Irish writer Brendan Behan died on this day, March 20, 1964. To mark the anniversary, MacDara Ó Conaola recounts a humorous story about the crafting of Behan's death mask. 

My granduncle James and I were great pals. We had time for each other and had similar interests and views on life.

James Power (1918-2009) was a renowned sculptor and painter from Berkeley Road in Dublin. He attended the National College of Art in his teens where he studied sculpture under Oliver Sheppard and painting under Seán Keating.

James became skilled in taking death masks, a craft that was very common in previous decades and centuries before the advent of film and photography. He took his own father’s death mask in 1945, and in 1964, the death mask of his fellow North Inner City Dubliner, Brendan Behan.

James recounted the time he took Brendan Behan’s death mask.

It was in the Meath Hospital and James sneaked into the candle-lit room and proceeded to mix the plaster and apply it to Behan’s oiled face.

When it was time to remove the plaster, which demanded a bit of gentle force, James placed his elbow on Behan’s stomach for leverage while removing the cast from his face with his other hand.

With the force of James’s elbow on Behan’s stomach, however, the sound “buck” came from his mouth, which startled James who lifted his elbow quickly which in turn created the sound “off”, so what he heard from Behan was, "Buck off!"

James learned almost everything he knew from his father Albert, a master sculptor who crafted Michael Collins' death mask in 1922.