to the intertwined issues of a seemingly barbaric and lower-class murderer. What the “Quare Fellow” did was truly barbaric because as Neighbour describes in graphic detail, “he bled his brother into a crock didn’t he, that had been set aside for the pig slaughtering and mangled the remains beyond all hope of identification”. Yet even though the dead brother is compared to a slaughtered pig; Behan is intent on using the comparison in an extended manner. For instance, only a ‘beast’ or ‘pig’ could commit such a deed, and this links back to a class hierarchy where the pig refers to someone who is greedy, dirty, and uncouth, tags that were attached to the Irish well into the 20th century. Isn’t Behan utilizing this stereotype of the uneducated, savage, bog-man in his portrayal of a murderer? The true intention of the playwright becomes clearer when we witness how the condemned man himself becomes the one who is sacrificed through the apparatus of the state. Mickser’s commentary on the hanging details how they put the “white pudding bag on the head” of the prisoner. White pudding is made of pig meat but without the blood (contrasting with black pudding/blood sausage) and is clearly a reference to the original murder but with the murderer himself now facing a barbaric death. Just like in the descriptions of the original murder, the “Quare Fellow” is now the one to be de-humanized and thus more easily sent to his death. The most chilling comparison between pig slaughter and the execution is that the other prisoners let out “screeches and roars” at the moment of execution and this obviously mimics the horrendous sounds that a pig would make when slaughtered by traditional methods, namely having its throat cut. Even though this is a bloodless (white pudding) judicial ‘murder’, it is no less shocking than the black, bloody deed apparently committed by the “Quare Fellow”. The doubts that linger about the circumstances of the original murder also undermine the concept of justice being served with hanging. It is only when one explores the play in this manner that the true political force of Behan’s condemnation of the death penalty becomes clear.
Behan, Brendan. The Quare Fellow. Grove Press, Inc., 1957.
“Brendan Behan on Capital Punishment.” YouTube, uploaded by jackgrantham1, 24 April 2009, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=urH9xUlK1YU.
Joyce, James. A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. Penguin Books, 1965.
Kao, Wei H. “Staging the Outcast in Brendan Behan’s Three Prison Dramas.” Journal of Irish Studies, no. 15, 2021, pp. 51-61.
“Last hanging in State 50 years ago today”. The Irish Times, 20 April 2004.
Rankin Russell, Richard. “Brendan Behan’s Lament for Gaelic Ireland: The Quare Fellow.” New Hibernia Review, Vol. 6, No. 1, 2002, pp. 73-93.