C.S. Lewis and Northern Ireland, BelfastIt may surprise some readers that such a seemingly English author as C.S. Lewis - Oxford scholar and later Cambridge professor - was in fact born in Belfast , and retained a lifelong love for his homeland: “No-one loves the Hills of Down (or Donegal) more than I,” he wrote.
Those of us who are surprised by Lewis’s Irishness are failing amongst other things to see beyond the English settings of The Magician’s Nephew and The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe - the Blitz in London, the Professor’s country home to which the four children are evacuated – and not looking closely enough at the seemingly fantastic settings of the Narnia side of the wardrobe. For there are several distinctly Irish sources for certain Narnian places.
Lewis was born in the Dundela suburb of Belfast, in the eastern part of the city, on November 29 1898. It was an area to which he returned often in his early childhood, as his grandfather was rector of St Marks Church there. The doorknob on his granddad’s house was a big brass lion, something that stayed with the future author as an image of power, later used in his creation of Aslan.
At the age of seven the prosperous Lewis family (his father was a Belfast solicitor) moved to the incongruously named Little Lea, a rather grand house in Strandtown, like Dundela in East Belfast. This residence has obvious parallels with the house to which Peter, Susan, Edmund and Lucy are evacuated: it had endless corridors, thousands of books, and secret little attic rooms where he and his brother Warnie imagined a world of their own, peopled by animals, a land they dubbed Boxen, but which over the years developed into Narnia.
With his brother Lewis was free as a child to cycle in the Holywood Hills , and his view from Little Lea took in the lovely Mountains of Mourne , backdrops that became part of who he was.
When cancer claimed his mother’s life, Lewis was sent to school in England, a seemingly hellish place that closed soon afterwards, returning to spend a happy term at Campbell College near his home, before illness intervened and he was sent to combine recuperation and education at Malvern College in Worcestershire .
Throughout his school, university and adult life C.S. Lewis returned every year to Ireland, for which he had a passion, not of the political variety, but for its myths, stories, and landscape. He loved walking with friends in County Down, and on a park bench in Bangor today a plaque records this love: “From this vantage point C.S. Lewis, saint and scholar from the County Down, enjoyed a view of the countryside and Belfast Lough after walking tours locally.”
Crawfordsburn Country Park and the area around it were important to the author: by the shores of Belfast Lough there a lamp-post can be found just like the one that is so prominent in the Narnia books; and it was to the Old Inn in Crawfordsburn that Lewis brought his wife to spend their honeymoon in 1958. Rowallane Garden and Tollymore Forest Park too were part of his ideal of beauty. He once said: “Heaven is Oxford lifted and placed in the middle of the County Down,” though he had less love for its inhabitants at times, disliking what had become of the Orangemen: “If only I could deport the Ulstermen and fill their land with a populace of my own choosing”, a thought process which is at the heart of his Narnian creation – a place with all the wondrous landscapes and seascapes of Ireland, but without its troublesome human population!
The most striking location in Northern Ireland transposed to his Narnia novels in the beautiful Dunluce Castle , on the North Antrim Coast, which it is very easy to imagine peopled by mice and fauns and child monarchs as Cair Paravel.
Lewis is much loved and admired in his home country: visitors to Belfast, now a vibrant and fascinating city after years of violent upheaval, can seek out the lovely statue of Digory from The Magician’s Nephew, sited fittingly in East Belfast, and scholars may be tempted to call at The Linen Hall Library on Donegal Square North of Belfast, where a major collection of books by Lewis and on Lewis has been established.
But perhaps it is better to travel in the countryside he loved than the city he inhabited; and there are few greener, more lovely places to be found anywhere than the best corners of Northern Ireland.
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