The Laughing Boy

Protest 2

September 2014 and the Greeks are back on the street.


The following is the text of my piece that was broadcast by Sunday Miscellany on RTE Radio One on 12 April. It was recorded live in the Peacock Theatre as part of the Easter Monday celebrations titled, Road to the Rising. If you wish to listen to the podcast, here is the link:

When I heard from a friend, Elias Tsonis, in Greece that Brendan Behan’s song, The Laughing Boy, was as famous there as Danny Boy or The Fields of Athenry is here, I was puzzled. I had never heard the song, nor heard of it. The only recording of it seemed to be a rather odd one that Behan himself made. When Aoife Nic Cormaic commissioned Barry Gleeson to sing it for the programme, he had to arrange it himself. What a fine job he did. If you are fascinated by this story, then explore the links hereunder and listen to the extraordinary renderings of the song in Greek. Behan’s original is also included.


*         *         *


When I received an invitation to participate in the World Philosophical Forum in Athens, I couldn’t turn it down, could I? Especially as it was scheduled for September, 2014, forty years exactly since I last set foot in that city.

That summer of 1974 was momentous. The military dictatorship of the Colonels, who had ruled Greece for the previous seven years, was wobbling. They sought to buttress their rule by pulling off the annexation of Cyprus. We were boarding a ship to sail from Crete to Santorini when we heard that President Makarios had been ousted by a military coup. During the following week we heard of the unfolding events in fragments of broken conversations. The Turkish Government had read the intentions of the Greek Colonels, and reacted instantly by sending in their army to occupy the northern half of Cyprus. A war between Greece and Turkey seemed inevitable.

On Santorini the atmosphere was tense. The mobilisation of militias saw old men in faded khaki, with ancient rifles, patrolling the streets in pick-up trucks. Conscripted young men, many just boys, were wailed over by their broken-hearted mamas. With no chefs or waiters, restaurants closed shop. The banks and all public offices were closed too. Ships had stopped sailing, having been commandeered by the army to transport troops. Essential supplies ran out quickly. There was not enough food to sustain the thousands of tourists stranded on this tiny volcanic island.

When a ship eventually arrived, it was to evacuate all tourists. The advice was to leave the country fast. We boarded, but jumped ship again at the next big island, Paros. We were committed to our three-month holiday in Greece, and were not leaving, especially now that events had become so ‘interesting’. All summer the sense of Greece’s enormous discontent  filtered through to us. Because we had stayed, the Greeks treated us as guests rather than tourists. We spent the time going from island to island. One night we were sleeping rough under the canopy of a closed cafe on Mykonos. Suddenly there was gunfire and noise, wild shouting. We thought the Turks had invaded. But when we peeped over the sand dune we saw only the Greek army, and the soldiers were dancing on the beach, waving their guns over their heads, shouting. Citizens were arriving, all shouting, waving arms in delight. Then we learned the cause of the uproar. The Colonels’ Regime had collapsed. Greece’s seven-year nightmare was over.

We danced all night on the beach with the delighted Greeks, danced Zorba style. The Zorba tune had not been heard openly in Greece during the rule of the junta. Its composer, Mikis Theodorakis, had been the chief cultural antagonist of the Colonels, and every bar of his music was banned. Now the country was vibrating to Theodorakis songs. And when we joined the hundreds of thousands dancing on the streets of Athens it was all Theodorakis we were singing. His songs of resistance and rebellion seemed the absolute expression of the Greek soul.

Back in Athens in 2014, I had settled in to the conference when a Greek delegate smiled at me. With an interrogative lift of the eyebrows, he said ‘Ireland?’ I nodded. If he was going to ask for my analysis of Eriugena, I was flummoxed. But he just nodded, winked, gave me a thumbs up, and said, ‘Brendan Behan’. I was mystified as to Behan’s contribution to western philosophy, so I sought out my friendly colleague, and over coffee was briefed on the enormous status of Brendan Behan in Greece. Mikis Theodorakis composed the music for Behan’s ‘The Hostage’ which was staged in Athens in 1962. There were 16 songs, but one that made a huge impression, ‘The Laughing Boy’, a song Behan wrote about the death of Michael Collins. So popular was this song that the Greeks eventually forgot it was an Irish song, and attached it to various figures of Greek resistance by subtle adjustments or additions to the lyrics. During the Colonels’ Regime it became attached to the students who died in the army attack on Athens Polytechnic in 1973. To the present day it is sung in schools as one of the best loved ‘Greek’ patriotic ballads.

In 1974 that was the Greek song we danced to on the beach in Mykonos, that we chanted on the streets of Athens with hundreds of thousands, celebrating the liberation of Greece from dictatorship. But we never realised that what we were singing was Brendan Behan’s ‘The Laughing Boy’.


Links to Greek performances of The Laughing Boy (song, lyrics Brendan Behan) (Music of The Hostage)  (song, lyrics Bredan Behan)  (song, lyrics Brendan Behan)



Brendan Behan’s original version



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