Gifted writer whose voice burst out of the silence
Christopher Nolan:CHRISTOPHER NOLAN, who has died aged 43, was an award-winning writer whose first book, a volume of poetry, was published when he was only 15. The writer, who suffered from cerebral palsy due to being deprived of oxygen during his birth, used a pointer attached to his head to write.
His second book, an autobiography told in the third person entitled Under the Eye of the Clock, was published when he was 22. It was granted the prestigious Whitbread Book of the Year award in 1988.
Eileen Battersby wrote in this newspaper that it “offers a strange combination of humour, arrogance, frustration and linguistic brashness”, adding that the writer had a poet’s response to life and to his physical isolation.
John Carey, professor of English at Merton College, Oxford, who wrote the preface to the book, stated: “It would be possible to praise and analyse Nolan’s book as one would the work of any brilliantly gifted young writer, without reference to his physical condition.
“It would, however, be misguided in my opinion. For this is a voice coming from silence, and a silence that has, as Nolan is aware, lasted for centuries.
“He has a keen sense of the generations of mute helpless cripples who have been ‘dashed, branded and treated as dross’, for want of a voice to tell us what it feels like.”
Born in Mullingar in 1965, he was the son of Joseph and Bernadette Nolan and spent his early years on the family farm. In an interview in 1981 his mother described his condition as being “gagged and in a straitjacket for life”, but she was determined that he would live as normal a life as possible.
His parents and sister spared no effort in assisting him to remove the many obstacles in his way.
The family left the farm when he was six and moved to Dublin. They bought a house near the Central Remedial Clinic in Clontarf where he attended the national school attached to the clinic.
The family had to fight for his secondary education. His dis-ability counted against him, but finally Mount Temple Comprehensive School accepted him.
“We tried not to make concessions,” the headmaster John Medleycott said.
“He came into a mixed ability class and went to all his classes. We didn’t demand homework, but he followed the normal school curriculum. We didn’t smother him: it was up to him to sink or swim, and he swam.”
He studied at Trinity College Dublin, but left after a year. Far from being a failure, however, that decision was an expression of self-confidence, of the fact that he did not need a degree in order to prove himself.
Unable to speak, at the age of 11 the combination of a new muscle relaxant drug and a micro-computer enabled him to communicate.
Mount Temple old boys U2 in 2004 dedicated the track Miracle Drug from the album How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb to him.
His first book Dam-burst of Dreamswas published in 1981. In her review for The Irish TimesLucille Redmond described it as the first production of a talented writer.
Speaking in 1988 after the Whitbread award, Nolan said: “I have to discipline my mind and then I have to discipline my bedamned body so that what comes out on paper is the outcome of an almighty battle.” But he felt compelled to continue writing: “I feel I must go on painting a desert landscape treaded lonesomely with strands of the most unimaginable magic ribbons.”
He forecast that his next novel would take five years of “untrammelled writing” and promised it would be worth waiting for. The Banyan Tree, in fact, took 12 years to write, but it was worth the wait. The writer Marita Conlon- McKenna described it as “a beautiful story of a woman’s life”.
Eileen Battersby wrote: “Many Irish novels have been over-praised, none has been as seriously underrated as this mature, atmospheric narrative which is as subtle as it is simple, and is also a vivid portrait of a rural world which is disappearing.”
Torchlight and Laser Beams, a theatrical entertainment based on his writings was staged at the Gaiety Theatre in 1988. He took a close interest in the proceedings, attending rehearsals in St Catherine’s Church, Thomas Street.
Honours include the Medal of Excellence from the United Nations’ Society of Writers and an honorary doctorate of letters from the University of Lancaster in 1991.
He was named Person of the Year in Ireland in 1988, and was elected a member of Aosdána in 1998.
A devout Catholic, his sense of destiny was strongly coloured by religion.
He is survived by his parents Joseph and Bernadette and sister Yvonne.
Christopher Nolan: born September 6th, 1965; died February 20th, 2009