|Digory & the Wardrobe sculpture, east Belfast|
June 09, 2010
We talk about all kinds of things on this show, but we haven't mentioned much about the heritage of Irish literature. Ireland was often referred to in the past as 'the land of saints and scholars' - a place of learning and literature. Did you know that kings and nobles from England, Scotland and many other lands in Europe used to send their sons to Ireland so they would get the best education available at the time?
These educational centres were based around some of the great monasteries of Ireland - Clonmacnoise and Durrow, in Co. Offaly; Clonard, in Co. Meath; and Movilla and Bangor, in Co. Down - founded way back in the 500s. In turn, these Christian centres of learning influenced other countries in Europe, like France, Austria, Italy and England - and some of the greatest universities, for instance Oxford and Cambridge, came into being as a result.
Ireland is famous for many great writers - James Joyce, J.M. Synge, George Bernard Shaw, W.B. Yeats and Oscar Wilde - to name but a few. But one of the best loved Irish writers of all time came from right here in east Belfast. He was christened Clive Staples Lewis, but from the age of four on - just after his dog 'Jacksie' was run over and killed - he insisted his family call him 'Jack'.
C.S. Lewis is probably best known for the extremely popular Chronicles of Narnia series of children's books, which have already resulted in two successful movies, with another coming out later this year. But Jack Lewis didn't just write stories for children. He also wrote a whole wealth of Christian literature, like 'Mere Christianity', 'The Problem of Pain' and 'Surprised by Joy'. He wrote The Screwtape Letters and the sequel, Screwtape Proposes a Toast - a brilliant series of letters written from a senior demon to his nephew, Wormwood, giving him him advice on how to tempt his target, an Englishman. A dramatic production of 'Screwtape', starring Max McLean is currently touring theatres in the USA.
Lewis created a great space trilogy as well, 'Out of the Silent Planet', 'Perelandra' and 'That Hideous Strength'. If you want to read a great science fiction book, ye couldn't bate, 'Out of the Silent Planet'!
One of my claims to fame is that, with a partner, I used to run an internet cafe, in Holywood, just east of Belfast. It was called 'Jack's' - after CS Lewis, obviously - and we used to own the internet domain, 'other-worlds.com'. That was the title of one of his books, but Lewis certainly did create other worlds for us to inhabit. All of our computers had planet names like Perelandra, Malacandra and Viritrilbia.
As a child, when he lived in a large rambling house in Belfast, called 'Little Lea' (complete with a huge wardrobe), he'd already created imaginary creatures and scenarios - forerunners of Narnia. He liked to go off cycling in nearby Co. Down. Even when he lived in England - as a student, then professor at Oxford and, later, Cambridge - he loved to travel back to Ireland for holidays. One of his favourite places was Annagassan - a wee village by the sea in Co. Louth.
At Oxford, where he lectured for many years, he was part of a regular discussion circle of writers and others, known as the 'Inklings'. They met every week at The Eagle and Child pub in Oxford and the members included fellow authors, Charles Williams and Owen Barfield, and, of course, the well-known JRR Tolkien, who wrote 'Lord of the Rings'.
When, eventually, he married American Jewish divorcee, Joy Gresham, they came back to the Crawfordsburn Inn in Co. Down for their honeymoon. The 1993 film, 'Shadowlands', told the story of their developing friendship - at first by correspondence, then romance, marriage and, finally, Joy's tragic early death from cancer. Jack only survived Joy by 3 years, dying on the very same day that John F. Kennedy was assassinated!
CS Lewis carried on that combination of scholarship, Christian faith and story-telling that typified those early Irish monks. Today he is commemorated by a Lewis Square in east Belfast, with a statue nearby, featuring Digory, from The Magician's Nephew, opening the famous wardrobe from The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. In Bangor, Co. Down, there is also a plaque on a park bench facing the sea, quoting Lewis' description of perfection, 'Heaven is Oxford lifted and placed in the middle of Co. Down'. What more can I say?
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