“Do you think I will ever be a poet? That is what I want to be more than anything else for to me life is extraordinarily beautiful and I want to sing about it, but at times I feel like a bird trapped in a cage without wings or voice.” Christy Brown
Somehow in two simple sentences, Christy Brown manages to describe the human condition. I think all of us struggle with the paradox of being alive. Sometimes we feel like we’re on top of the world and at other times, we feel like it might not be all that worthwhile to get out of bed.
The Louvre in Paris may have the Mona Lisa, and the Galleria dell’Academia in Florence may have the David, but The Little Museum of Dublin had an exhibition on the life story of Christy Brown told through photographs and letters. It made a lasting impression on me, and I think of him often because to me Christy Brown’s life is a shining example of what it means to be Irish.
Christy was born in Dublin in 1932 to Bridget and Patrick Brown. He had twenty-two siblings, but only thirteen lived past infancy. After Christy was diagnosed with severe cerebral palsy, his parents dismissed the advice that he needed to be hospitalized. Rather they were determined to raise him at home with his brothers and sisters. And so they did. Most know the rest of his story from the 1990 movie adaptation of Christy’s autobiography, My Left Foot. Brown became a world-renowned novelist and painter using the only part of his body that he could control, the toes of his left foot. Using household books, he learned how to write and draw himself. When he was nine, his father carried him into a pub and said, “This is Christy Brown, my son. Genius.” And from his mother – “Go ahead, Christy. Make your mark.” And so he did.
My Left Foot became a literary sensation, and then later with the help of Beth Moore, an American woman, he wrote his masterpiece, Down All the Days. Like James Joyce’s Ulysses, Brown used stream-of-consciousness to recreate his Dublin. By this time, Christy had become a prominent international celebrity.
Unfortunately the happy ending that is implied in the last scene of the movie was not to be in real life. In a life that was characterized by great struggles and great achievements, his last years were tragic, marred by his relationship with his abusive wife. He died in 1981 at the age of forty-nine.
His novels and his poems and his paintings endure. I am reminded once again of all of the art that is created and remains through suffering. And because the Irish seem to be so connected to one another, Bono and the lads wrote a beautiful song called “Down All the Days” in 1991 for Achtung Baby in honor of Christy.
The beginning of “Down All the Days” by U2
My eyes are black, They’ve seen the glory, My ears are shut, They’ve heard the storm, My legs are weak, From so much stumbling, Down all the days, Down all the days…
And of course Daniel Day-Lewis and Brenda Fricker won Academy Awards for their performances in the film. In his acceptance speech Day-Lewis said, “You’ve just provided me with the makings of one hell of a weekend in Dublin.” For more than twenty years now Day-Lewis has been living in a tiny village in the Wicklow Mountains with his wife Rebecca Miller and their sons. Daniel Day-Lewis’ father was born on Ireland’s west coast and the actor had happy childhood memories of vacations in Ireland that ultimately drew him back to stay. About the country that he now calls home, he said, “Ireland was a place for the renewal of hope and I still see it like that.” And also, “This is the place that sustains me…It is a refuge where I restore myself.”
Do you see what I mean? It’s not just me! The place is magical. I’m looking forward to going back to Dublin in July. And I cannot go back to Dublin without a trek to the Wicklow Mountains. I know where Daniel Day-Lewis has his tea, but I also know that he lives away from it all for a reason. Unlike Aidan Gillen I don’t think he would stop what he was doing to say, “How’s it going?” (I could be wrong, but I don’t think so.) I’ll always go back to County Wicklow because of the wonderful times I have had there and hope to have.
I will leave you with something that Christy Brown once wrote, “The greatest art is the art of living – the greatest artist the liver of life.”