By Mark McClure
Many people know of C. S. Lewis as an Oxford don who penned the Chronicles of Narnia books, and also as a Christian apologist. But few of my acquaintances knew that he was born in Belfast, spent his formative years there, and kept a connection with Ireland until the end of his life.
In December 2013, I wangled an invitation to a trade reception sponsored by the British Embassy in Tokyo. Two of Northern Ireland’s (NI) leading politicians, Peter Robinson and the late Martin McGuinness, were also there to help increase Japanese awareness of NI’s attractiveness for inward business investment. The event took place in an upmarket hotel where I survived the usual round of speeches, mingled with the guests, and quaffed some UK taxpayer-funded food and drink.
Not a bad way to spend a Friday evening.
However, the highlight of the occasion for me lay inside the ‘Goodies bag’ handed out at the end: a beautiful 8.5 by 11 soft cover copy of Sandy Smith’s book, “C. S. Lewis and the Island of His Birth – The Places, The Stories, The Inspiration.”
Published by Lagan Press in 2013, the author states on page 15 of the preface that it “is aimed specifically at celebrating his Irish roots and updating his readers on the locations in which he spent his boyhood.”
And although dozens of beautiful photographs made the book worth looking through on the train journey home, I got busy again with work and it sat there on a bookshelf waiting for the right moment to get my attention.
That moment came last month (six years later!) while researching the use of portals in time travel stories. Even as a young boy I intuitively felt the ‘deep magic’ within The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe and remember longing to push through the coats and dresses and suits that packed my parents’ built-in wardrobe and emerge someplace else.
So when thoughts of writing a time travel story connected to Ireland resurfaced again, I made Mr. Smith’s book my bedtime reading for the next few weeks.
The book’s origin has a touch of childhood magic about it. The Smith family lived close to the Lewis family’s house on Belfast’s Circular Road, Little Lea. They would pass by it on winter walks and the children’s curiosity about the house with the famous wardrobe led to their daughter doing a school project on ‘C. S. Lewis and the local area’ in East Belfast.
It seems almost serendipitous that the author’s earlier interest in Lewis’s apologetics from his university days, together with their daughter’s project, should then inspire Mr. Smith to research and write this book. (The 1998 centenary of Lewis’s birth in Belfast also intensified the desire to document his early childhood years.)
The book contains four main sections:
- Beginnings in Belfast
- Cork, Dublin, Belfast
- The Counties of Ulster
- Relinquishing The Ties
An appendix covers some popular C. S. Lewis tour routes for both walking and driving in Belfast and beyond.
Sandy Smith’s diligent research into both the paternal and maternal Lewis lineages, with their Welsh and Scottish ancestors, makes for fascinating reading. I found it intriguing how industrial activity in Ireland, shipbuilding in particular, brought both Lewis’s family and his future wife’s family to Belfast via work opportunities in Cork and Dublin.
It seems to me this book would interest scholars and those readers of C. S. Lewis who wish to learn more about the city and country of his birth and their influence on his stories of Narnia. I fall into the latter category.
There is also much here to delight speculative fiction writers wanting to better understand the creative essence and formative influences on one of Belfast’s most famous authors.
Perhaps having grown up in Belfast makes this easier for me, but through the combination of anecdote and photographs, I found myself ‘seeing’ a version of Lewis’s early upbringing in the Dundela area of East Belfast, at that time a small village surrounded by green fields long before it became part of modern Belfast’s suburban sprawl, though still keeping some of its own character and history.
The city of Belfast nestles in the Lagan river valley and from Little Lea Lewis and his brother, Warnie, could look out across Belfast Lough and see the Antrim Hills and the Cave Hill, with that famous profile of the sleeping giant that inspired Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels.
Gazing in another direction they would have seen the rolling green fields of the Castlereagh Hills.
Lewis himself made much of these early influences on his life in his book “Surprised by Joy” and I think Sandy Smith captures this feeling of longing, of unsatisfied desire – Lewis uses the German word Sehnsucht – in the photographs and accompanying narrative.
His mother’s death in 1908 from cancer marked the end of childhood security at Little Lea and the start of a gradual separation from the country of his birth that saw him schooled in England and settled in Oxford. However, he continued to visit Ireland over the years, even after the passing of his father, making a belated honeymoon trip to Louth, Down and Donegal with his wife Joy Gresham (nee Davidman), in 1958.
There is a wonderful passage, one that would make a great mystery writing prompt, where Sandy Smith attempts to unravel the design behind the memorial stained glass window commissioned by Clive and Warnie for St. Marks’s Church on Belfast’s Holywood Road. His grandfather was the rector of the ‘Lion on the Hill’ and baptised him. The old rectory’s door handle also has that famous lion engraving.
C. S. Lewis died on 22 November 1963 – the same day on which President John F. Kennedy was assassinated. In a manner of speaking this terrible event overshadowed Lewis’s passing. But his literary legacy remains secure as new generations continue to discover the stories of Narnia.
“The New House is almost a major character in my story. I am the product of long corridors, empty sunlit rooms, upstair indoor silences, attics explored in solitude, distant noises of gurgling cisterns and pipes, and the noise of wind under the tiles. Also, of endless books.”C. S. Lewis – Surprised by Joy
Visit https://twitter.com/cslewisfest for information about the C.S. Lewis festival in Belfast, 22-26 November, 2019.