If tooth be told – An Irishman’s Diary on the great denture wearers

From Washington to Micko

By the time of his inauguration, George Washington had only a single tooth to call his own

By the time of his inauguration, George Washington had only a single tooth to call his own


The GAA football championship is entering its final and more spectacular stage. One spectacle that many still miss, even after several years, is the sight of that great Kerryman Mick O’Dwyer striding along the sideline.

For years this remarkable man was in charge of the Kerry team and afterwards managed several other county sides. The eyes of spectators were focused as this force of nature roared encouragement and instructions to players.

He presence was made even more colourful by the fact that every now and then the power of his lungs and voice expelled his dentures along with yelled orders or warnings.

Some sharp-shooting sports photographers were well aware of this possibility and there are some great photographs of Micko’s dentures in mid-air at a remove from the man himself. One remarkable photo shows him raising his open hand to catch them before they fall on the turf, with the danger of being trod on by the booted feet of scrambling players.

There were stories of his dentures falling out in the dressing room in Croke Park as with gestures and great emotion he aroused the Kerry players before they ran out on the field at Croke Park to compete in the All Ireland final.

On one occasion I heard a fellow say: “Those dentures are as famous as George Washington’s.”

When I looked it up I found that the military leader in the American War of Independence and its first president had several sets of dentures during his lifetime.

His natural teeth fell victim to decay over the years. It was said that the deterioration of his teeth was in part due to his habit of cracking walnuts with them as a youth. By the time of his inauguration he had only a single tooth to call his own.

During his eventful lifetime he wore partial or full dentures made of bone, hippopotamus ivory and human teeth held in place by brass screws and gold thread.

The false teeth that filled his mouth were odd-looking contraptions. The final set survives in a display unit in Mount Vernon, the Washington family estate in Virginia.

The ersatz teeth look a little grotesque. Yellowed and somewhat fearsome, they’re attached to bone and lead frames with wire and springs. They gave his mouth that strange, bulging appearance noticeable on US one dollar bills and in his later portraits.

He was self-conscious about this. More than that, he was afraid his teeth might spring out if he opened his mouth too wide. For that reason he tried to avoid public speaking.

Many of his contemporaries had little knowledge of his dental condition. They regarded him as thoughtful and taciturn. He seemed to epitomise the strong, man-of-few-words character that was highly regarded in the US.

There was another American of a much later age whose career in Hollywood was greatly helped by the fact that he wore dentures. This was Walter Brennan, a renowned character actor of Irish ancestry, whose toothless or badly dentured mouth can be seen year after year in classic films like Rio Bravo, To Have and Have Not or Red River.

Many of his front teeth were knocked out in a studio accident in 1932. Of course he had dentures installed. However, when he removed these his sunken cheeks made him look much older and with his scraping voice he was offered a much wider variety of roles. In the American frontier film Northwest Passage, the studio fitted him with special dentures that made him appear to have broken and rotting teeth.

He sunken mouth and shambling gait helped make him a scene-stealer, even in the company of Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall in To Have and Have Not. In many of his Westerns he played a cranky but lovable old cowpoke or an endearingly cantankerous sidekick to the central character.

In Red River, which starred John Wayne and Montgomery Clift, the decrepit dentures of Brennan featured in a sub-plot. Cleaned out of all his money in a card game he put them on the table as a last resort – and lost them to an Indian who was a fellow chuck-wagon driver. However, they were given back to him on loan at meal times.

In many of the publicity photos for the films in which he played he is seen in a battered cowboy hat and with an open-mouthed, toothless grin.

During a long career he won three Oscars for best supporting actor. It was said, in jest I’m sure, that he would never have done so if he’d had his own teeth. Nothing like that could ever be said of Mick O’Dwyer, who was able to win All Irelands and manage winning teams with or without his dentures.