Author: Damian Mac Con Uladh
Written in honour of Irish revolutionary hero
Michael Collins, Brendan Behan’s song The laughing boy’, or
‘To gelasto paidi’ in its Greek translation, has come to
stand for various Greek historical figures and events and is
one of the most recognised songs of the last
40 years in Greece
An Post, Ireland’s postal service, launched a
stamp commemorating the 50th anniversary
of Behan’s death on March 20
(Photo: An Post) It’s one of composer
best-known pieces, a signature song
that for almost 50 years has conveyed
the desire for
more democracy in Greece and the struggle against
1967-1974 military dictatorship.
Indeed, so popular is the song “To gelasto paidi”
(“The laughing boy”) that it would be hard to find a Greek
unable to put a name to or even recite some lines from the
number, which is a common feature at school commemorations
marking the Polytechnic
students’ uprising of
Maria Farantouri in a memorable performance of the song at
the first concert given by Mikis Theodorakis
in Greece after the fall of the dictatorship in 1974
Yet despite the song’s enduring popularity, it would come as a surprise to many to
learn that its origins are in
Ireland, in an Irish-language poem composed by a young boy who would go on to
become one of the most famous
and popular Irish writers and playwrights of the 20th century –
Brendan Behan. March 20 marked the 50th anniversary of his Behan’s death,
well before his time at the
age of 41, from the effects of alcoholism. “I’m a drinker with a writing problem,”
the Dubliner once said.
As a 12 year old in the mid-1930s, Behan wrote the poem in honour of Michael Collins,
a hero of Ireland’s
1919-1921 war of independence against Britain, who was assassinated, aged only 31, by former comrades in the
ensuing Irish civil war in 1922. He would later incorporate the poem into his hugely successful 1958 play The Hostage, which depicts the events leading up to
the planned execution of an 18-year-old IRA member in a Belfast jail, accused of killing a policeman.
First staged in London,
the play was later performed in Paris, where it came to the attention of Theodorakis, who had been living there since 1954.
It inspired the composer to write cycle of 16 songs which he called Enas Omiros (A Hostage), to Greek lyrics translated
by Vasilis Rotas.
“In The Hostage, Brendan Behan deals with the Irish people’s struggle for freedom.
This new Irish mythology seemed to me to be very closely related to ours. The questions about God,
about existence, about loneliness, love and hate retain their fundamental significance in the human struggle for
life and liberty. That applies to Northern Ireland just as much as to Greece. When in 1961 I put The Hostage to music,
I didn’t want to compose typical Greek folk music; I wanted at least the musical form to correspond to the special
atmosphere of the work,” Theodorakis has recalled to Paddy Sammon, an Irish diplomat who has researched the song’s
That was followed in 1962 by the staging of the The Hostage, in Rotas’ translation, in Athens. At a time when the
Greek civil war was very much a taboo subject and leftwing activity was under the close surveillance by the rightwing state,
Behan’s play would become a proxy for people to identify with the left and with their own history.
The original version of Theodorakis’ ‘To gelasto paidi’, performed by Dora Yannakopoulou
The song became “associated with various social, economic and related struggles, for education, for more democracy, for different ways to redefine the social contract, the way people would live, the way people would go on”,
Greek poet Yiorgos Chouliaras told an Irish radio documentary some years ago. He says that such “emendations” and “misunderstandings” are “necessarily associated with all cultural matters”. And it was through these that the song
“became something that was considered extremely Greek”.
It also became identified with particular figures. As historian Kostis Kornetis points out, the “laughing boy” for many was leading Greek communist Nikos Beloyannis, who was executed in Greece 1952, an association that was fuelled by the iconic photograph of him at his trial smiling with a carnation in his hand. The song was also linked, in the popular imagination with Sotiris Petroulas, who was killed, aged 22, a student who was killed when police attacked demonstration in July 1965.
But as Sammon explains, the song took on yet another new life thanks to its inclusion in the soundtrack to Costa-Gavra’s 1969 film Z about the assassination of MP Grigoris Lambrakis. Sung by Maria Farandouri, the song then became increasingly identified with Lambrakis, a peace activist after whom a mass youth movement was later named.
