herald

Thursday 18 September 2014

Christy deserves to be remembered alon g with Joyce, Yeats and Wilde

FORTY-FIVE thousand euro sounds like a lot of money in some contexts. It doesn't sound like much when applied to the last collection of a quintessential Dublin writer.

But that was the price fetched by a London auction house yesterday for paintings, writings, books and letters once belonging to our own Christy Brown.

The collection was bought by the National Library and the Little Museum of Dublin.

Within that very affectionate phrase: "our own Christy Brown" though lies a great sadness, revealed by the auction.

For some readers, the 'ah factor' comes into play: "Ah, would you look at the poor little boy with the cerebral palsy whose left foot freed him to express his great trapped mind, visually and verbally. Ah, would you look at our Christy..."

The downside of the stories was the reaction of younger people. It was like the heartbreaking line at the end of the song And The Band Played Waltzing Matilda, where a maimed old soldier, watching a parade of his aging former comrades, hears teenagers asking "what are they marching for?" and grimly asks himself the same question.

The younger Australians in that song had no connection to an old, forgotten war, just as today's younger Dubliners have few connections to a writer who might be completely forgotten were it not for the movie, My Left Foot where Daniel Day-Lewis gave an unforgettable performance as the crippled artist.

FORGOTTEN

Day-Lewis won an Oscar, as did Brenda Fricker who played his mother, and the film, as a result, stays around in repeats and on DVD.

But were it not for My Left Foot there is a real chance that Christy Brown might be completely forgotten.

When people talk about Irish writers, they talk about Yeats, Joyce, Wilde and Heaney. They do not speak of Christy Brown.

They do not write dissertations about his work or issue commemorative stamps in his honour - like that launched for Brendan Behan today.

Literary fame is a random thing, landing like a butterfly on a man like Christy Brown, turning him into a world figure and then fluttering on, abandoning him to questions in pub quizzes and yellowing paperbacks on the bookshelves of grandparents.

There's no fairness in it. No fairness for a man who was assumed to be a living vegetable up to the day his mother spotted the toddler writing letters in the ash of the hearth with his left foot, the only part of his body over which he had complete control.

She fought for him, achieving an education and a future for him and he came through like a champion. Brown's generation of working-class Dubliners were raised before television sucked the life out of the house, and so they read books and argued ideas.

MEMORIES

When Christy became a full-time writer, words poured out of a mind stoppered-up by birth damage but freed by relatives, by medical men like the great Dr Robert Collis and by the women who loved and supported him.

Isn't it strange, all the same, that the 30 years since his death Christy Brown has been allowed to fade from the memories of his fellow Dubliners like an old photograph left on a sun-bleached window-sill? Could it be that the Dublin writers we choose to remember, like Wilde and Joyce, were of higher social standing than the hard-swearing lad from Kimmage?

Wilde's father was a surgeon, not a labourer. Joyce was educated by the Jesuits to a level Brown could never reach.

Just as the habits that make you fall in love with someone can later be a cause for divorce, in the same way our original "isn't he great all the same" reaction to Christy Brown's work now allows us to dismiss him as a man who simply overcame disability.

He was much more than that. Much more. That's why it's good news that his archive will remain in Dublin, where we should remember him with pride.

Opinion

Entertainment News