Life and career of Christy Brown

Born in Crumlin, Dublin, he was one of thirteen surviving children (out of twenty-two born) in a Catholic family. He was handicapped with cerebral palsy and was incapable for years of deliberate movement or speech. Doctors considered him to be mentally disabled as well. However, his mother continued to speak to him, work with him, and try to teach him until he famously snatched a piece of chalk from his sister with his left foot to make a mark on the floor. He was about five years old and only his left foot responded to his will. His mother then taught him the alphabet and he laboriously copied each letter, holding chalk between his toes. He learned to spell out words and finally to read. In the meantime, his brothers took him everywhere in an old go-cart or wagon and included him in their activities as much as possible. They even took him swimming, much to his delight. When the cart finally broke, his adventures with his brothers came to an end. He became aware of his disabilities and withdrew from public gaze and into reading.

After his mother broke through the physical barrier and achieved communication, Brown was examined by a Dr. Eileen Cole and placed in a new physiotherapy program. He had to promise to stop using his left foot, because in using it he twisted the rest of his body into an unnatural position. Dr Cole had opened a new clinic in Dublin, specialising in Cerebral Palsy. Christy had been invited to join, but did not feel comfortable in the environment and discontinued his attendance. Dr Cole however, gave Christy home tutoring, where he learned to develop his movement and speech. This did not discontinue his use of his left foot.

Brown’s autobiography describes a trip to Lourdes, which was a solemn and uplifting adventure for the young Brown, but ineffectual in producing any physical improvement. Brown describes his attachments, passions, and crushes, his admiration for his doctors and teachers, and his frustrations with his abilities. His father was a bricklayer who recruited his sons into the same trade. Gradually, Christy withdrew into a life of the mind and had less and less in common with his brothers in his age group. He felt that the younger children in his family, a different age group, were less familiar. His mother persuaded the family to build him a small, separate house in their back yard. It became his studio, where he could withdraw for peace and quiet, away from his siblings and their spouses and children.

Brown switched from reading to writing and from writing to painting. Then he decided to write his autobiography. As he was self-taught and had read only Dickens, he wrote in a florid and old-fashioned style, dictating hundreds of pages to two of his brothers, but the work was unreadable even for him. Eventually he asked Dr. Cole for help. Dr. Cole was also a published author and poet, who could and did provide valuable instruction in the art of writing as well as encouragement. One command was to read modern authors.

His autobiography, My Left Foot, was later expanded into the novel Down All The Days and became an international bestseller, with translations into fourteen languages. Down All The Days was followed by a series of other novels, including A Shadow on Summer. He also published a number of poetry collections, including Come Softly to My Wake (published in America as Poems of Christy Brown).

With his wife, Mary Carr (whom he married on October 5, 1972), he settled in Ballyheigue, County Kerry. He later moved to Parbrook, Somerset, England, where he died, aged 49. He is buried in Glasnevin Cemetery.

My Left Foot, a film version of his autobiography, was filmed by Jim Sheridan in 1989 with a screenplay by Shane Connaughton. Daniel Day-Lewis starred as Christy while Brenda Fricker played Brown’s mother; both won oscars for their roles in their film.

The Irish rock band The Pogues paid tribute to Christy Brown with a song titled “Down All the Days”. It is the 7th track on their 1989 recording, Peace and Love.

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