Christy Brown, a true Irish hero

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.


  1. This is a fine tribute, David. I remember hearing about the movie when it was out, but I never saw it. This makes me want to see it and know more about the man behind it. Happy St. Patty's Day to you!

  2. My Left Foot is banned in high school? Then what the hell can you show your pupils?! Disney's Hercules perhaps so they'll learn about Greek mythology?! (that's double sarcasm; Hercules got many things wrong and there is swearing in it). Really, these Americans. As for Brown's real life, I'm not surprised, since it was a film and in real life things aren't that rosy. I frankly was expecting something like that.

  3. I saw the movie and was impressed/inspired by the story and the actor's portrayal.
    So often we take our perfect limbs and faculties for granted, cribbing over shortcomings and failings to reach our potential.
    But I guess the dual disadvantage they are both with- disability and society's apathy gives them the passion and strength to prove themselves as good as any other person.
    So true, what you have written. Real life is often not rosy even our lives when we look back.

    1. I hate blogger. I went on and on and poof it disappeared.
      I read "my left foot" when i was 13 years old. No one told me to read it, or the Autobiography of Malcolm X or "black like me" all of which I had read by the time I was in 8th grade. The books were in the public library.
      On the other hand, other good books were required reading in school. And i didn't read them. I learned enough about them to get B's and C's in class. I hated to be told what to read.
      As a teacher, it must be very frustrating trying to engage kids in reading.
      and I am sorry about your school district. What, do they think high school kids have never heard swearing?

      Mimi Torchia Boothby Watercolors

  4. Love those Pogues. My Left Foot is a terrific movie, but I don't remember it being about Christy Brown. So, thank you for the education, or re-education. See, you are a good teacher. I'll bet the classroom misses you. :)

  5. you too Daisy - it's a long time since I last saw it too. Thanks Rek - I know so much fo happy ever after eh?

  6. thanks for visiting Mimi - yes there were inflexible rules, one school district got in trouble for showing MacBeth!

  7. the systm was kind of strange Starla and seemed to make no sense..

  8. hey I don;t think so jayne but I meet some former kids now and again and some of them say they liked my classes


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