Back at school no St. Paddy’s Day was complete without Mr.Tate’s monologue during morning assembly devoted to Christy Brown. Mr. Tate, himself of Irish extraction and no friend of a Tory government that was in favor of Draconian powers of arrest in Ulster, would exhort us to identify with his boy’s own hero.
Christy Brown was born in 1932 with cerebral palsy after he was partially suffocated during birth. His body didn’t work but his mind was brilliant
The only part of his body he could control was his left foot. His devoted mother Bridget spent hours helping him learn to read and write in a time when Ireland had no time or inclination to educate the disabled.
My school friends had the same attitude. The class issued a collective groan whenever Tate started banging on about the “crip” again. Kids are invariably cruel.
Brown proved the naysayers wrong. He wrote two bestselling books later, confounding the doctors.
During my short time in teaching I tried to get the class interested in Brown but nobody really cared. Could I really blame them given my classmates’ reaction 25 years earlier? I wanted to show them the movie but it was banned because it contained swear words. I found this odd, given that many of the students spent their weekends listening to the misogynistic hate-filled tirades of rappers.
It felt funny to realize I had become like Mr.Tate, albeit a pale imitation containing a good deal less of the emerald isle. Mr. Tate was markedly more successful in teaching, even if his efforts to get a Labour MP elected in Gloucester were unsuccessful in the freewheeling eighties.
Tate burned with the Irish inferiority complex and the notion that he was treading water in a sluggish educational system, while in reality he probably affected the lives of more students than anybody else in the school, not that either the teacher or his disaffected pupils realized it at the time.
And Christy’s story became a classic tale of beating adversity against the odds. He was immortalized in the 1989 film My Left Foot that won Daniel Day Lewis an Oscar as best actor in a leading role and Brenda Fricker a best actress in a supporting role Academy Award as Brown’s mother Bridget.
And although Brown died at the age of 49 in 1981 after choking on a lamb chop, his story is depicted in the film and in literature as a “happily ever after” tale.
At least until the 2007 book by Georgina Louise Hambleton, that painted a picture of an increasingly bitter man who was married to a prostitute and lived his life in what a reviewer from the Observer described as “an angry, alcoholic haze.”
Hambleton suggested Brown’s wife Mary Carr abused him mentally and physically. “It seems, though, that the relationship slowly eroded his soul, destroying his art and then him,” Hambleton said.
Even if Brown’s life departed from the script of the film, he remains an inspiration. Christy Brown once wrote: “From the gutter of my defeated dreams you pulled me to heights almost your own.”
Perhaps rather than banging on about leprechauns and shamrocks on St Paddy’s Day and getting misty eyed about what the Pogues dubbed “the land that made us refugees,” we’d be better off remembering Christy Brown - a true Irish hero.