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The Quare Fellow

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The Quare Fellow
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 killing his brother. It revolts his fellow inmates far less than that of The Other Fellow, a very camp, almost Wildean, homosexual 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.

1962 film adaptation[edit]

The Quare Fellow
Theatrical release poster
Directed byArthur Dreifuss
Written byArthur Dreifuss
Jacqueline Sundstrom
Produced byAnthony Havelock-Allan
StarringPatrick McGoohan
Sylvia Syms
CinematographyPeter Hennessy
Anthony Havelock-Allan Productions
Distributed byBLC/Bryanston
Release date
  • November 1962 (1962-Nov)
Running time
85 mins
CountryUnited Kingdom

In 1962 the play was adapted for the screen and directed by Arthur Dreifuss and starred Patrick McGoohan, Sylvia Syms and Walter Macken.[3] Although the film received some favourable reviews, it is not regarded as a faithful adaptation of the play.[4]


Thomas Crimmin is a new warder at a Dublin prison where two men are condemned to die. One has his sentence commuted. Crimmin falls in love with Kathleen, the wife of the other prisoner, the "quare fellow".

Kathleen tells Crimmin her husband found her in bed with his brother and that was why her husband killed him.

The quare fellow is hanged.



Blondefilm and CBS were interested in the film rights. However, in the end, the rights were bought for £2,000 by Arthur Dreifuss.[5] Dreifuss was under contract to Columbia Pictures at the time but could not interest them in making the movie. "The subject scares all hell out of the movie magnates," he said. "We really are making this film on faith, spit and belief."[6]

Originally, Behan was asked to write the script. In the end, Dreifuss did it himself with additional dialogue by James McKenna, author of The Scattering. The script made substantial changes to Behan's original. "We have made explicit what was implicit in the play," said Dreifuss. "We have taken the enclosed world of the play and extended it to the people who are affected in the world outside the prison gates. We have continued the tangent' we have not drawn another line on the plot's graph."[6]

Dreifuss says they tried to end the piece with an upbeat ending. "We're trying to bring the thing full circle," he said.[6] Behan was unhappy with the changes.[5]

Finance was obtained from Bryanston Films, Pathe Corporation in America and the Irish Film Finance Corporation. It was shot in Dublin, including location work at Kilmainham Gaol, with studio work done at Ardmore Studios.[6] Filming started in November 1961.[7]


The film had its world premiere at the Seventh Cork International Film Festival.[8]

Britain submitted the film to the Venice Film Festival but they rejected it in favour of Term of Trial.[9]

Critical reception[edit]

The Monthly Film Bulletin wrote: "In the film the centre has been shifted from the prison and its inmates in general, to a "hero", the new young, warder who begins by seeing everything as either black or white and (discovering that men can be gaoled for stealing firewood, and hanged for killing the seducers of their wives) comes to appreciate the existence of innumerable shades of grey. Patrick McGoohan gives a lightweight performance as this innocent, and Sylvia Syms is unconvincing as the Quare Fellow's promiscuous wife. The best performance comes from Walter Macken, compassionately cynical as the warder Regan, one of the few characters who still has a bit of Behan in him. Arthur Dreifuss' direction is quite effective on the unsubtle level dictated by his script."[10]

Kine Weekly called it "challenging stuff, enacted by an all-but-flawless cast."[11]

Variety called it "grim entertainment."[12]

Filmink magazine argued "Syms’ character wasn’t in the play but became the focus of the film, which caused her to get worse reviews than she deserved (from the few people who saw it). She’s actually quite good in a less typical performance (lower class, trash bag) – although the film should’ve been closer to the play."[13]

"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. ^ 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.
  3. ^ "The Quare Fellow". British Film Institute Collections Search. Retrieved 2 April 2024.
  4. ^ IMDb entry for the film.
  5. ^ a b Jeffs, Rae (1968). Brendan Behan: man and showman. p. 155.
  6. ^ a b c d Eckersley, Peter (30 December 1961). "The Echoes of Kilmainham". The Guardian. p. 8.
  7. ^ Champ, John (9 Nov 1961). "Production". Kinematograph Weekly. p. 16.
  8. ^ "'Quare Fellow' to premiere at Cork Festival". Kinematograph Weekly. 30 Aug 1962. p. 6.
  9. ^ "Gondola Gleanings". Variety. 3 September 1962. p. 7.
  10. ^ "The Quare Fellow". The Monthly Film Bulletin. 29 (336): 150. 1 January 1962 – via ProQuest.
  11. ^ "The Quare Fellow". The Kinematograph Weekly. 4 Oct 1962. p. 17.
  12. ^ "The Quare Fellow". Variety. 17 Oct 1962. p. 6.
  13. ^ Vagg, Stephen (February 22, 2023). "The Surprisingly Saucy Cinema of Sylvia Syms". Filmink. Retrieved 23 February 2023.