More associations would follow. Farandouri, who went into exile after the 1967 military coup d’etat, sang it at solidarity concerts across Europe. “It became a hymn not only for the Irish liberation movement, but also for every liberation movement in the world, and Greek democracy,” she told the same Irish radio documentary. When the junta sent in tanks against protesting students and citizens on 17 November 1973, causing the deaths of at least 24 people over a number of days, Farandouri then added a couple of stanzas to the song, deliberately linking it to that event.
It was that version she sang at an historic concert in Athens in October 1974 given by Theodorakis to mark the fall of the junta that summer and the restoration of democracy. Whereas Behan’s original “laughing boy”, Michael Collins, was killed “on an August morning”, Farandouri’s extra lines referred to “November 17”. And instead of staying the laughing boy was killed by “our own”, the Polytechnic version referred to the killers as “fascists”.
In more recent times, the song has developed more associations. Among the comments from viewers beneath the song on YouTube are references to Alexis Grigoropoulos, a 15-year-old boy murdered by a special policeman in December 2008, and Pavlos Fyssas, the 34-year-old hip-hop artist stabbed to death by a neonazi Golden Dawn supporter last September.
And what would Behan make of the song’s Greece afterlife? Sammon is in no doubt that he would have approved. “I think he would be just so delighted that schoolchildren are learning this song in schools in Greece. He wrote a wonderful short story called ‘The Confirmation Suit’. He was saturated in stories. He would just love the idea that people in Greece are singing the song.”
Sammon now believes it’s time to re-export the song back to Ireland, as a tribute to Behan himself: “I think it would be lovely if someone was able be able to put the music for ‘The laughing boy’ as written by Theorodakis into an Irish-language version and to have it sung in honour of Brendan Behan because he is somebody who still lives on. It would uplift us in these difficult times. It’s only a short poem. But it would be something really really unique.”
The laughing boy
By Brendan BehanIt was on an August morning, all in the morning hours,
I went to take the warming air all in the month of flowers,
And there I saw a maiden and heard her mournful cry,
Oh, what will mend my broken heart, I’ve lost my Laughing Boy.
So strong, so wide, so brave he was, I’ll mourn his loss too sore
When thinking that we’ll hear the laugh or springing step no more.
Ah, curse the time, and sad the loss my heart to crucify,
Than an Irish son, with a rebel gun, shot down my Laughing Boy.
Oh, had he died by Pearse’s side, or in the GPO,
Killed by an English bullet from the rifle of the foe,
Or forcibly fed while Ashe lay dead in the dungeons of Mountjoy,
I’d have cried with pride at the way he died, my own dear Laughing Boy.
My princely love, can ageless love do more than tell to you
Go raibh míle maith agat, for all you tried to do,
For all you did and would have done, my enemies to destroy,
I’ll prize your name and guard your fame, my own dear Laughing Boy.
Ήταν πρωί τ’ Αυγούστου
κοντά στη ροδαυγή
βγήκα να πάρω αγέρα
στην ανθισμένη γή
Βλέπω μια κόρη κλαίει
σπάσε καρδιά μου εχάθει
το γελαστό παιδί
Είχεν αντρειά και θάρρος
κι αιώνια θα θρηνώ
το πηδηχτό του βήμα
το γέλιο το γλυκό
Ανάθεμα στη ώρα
κατάρα στη στιγμή
σκοτώσαν οι δικοί
μας το γελαστό παιδί
Ω, να ‘ταν σκοτωμένο
στου αρχηγού το πλάϊ
και μόνο από βόλι
Εγγλέζου να ‘χε πάει
Κι απ’ απεργία πείνας
μεσα στη φυλακή
θα ‘ταν τιμή μου που ‘χασα
το γελαστό παιδί
Βασιλικιά μου αγάπη
μ’ αγάπη θα σε κλαίω
για το ότι έκανες
αιώνια θα το λέω
Γιατί όλους τους εχθρούς μας
θα ξέκανες εσύ
δόξα τιμή στ’ αξέχαστο
το γελαστό παιδί.