Newsflash from Cair Paravel: C.S.Lewis was Irish!

by Deirdre Good

When we ignore or gloss over major aspects of a person like C. S. Lewis—roots, religious affiliation, ethnicity—we diminish our own understanding of our subject, rendering the person less rich and less than complete.

Current Irish celebrations of the life and death of Clive Staples Lewis highlight a case in point. November 22nd, 2013 was the 50th anniversary of his death in the UK. But his life began in Ireland. Lewis was born in Belfast, Northern Ireland on November 29th, 1898. His grandfather, the Rev. Thomas Hamilton, Rector of St. Mark’s, Dundela in East Belfast, baptized Clive Staples Lewis in St Mark’s on January 29th 1899. Lewis’ parents were from County Cork. His father Albert was a solicitor whose parents moved to Belfast to work in the shipbuilding industry and his mother Florence, “Flora,” was the daughter of a Protestant clergyman who served a parish in East Belfast. She studied at the Royal University of Ireland in Belfast where she gained First class Honors in Logic and Second Class Honors in Mathematics.

The Belfast Telegraph in a recent article, “Westminster Abbey honours CS Lewis alongside literary elite 50 years after his death,” (Nov 23rd, 2013) identifies Lewis as Belfast’s most famous literary son. In Belfast City Hall, a week of events recently marked Lewis’ life and death. St Anne’s Cathedral in Belfast has invited people to record in a leather-bound book (between Nov 22nd and Nov 29th 2013) how they have been influenced by Lewis’ writings. It’s website highlights Lewis’ family connection to the Cathedral: his uncle, Sir William Ewart and several of the Ewart family are commemorated there. On Nov 28th at Linen Hall Library in Belfast, local author Sandy Smith discussed his new 2013 book C.S.Lewis and the Island of His Birth investigating “his strong Ulster Scots links.” The C. S. Lewis Festival programme identifies Lewis’ early religious affinities whilst in Ireland noting that after his father removed Lewis from Campbell College Belfast to send him to school at Malvern College in England in 1913, he became an atheist there at age fifteen. These are lively discussions of Lewis’ identities. Indeed, the Irish celebrations clearly recognize the importance of his Irish identity and Church of Ireland affiliations but the BBC report of the Lewis commemoration at Westminster Abbey labels him only as an author of the best-selling Chronicles of Narnia and as a respected Oxford scholar and literary critic. It fails to note his birth in Belfast and his Irish origins.

It is unfortunate but not surprising that English coverage glosses over the Irish roots of Lewis, but one wonders why there is so little mention of it in the American media given the large Irish population in the US. Irish identities are complicated but Protestants have been in Ireland since the 16th C which is as long as Anglos and Hispanics and the French have been in the US and North America. Are we saying that only Irish Catholics are truly Irish?

castle.jpgTo take Lewis’ Irish character seriously is to recognize and define him as someone with two cultural identities: he was born Irish, and despite the fact that he resided and worked in England, he maintained an Irish identity: heaven in The Great Divorce is an “emerald green” land. Although Lewis lived most of his life as an Oxford and Cambridge scholar, his dreams were of Ireland as he notes in his diary, and he visited the north or the south of Ireland almost every year. Lewis once described heaven as “Oxford placed in the middle of County Down.” In the Glens of Antrim (Northern Ireland) and in the golden sands of the Antrim coast at Portrush, Ballycastle and elsewhere, we glimpse Narnia. Dunluce Castle (now ruins – see photo) may be the model for Cair Paravel. The Horse Bree in The Horse and His Boy, describes it: “The happy land of Narnia—Narnia of the heathery mountains and the thymy downs, Narnia of the many rivers, the plashing glens, the mossy caverns and the deep forests… Oh the sweet air of Narnia!” That Bree speaks of glens identifies an Irish (or Scottish, Welsh, or Cornish) landscape. What confirms Lewis’ voice is the cadences of exile that Bree expresses—as Lewis himself does—in yearning for a distant homeland. Such longing became a theme connected to joy in his writings: in his book Surprised by Joy, Lewis says “All joy…emphasizes our pilgrim status; always reminds, beckons, awakens desire. Our best havings are wantings.”

Irish currents run through the novels: to call Peter High King is to use historical Irish descriptions of High Kings of Ireland ruling over lesser kings and queens. Peter is High King in relation to Queens Susan, Lucy and King Edward in the Chronicles of Narnia.

As for his own reflections, Lewis himself surmised that he wasn’t recognized as an Irish author in his lifetime perhaps because he was a self-identified Irish Protestant atheist not a Roman Catholic. Alistair McGrath, in his excellent new 2103 biography, C.S.Lewis–A Life, Eccentric Genius, Reluctant Prophet, says, “many still regard Lewis as lying outside the pale of true Irish cultural identity on account of his Ulster Protestant roots.” While McGrath discusses Lewis’ various identities including his Ulster Protestant roots, his atheism, his conversion to theism and then Christianity, and his Anglicanism, still other questions remain unaddressed: how did Lewis negotiate expressions of his dual cultures? Was he drawn to authors like William Butler Yeats, “an author exactly after my own heart,” he says in a letter to a friend, precisely because he wanted to investigate how Yeats “de-Anglicized” his own literary vernacular which he describes thus: “Yeats writes plays and poems of rare spirit and beauty about our old Irish mythology.” Lewis investigates Irish language in other poets: he sees in Spenser’s poem, Faerie Queen, the effects of Spenser’s sojourn in Ireland with its “quests and wanderings and inextinguishable desires, and Ireland itself – the soft, wet air, the loneliness, the muffled shapes of the hills, the heart-rending sunsets.”

