The Quare Fellow

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The Quare Fellow
1955 Quare Fellow (playbill).jpg
Written byBrendan Behan
CharactersPrison Chaplain
Warder Crimmin
Prisoner A (Hard Case)
Prisoner B (The Man of Thirty)
Prisoner C (The Boy from the Island)
Prisoner D (The Embezzler)
The Other Fellow
Enoch Jenkinson
Assistant Hangman
Second Warder
Holy Healey
Chief Warder
Halliwell, 2nd Asst. Hangman
Medical Orderly
Warder Regan
English Voice
First Warder
Prisoner in Isolation
Principal Warder
Prison Governor
Date premieredNovember 19, 1954 (1954-11-19)
Place premieredPike Theatre, Dublin
Original languageEnglish
SettingMountjoy Prison, 1950s

The Quare Fellow is Brendan Behan's first play, first produced in 1954. The title is taken from a Hiberno-English pronunciation of queer.


The play is set in Mountjoy Prison, Dublin. The anti-hero of the play, The Quare Fellow, is never seen or heard; he functions as the play's central conceit. He is a man condemned to die on the following day, for an unmentioned crime. Whatever it is, it revolts his fellow inmates far less than that of The Other Fellow, a very camp, almost Wildean, gay man.

The Quare Fellow takes place in Mountjoy Prison during the early 1950s

There are three generations of prisoners in Mountjoy including boisterous youngsters who can irritate both other inmates and the audience and the weary old lags Neighbour and "methylated martyr" Dunlavin.

The first act is played out in the cramped area outside five cells and is comedic. After the interval, the pace slows considerably and the play becomes much darker, as the time for the execution approaches. The focus moves to the exercise yard and to the workers who are digging the grave for the soon-to-be-executed Quare Fellow.

The taking of a man's life is examined from many different angles: his fellow prisoners of all hues, the great and the good and the prison officers.

The play is a grimly realistic portrait of prison life in Ireland in the 1950s, and a reminder of the days in which homosexuality was illegal and the death penalty relatively common (35 people were executed between 1923 and 1954, about one every 10½ months). The play is based on Behan's own prison experiences, and highlights the perceived barbarity of capital punishment, then in use in Ireland. The play also attacks the false piety in attitudes to sex, politics and religion.


The title is taken from a Hiberno-English pronunciation of queer,[1] meaning "strange" or "unusual". In context, the word lacks the denotation of homosexuality that it holds today. The play does feature a gay character, but he is referred to as The Other Fellow.

In Ireland, the word 'quare' has also come to be used in a context that means "remarkable" (e.g. "That's a quare day" or "she's a quare singer"), which is most likely the sense in which Behan intends it to be read. It is also used to add accentuation to an adjective, usually as an alternative to 'very' (e.g. "he's a quare good pianist" or "that was quare heavy rain this morning"). The word remains in common use in Ireland.


The play was offered to Dublin's Abbey Theatre, but was turned down. It premièred at the Pike Theatre Club, Herbert Lane, Dublin, on 19 November 1954 to critical success. The Quare Fellow had its London première in May 1956 at Joan Littlewood's Theatre Workshop at the Theatre Royal Stratford East. On 24 July 1956 it transferred to the Comedy Theatre, London. In September 1956 the Abbey Theatre finally performed The Quare Fellow. It had such success that the Abbey's artistic director, Ria Mooney, pushed the next play back to allow The Quare Fellow to run for six weeks. In October 1956 it transferred to Streatham Hill Theatre. Its first New York performance was on 27 November 1958 at the Circle in the Square Theatre.


In 1962 the play was adapted for the screen by Arthur Dreifuss and starred Patrick McGoohan, Sylvia Syms and Walter Macken.[2] Although the film received some favourable reviews, it is not regarded as a faithful adaptation of the play.[3]

Its budget was £147,322.[4]

"The Auld Triangle"[edit]

"The Auld Triangle", a song from the opening of the play, has become an Irish music standard and is known by many who are unaware of its link to The Quare Fellow.


  1. ^ Dialect variation of queer - Merriam-Webster on-line dictionary accessed 19 March 2008. The word came into use in the 16th century, related to the German quer, meaning "across, at right angle, diagonally or transverse" - queer has generally meant "strange", "unusual", or "out of alignment".
  2. ^ THE ECHOES OF KILMAINHAM. Eckersley, Peter. The Guardian (1959–2003) [London (UK)] 30 December 1961: 8.
  3. ^ IMDB entry for the film.
  4. ^ Petrie, Duncan James (2017). "Bryanston Films : An Experiment in Cooperative Independent Production and Distribution" (PDF). Historical Journal of Film, Radio and Television: 7. ISSN 1465-3451.