Brown, Christopher (‘Christy’) (1932–81), writer and artist, was born 5 June 1932 at the Rotunda hospital, Dublin, the sixth of thirteen surviving children among the twenty-two children of Patrick Brown, bricklayer and veteran of the 1916 rising, of 33 North King St., and Bridget Brown (née Fagan). Completely paralysed from birth, except for the use of his left foot, and unable to speak, in his late teens he was diagnosed as having cerebral palsy. In his childhood the family moved to 54 Stannaway Rd, Kimmage, Dublin. At the age of five, while watching his sister doing sums on a blackboard, he grasped the chalk with his left foot and began to scribble. Taught the alphabet by his mother, he learned gradually how to write with his foot and to read. When he was seven his brothers took him outside in an old boxcar, which he called ‘Henry’, enabling him to meet other children. He began painting at age ten, spending hours in his bedroom completing pictures, with drawing paper pinned to the floor. He was encouraged in his artistic development by social worker Katriona Delahunt, who visited his home and elicited a friend in the National College of Art to give him lessons. Another important influence was the paediatrician Dr Robert Collis (qv), who taught him to coordinate his movements and speech. In 1944 Brown won a painting competition for children in the Sunday Independent, and his photograph appeared in the newspaper. After travelling to London to meet cerebral palsy specialist Dr Eirene Collis (sister-in-law of the Dublin doctor), who encouraged him to have physiotherapy, he attended (1950–56) the cerebral palsy clinic at 22 Upper Merrion St., and at its subsequent location in Sandymount, Dublin. To aid his development he was urged not to use his left foot, and complied with the advice for several years. With the help of his brothers, who typed his notes, he started to compose an autobiography, resuming use of his left foot to complete the final drafts. Receiving home tuition from a local teacher at age 20, he proved to be a gifted student. In 1953 Robert Collis organised a reading of Brown's manuscript during a fund-raising concert for cerebral palsy victims at the Gresham hotel, Dublin. After many attempts, the work was finally published as My left foot (1954); a compelling portrait of Brown's determination to overcome his disability, it also provided an evocative glimpse of working-class Dublin. The book was filmed in 1989 by Jim Sheridan, featuring Daniel Day-Lewis, who won an academy award for his role as Brown.
Becoming a trainee with the Disabled Artists Association in 1957, Brown participated in demonstrations and road shows throughout Ireland; he became a full member of the association in 1968. He was a member of the Association of Mouth and Foot Painting Artists, based in Vaduz, Liechtenstein, sending them paintings which were reproduced on charity cards. He was the subject of a Radharc documentary made for RTE in 1962. An exhibition of his paintings was held in the Agnew Somerville gallery, Duke Lane, Dublin, in 1970.
Brown's first novel, Down all the days (1970), is a vivid realist fiction, inspired by his experiences while growing up, against the social background of Dublin in the 1930s and 1940s. A stage adaptation by Peter Sheridan was performed at the Oscar Theatre, Dublin, in 1981. A book of verse, Come softly to my wake: the poems of Christy Brown (1971), includes a poem in memory of Brendan Behan (qv), whom Brown knew. Brown married (1972) Mary Carr, a nurse, of Tralee, Co. Kerry; they lived at ‘Lisheen’, Stoney Park, Rathcoole, Co. Dublin, before moving to a cliff-top cottage at Ballyheigue, near Tralee, Co. Kerry (c.1974), where he continued to paint and write. The volume Background music (1973) is a series of love poems in celebration of his marriage. A second novel, A shadow on summer (1974), is an overwritten narrative, based on his emotionally charged relationship with Beth Moore, a voluntary worker with an American cerebral palsy association, in whose Connecticut home he had spent the summer of 1960. The 1976 novel Wild grow the lilies departs from the autobiographical interest of his previous work, but is contrived in its portrayal of Dublin. Of snails and skylarks (1977), a poetry collection, includes ‘Remembering a friend: Robert Collis’, and ‘City dweller’, which expresses his gratitude to Cerebral Palsy Ireland.
In 1978 Brown moved to Somerset, England, and began work on a novel about the music business. He died suddenly after choking on food at his home in Parbrook, Glastonbury, on 7 September 1981, and was buried in Glasnevin cemetery, Dublin. The posthumous Collected poems (1982) comprises the three volumes of poetry published during his lifetime; a novel, A promising career (1982), had been finished just before his tragic death. In 1990 Christie's of London organised an exhibition of eighteen of his paintings at a major sale of Irish painting at the RHA, Dublin. The library at Sandymount school and clinic is named after Brown. Seán O'Sullivan (qv) executed a portrait drawing of him in 1954, and a bronze portrait bust by Peter Lipman-Wulf is in the Irish Writers Museum, Dublin. In company Brown could be witty and gregarious, or moodily cantankerous and obstinate. Strong in will and spirit, he overcame his physical limitations to achieve a distinctive, individual style in his paintings, his poems, and his prose.