A failure to recognize Lewis’ negotiated Irish identity is a failure to identify central interests of his life and writings. It is challenging to incorporate various religious and ethnic identities into our understanding of people but our lives and identities are indeed composite and irreducible. By recognizing the intricacies of Lewis’ ethnic and religious identity, we broaden and deepen the means by which we try to understand all aspects of his life and thereby we expand our own horizons.

Dr. Deirdre Good is Academic Dean and professor of New Testament at The General Theological Seminary, specializing in the Synoptic Gospels, Christian Origins, Noncanonical writings and biblical languages. Her blog is called On Not Being a Sausage.

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5 Comments
  1. K. Jeanne Person

    It would be interesting to explore further Lewis’ “early religious affinities” in Ireland, especially given the “Irish currents” in the Narnia books, written for children. How did Lewis understand children’s spirituality? Once he became a theist, and then a Christian, as an adult, did he recognize and ponder his own early inclinations that later found mature expression in the Christian language system? Was there something about Irish spirituality, for example the Celtic embrace of the natural landscape and of mystery, that, for Lewis, resonated with a child’s approach towards God and informed his writing of the Narnia books?

  2. deirdregood

    From Lilian Revel:

    Very interesting article, giving C. S. Lewis his well-deserved Irish recognition. Having been raised in a Spanish speaking country, I only became familiar with English-language literature when I came to the US and specifically with the Narnia Chronicles when my older son started reading. I myself was fascinated by these stories. Ethnic identity can become a real problem when one leaves the familiar country behind. One always remains a pilgrim, never feeling at home anywhere, yet always keeping alive that – often irrational – yearning for home, a form of which comes through so clearly in Celtic spirituality. But aren’t we all pilgrims on this earth yearning for God, regardless of religious affiliation or denomination? I’ll have to read some more C. S. Lewis.

  3. Kris Lewis

    You are giving me a new appreciation of C.S Lewis–I have to admit that I knew little of his background, including his Irish roots and their importance. Thanks for this excellent background–great fodder for an adult forum on Lewis!

  4. deirdregood

    Thank you Jeanne, Lilian and Kris for your comments.

    The question and expression of Lewis’ dual identity is one I was trying to bring out. Others have inspired me on this and I am trying to think about it further–see for example, Laura O’Connor, Haunted English: the Celtic Fringe, the British Empire, and De-Anglicization (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2006), which examines how the de-Anglicizing challenge to English-only linguistic imperialism is discernible in the styles of WB Yeats, Hugh MacDiarmid, and Marianne Moore. We know that C.S. Lewis was drawn to Yeats.

  5. Diana Swancutt

    This is a lovely piece. You name well Lewis’ ethnic/national liminality, his self in migration between the land of his birth and the land of his work, The way his writing was a homecoming–not simply a fantasy but a spiritual visitation, if you will, of him to his home and a welcoming of others back there, to the place of his childhood. Which is always magic–a walk, with a wish, into and through a wardrobe.

    I was thankful as well for your articulation of the erasure of memory around the Irish part of his self (“He is England, not Ireland”), an erasure of which we’re all capable, both of ourselves and others and, in the US context, one which I think is strongly encouraged. To be “American” first and last. Still, the Irish in the States have the choice of ethnic self-erasure (or its refusal), and I wonder how that situation might be different in the Isles, marked as they are by so many memories of fighting between peoples (and the hope of violent erasures of the other).

    Each of these points makes me want to read more on the individual subjects, with which I already resonate. But of Lewis, your piece especially makes me wonder how friendship (for example, with Tolkien) facilitated the writing of his life-story into prose-fantasy (Lewis’ friend Tolkein, like Lewis, migrated in his mind to middle earth, having survived the Great War and now, in the company of fellows in the academy, penned of male companionship, war in other lands, and triumph over real evil). There is coping with displacement and great pain (Lewis’ reflections on pain are spiritually full of tensions around displacement and loss, in addition to (or perhaps hand in hand with) his Narnian child’s-flight to the green isle.

    Finally, I am struck by the ways liminality of these kinds (whether ethnic/national or other) gets disallowed in the spiritual story lines of others. It makes me wonder why “we” (Episcopalians/Anglicans) erase our memory of someone’s self, or a part of someone’s self/spirit, when we do. It makes me wonder what it does for us, to be able to peg them, to “know” them, even if the knowing is partial or even false, a covering over of the richness of their self. I think these kinds of violent “forgettings” are worth further reflection for the Anglican communion.

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