|Subject: Archive: Christy Brown, Sept.7, 1981
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Date Posted: 09/ 7/09 1:11:43pm
Christy Brown (June 5, 1932 – September 7, 1981) was an Irish author, painter and poet who had severe cerebral palsy. He is most famous for his autobiography My Left Foot, which was later made into an Academy Award-winning film of the same name.
Born in Crumlin, Dublin to parents Bridget and Paddy, he was one of 13 surviving children (out of 22 born) in a Catholic family. He was disabled by cerebral palsy and was incapable for years of deliberate movement or speech. Doctors considered him to be intellectually disabled as well. However, his mother continued to speak to him, work with him, and try to teach him. One day, he famously snatched a piece of chalk from his sister with his left foot to make a mark on a slate.
At about five years old, 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 learned to read. In the meantime, his brothers took him to play with them, in an old go-cart called 'Henry', and later a wagon called 'Sylvester'. They included him in their activities as much as possible. They even took him swimming, much to his delight. When his second vehicle finally broke, his adventures with his brothers came to an end. He became aware of his disabilities and withdrew from public gaze. He retreated into reading.
Treatment from Dr. Robert Collis
After his mother broke through the physical barrier and achieved communication, she was admitted into hospital for the birth of her 21st child. While there, Bridget met Lady Almoner (Katriona MaGuire, 1924–) who was working the impoverished area of the inner-city in Dublin and its tenements, with the Irish writer and doctor Robert Collis. Katriona told Collis about the unique story of Christy and his mother. After using his contacts in Johns Hopkins Hospital and in London hospitals, he realised Christy Brown had a severe case of Athetoid cerebral palsy. He decided he would begin a treatment centre in Ireland for all victims of cerebral palsy (the first of its kind in the country) and that Christy Brown would be his first patient.
He met Christy in the Brown family home in Kimmage. While there he and Christy bonded and cemented a life-long friendship; both loved literature and Collis was friends with some of the great Irish writers at the time such as Cecil Day-Lewis (father of Daniel Day-Lewis) and Frank O'Connor amongst others. Collis had attended school in Cambridge and was well connected in both the literary and medical fields. Not only did he introduce Brown to these writers, but he guided him in the writing of Brown's first book: My Left Foot (1954).
Collis also asked Brown to attend a treatment centre for cerebral palsy in London, where Brown met Robert Collis's sister Dr. Eirene Collis. After examining Christy, she made him promise to stop using his left foot, because in using it he twisted the rest of his body into an unnatural position. (Dr. Eileen Cole in the film version of My Left Foot is a composite character of Katriona MaGuire, Dr. Robert Collis and Dr. Eirene Collis.)
After Dr. Robert Collis opened his new clinic in Dublin, specializing in cerebral palsy care, Brown attended treatment there for several years. He was also tutored by several people in the family home in Kimmage—Dr Collis himself, a Dr. Warrants and a local priest taught him philosophy, mathematics, literature and language skills. After the publication of his first book (which was written firstly by his brothers and sisters transcribing for him and then with a pencil held between the toes of his left foot) he decided he had gained all he could from the treatment and he left the clinic.
Attempts to gain independence
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 had no formal education and had read only Dickens, he wrote in a florid and old-fashioned style. He dictated hundreds of pages to two of his brothers, but the result was unreadable even for him. Eventually he asked Dr. Collis for help. Dr. Collis was 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; another, to avoid clichés. In 1964, after the publication of My Left Foot, Christy worked for the Disabled Artists Association, producing on average one painting a week for over five years. He left the DAA after the publication of the tremendously successful Down All the Days (1970).
Marriage and death
He married his nurse, Mary Carr, on October 5, 1972 in Sutton Co Dublin. One biography of Brown claims that she was also a lesbian, a former prostitute and an alcoholic. He settled in Ballyheigue, County Kerry. He later moved to Parbrook, Somerset, England. Brown died on September 7, 1981 after choking on a dinner of lamb chops and potatoes. There were claims that bruises were found on his body at autopsy, consistent with having been physically abused shortly before his death.  He is buried in Glasnevin Cemetery.
 Literary works
His autobiography, My Left Foot, was later expanded into the novel Down All the Days and became an international bestseller, with translations into 14 languages. The Irish Times reviewer Bernard Share said the book was "...the most important Irish novel since Ulysses". Like Joyce, Brown employed the stream-of-consciousness technique and captured the Dublin culture in his use of humour, language and unique character description. Down All the Days is a novel of Ireland and its society, focusing more on that than Brown's illness. Down All the Days was followed by a series of other novels, including A Shadow on Summer (1972), Wild Grow the Lilies (1976) and A Promising Career (published posthumously in 1982). He also published three poetry collections, including Come Softly to My Wake, Background Music and Of Snails and Skylarks (now available in a compendium as The Collected Poems of Christy Brown).
My Left Foot, a film version of his autobiography, was directed 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 the film. The film was nominated for five Oscars in total, including best picture.
The Irish rock band The Pogues paid tribute to Christy Brown with a song titled "Down All the Days". It is the seventh track on their 1989 recording, Peace and Love.
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