Special Night for a Dublin Family
Success of film `My Left Foot' heartens Brown clan because it helps people see the disabled as equals
KIMAGGO, IRELAND — THEY screamed. They shouted. They stamped their feet and leaped from chairs. Then, two hours later, just as a semblance of calm began to descend, another wave of exuberance swept through the living room. ``It was like an all-Ireland football match,'' recalls Mona Byrne of the joy she and her family experienced as they watched, via satellite TV in her home here, the Academy Awards ceremony from Los Angeles in March.
The feeling is not difficult to understand. Mrs. Byrne a white-haired woman whose face easily lights up with impish energy, is one of the sisters of Christy Brown. And it is Christy Brown's life story - ``My Left Foot'' - that the double Oscar-winning film about a triumph over severe handicap is based on.
Seeing Irish actress Brenda Fricker, who plays her mother in the film, honored as best supporting actress was a moment of elation for Mona and her family. But when English thespian Daniel Day-Lewis received the best-actor accolade for portraying her brother - ``with all that competition from Tom Cruise and the other big boys in America!'' - exclaims Mona with a laugh, any thoughts of sleep disappeared, even though it was just past 6 a.m. Irish time.
Mona, her husband, Tom, and five grown children plus spouses had happily stayed up up all night for the occasion. But it seemed to them that, judging by the phone calls streaming into the house, most of Dublin must have remained awake as well.
The family would also stay up the following night, celebrating. Indeed, over a week later, when I met Mona for an interview in her modest tract home in Kimmago - a working-class Dublin suburb where she and the rest of the Brown clan were raised and where ``My Left Foot'' was filmed - Mona still had not managed to lay her head down on her pillow for more than a few hours at a time. ``We've been on a high, honest to God,'' she said with a distinctively cheery tone, ``and we haven't fallen off that high yet.''
Mona's brother, Christy, would be 58 today. He died nine years ago, never in his wildest dreams imagining, she says, that the tale of his life would be preserved so movingly as an inspiration for others and would win international acclaim.
Christy was born with no coordination of head or limb except for his left foot, and even there control was restricted almost entirely to the big toe. Until his late teens, his only communication was through grunts and garbled noises that could not be understood by anyone outside his immediate family.
Mona and her sister, plus three brothers - all that's left of the Brown clan in Dublin these days - occasionally visited the set of ``My Left Foot'' when it was being filmed. The producer, Noel Pearson, is a close friend. ``He's a neighbor's child,'' Mona says, ``reared just around the corner from us.'' She along with other family members helped as much as they could with memories of Christy. They even served as extras in the film's two pub scenes (although, in the end, only her brothers and a brother-in-law actually appear on screen).
When they saw the first rushes, Mona confides that she and her sister cried. Fellow Dubliner Jim Sheridan, the film's director, remarked that it was the highest compliment the women could pay him. ``It took a lot out of us,'' comments Mona of their reaction. ``Looking at Daniel Day-Lewis, you'd swear it was Christy. Daniel was absolutely fabulous, really and truly.... Just look at that picture,'' she says, pointing to a film poster of the actor as her brother, the only item adorning the brown-tiled kitchen wall above where we are sitting. ``It's the image of him. That's why I have it up there.''
The attitude of those who knew the Brown household - father, mother, plus 22 children, 13 of whom survived - was the norm for Ireland some 40 years ago: Individuals such as Christy, while evoking pity, were ultimately seen as a source of shame to the family into which they were born. Repeatedly doctors advised Mr. and Mrs. Brown that it would be best if their son was institutionalized and forgotten about. Mona points out, apart from Christy, she never saw another severely disabled person while growing up in Dublin, since it was standard practice to put them away. An ``idiot and beyond help'' were the words used to describe him, which Christy himself heard spoken and recounted years later in his autobiography.
Such pronouncements proved woefully wrong. Defying doctors' verdicts of her son's mental capacity, Christy's mother ``knew, as we all did,'' says Mona, ``that he had a mind, a brain, the same as the rest of the children.'' In fact, as later discovered, he was not simply intellectually ``normal''; he was gifted. ``We're all dumbbells compared to him,'' jokes Mona, smiling at the memory of her remarkable brother. ``We always said of Christy - it's an old Irish saying - `God never closes one door without opening another.''' Christy's own philosophy was to ``never look back, just go forward.''
That attitude saw him through a lot. In the end, despite a total lack of formal education, Brown's talents for painting - and particularly writing - were recognized. He eventually taught himself to type with his big toe. That the works' creator happened to be handicapped became incidental.
Upon publication of what is generally thought to be his finest book, ``Down All the Days'' (1970), a semi-autobiographical novel displaying a maturity of literary style far surpassing his earlier acclaimed work, ``My Left Foot'' (1954), the Irish Times stated that it ``will surely stand beside [James] Joyce and in front of all the others as Dublin writ large and writ large for all times.'' In all, Brown wrote nine books, four of them collections of poetry. The books distinguished him as the first severely disabled person in the world to make a significant contribution to the field of literature.
The Browns were a blue-collar clan - the father and four of Christy's brothers were bricklayers - and funds were always scarce, particularly with so many mouths to feed. All the children left school at age 14 or earlier to go to work.
Mona believes Christy's later flowering of talent of a kind wholly out of character for the family was due largely to the indomitable spirit of their mother. ``My mother [was] pushing him all the time,'' Mona recalls. ``Her words were always, `Never stop trying.'''
Since the other kids could go off to school to learn to read, Mrs. Brown took it upon herself to teach Christy at home, with a piece of chalk on the family's worn linoleum floor. From there he eventually took to devouring everything, from comic books to Dickens.
Equally important, observes Mona, Christy did not receive special treatment. He was repeatedly inculcated with the view that he was no different than his brothers and sisters. ``He wasn't spoiled,'' says Mona. ``No way! He got a clip around the ear if he misbehaved, the same as we would, and because of that he learned to take care of himself. He was treated exactly like the rest of us - no better, no worse. How could you spoil him with such a big family? You wouldn't have the patience nor the time nor the money to spoil anybody'' - nor, indeed, the belief in the wisdom in doing so. Mona firmly maintains, as did her mother, that for parents to ``lavish love and everything they can on a [disabled] child would [ruin the child].''
From such a no-nonsense upbringing, Christy grew to dislike pity more than anything else. He saw it as an attitude that perpetuated soul-destroying barriers between himself and the able-bodied world. ``When we'd all be out and people would see him,'' Mona explains, ``they'd come over and put their hand on his shoulder and say, `God bless you son; you've done grand.' And he was a grown man! ... We'd be ignored, and it was always, `Poor Christy, God love him,' and `God's watching down on him.' It used to drive him mad: Why wasn't God watching down on me or Peter or Paddy...? That's what he hated. As far as he was concerned, he wasn't any different from the rest of us.''
As for what would have been Christy's view of the film, Mona's response is immediate. ``Apart from all the glory and the Oscars and everything else,'' she says, ``he'd have hoped that in showing what he could achieve would open up the gates, in every respect, for others that are handicapped; he'd have loved to know that his story would help them to be treated as equals, just the same as he finally was.''