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Originally published February 25, 2009 at 12:00 AM | Page modified February 25, 2009 at 9:27 AM

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Writer Christopher Nolan overcame severe disability

Christopher Nolan, an Irish writer who, mute and quadriplegic since birth, produced a highly praised volume of verse and short stories at 15 and went on to publish a prizewinning autobiography, "Under the Eye of the Clock," died Friday in Dublin. He was 43 and lived in Sutton, near Dublin.

The New York Times

Christopher Nolan, an Irish writer who, mute and quadriplegic since birth, produced a highly praised volume of verse and short stories at 15 and went on to publish a prizewinning autobiography, "Under the Eye of the Clock," died Friday in Dublin. He was 43 and lived in Sutton, near Dublin.

His family said he died after food became trapped in his airway.

Oxygen deprivation during a difficult delivery left Mr. Nolan physically helpless, able to communicate with family members only through eye movements. At 11, supplied with a new drug to relax his neck muscles, he began writing with a "unicorn stick" strapped to his forehead, pecking a letter at a time on a typewriter as his mother held his chin.

The brain that one doctor had predicted would remain infantile turned out to contain a distinctive literary voice awaiting release.

"My mind is like a spin-dryer at full speed, my thoughts fly around my skull while millions of beautiful words cascade down in my lap," he told The Observer of London in 1987.

When he was young, his father told him stories and read passages from Joyce, Beckett and D.H. Lawrence to keep his mind stimulated. His mother strung up letters of the alphabet in the kitchen, where she kept up a stream of conversation. His sister, Yvonne, sang songs and acted out skits. All three survive him.

"I was wanted dearly, loved dearly, bullied fairly and treated normally," Mr. Nolan told The Christian Science Monitor in 1988.

After selling their farm, Mr. Nolan's parents moved to a Dublin suburb in 1972 so Christy, as he was called, could attend a remedial school. In 1979 he transferred to a local school, where his classmates included members of the rock group U2. Their 2004 song "Miracle Drug" was about Mr. Nolan.

With the unicorn stick, Mr. Nolan "gimleted his words into white sheets of life," as he put it in "Under the Eye of the Clock." Liberated, he spent feverish hours at the typewriter.

"Under the Eye of the Clock," published in 1987, was an autobiography told in the third person through a narrator named Joseph Meehan. A best seller in Britain and the United States, it won the Whitbread Prize.

Mr. Nolan then spent more than a decade writing his first novel, "The Banyan Tree" (1999), the multigenerational story of a dairy-farming family in his native Westmeath, seen through the eyes of its aging matriarch. At his death, he was at work on a second novel.

A prominent Los Angeles producer wanted to make a film of Mr. Nolan's life story. He turned the offer down.

"I want to highlight the creativity within the brain of a cripple," he wrote to the producer, "and while not attempting to hide the crippledom I want instead to filter all sob-storied sentiment from his portrait and dwell upon his life, his laughter, his vision, and his nervous normality. Can we ever see eye-to-eye on that schemed scenario?"

Copyright © 2009 The Seattle Times Company

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