Contrary to the common assumption that C.S. Lewis was English, he was actually an Irishman. He was born in Belfast, and those who know him attested to how his Irish-ness lasted the whole of his life.
Lewis was proud of his roots, and celebrated them. When he first journeyed to England, he experienced a culture shock. “No Englishman will be able to understand my first impressions of England,” he wrote in Surprised by Joy.
Lewis always loved Ireland. He vacationed there regularly, and chose the island for his honeymoon, late in life. One of his Irish students, David Bleakley, related that the transplant professor declared, “Heaven is Oxford lifted and placed in the middle of County Down.” (C.S. Lewis at home in Ireland)
Several years ago, David Clare of the University of Limerick wrote “C.S. Lewis: An Irish Writer.” It appeared in Irish Studies Review, and the abstract is illuminating.
This article examines the effect of C.S. Lewis’s Irish background on his work. It attempts to contradict the assumption that this Belfast-born writer should be included in the English and not the Irish canon. It emphasises that Lewis saw himself as Irish, was seen by others as Irish, and that his Irish background, contrary to what some have written, was important to him throughout his lifetime.
It goes on to demonstrate the ways in which his work was influenced by his youth in Ireland and by the Irish mythology that he loved. Furthermore, this article maintains that, as a child of pre-partition Ireland with roots throughout the island, Lewis was influenced by the country as a whole, not just his native Ulster. Finally, it attempts to understand why Lewis, a proud Irishman, did not do more to promote himself as an Irish writer.
Clare’s argument is necessary because of Irish political correctness. In Surprised by C.S. Lewis, Alister McGrath describes the prejudice.
So why is Lewis not celebrated as one of the greatest Irish writers of all time? Why is there no entry for “Lewis, C.S.” in the 1,472 pages of the supposedly definitive Dictionary of Irish Literature (1996)? The real issue is that Lewis does not fit—and, indeed, must be said partly to have chosen not to fit—the template of Irish identity that has dominated the late twentieth century.
In some ways, Lewis represents precisely the forces and influences which the advocates of a stereotypical Irish literary identity wished to reject. One of the reasons why Ireland has largely chosen to forget about Lewis is that he was the wrong kind of Irishman. . . .
Lewis may have chosen to rise above the provinciality of Irish literature; he nevertheless remains one of its most luminous and famous representatives.
It should be noted, of course, that countless Irish men and women are proud of Lewis, and count him as one of their own.
There’s No Other Place Quite Like Ireland
On a less serious note, and at the risk of contributing to a stereotype, I want to share with you an incident that occurred in Dublin.
First some context. Some people suggest that people in Ireland have a particular affinity for alcohol. This may be a bit of an exaggeration, since they are only ranked twenty-first in the world (for alcohol consumption).
The 1875 tragedy goes by several names, but one is the “Dublin Whiskey Fire.” A malt house and a whiskey warehouse caught fire, and as thousands of gallons of their contents poured down the street in a fiery channel, the blaze spread to many homes and businesses.
Miraculously, the fire did not take any lives. That does not mean, however, that there were not a number of fatalities. A dozen people died from alcohol poisoning. Tempted by unrestricted access to the alcohol, many Dubliners cupped their hands or used their boots to gather up the liquid and drink themselves into oblivion.
You can read an account of the bizarre occurrence in The Irish Times.
I wonder what Lewis thought about this revolting event, since he was surely aware of it. The deranged consumption of filthy and burning alcohol would be condemned by any sane person.
Among teetotalers, however, even a sip of alcohol is objectionable. Many attribute their aversion to their faith. While the Christian Scriptures strongly condemn drunkenness, some verses tacitly affirm the drinking of wine in moderation.*
C.S. Lewis and Drink
C.S. Lewis was among the majority of Christians who accept drinking while avoiding drunkenness. I have written on this subject at length.
In Mere Christianity, Lewis says,
Temperance is, unfortunately, one of those words that has changed its meaning. It now usually means teetotalism. But in the days when the second Cardinal virtue was christened ‘Temperance,’ it meant nothing of the sort. Temperance referred not specially to drink, but to all pleasures; and it meant not abstaining, but going the right length and no further.
It is a mistake to think that Christians ought all to be teetotallers . . . Of course it may be the duty of a particular Christian, or of any Christian, at a particular time, to abstain from strong drink, either because he is the sort of man who cannot drink at all without drinking too much, or because he is with people who are inclined to drunkenness and must not encourage them by drinking himself.
But the whole point is that he is abstaining, for a good reason, from something which he does not condemn and which he likes to see other people enjoying. One of the marks of a certain type of bad man is that he cannot give up a thing himself without wanting every one else to give it up. That is not the Christian way.
An individual Christian may see fit to give up all sorts of things for special reasons—marriage, or meat, or beer, or the cinema; but the moment he starts saying the things are bad in themselves, or looking down his nose at other people who do use them, he has taken the wrong turning.
This is wise counsel. Recapturing the original meaning of temperance—and living as temperate people—results in happier lives and a more peaceful world.
* For those who God expressly commands not to drink, should avoid it completely. For example, an angel told Zechariah that John the Baptist, “must not drink wine or strong drink, and he will be filled with the Holy Spirit, even from his mother’s womb.” (Luke 1:15). John’s cousin Jesus, on the other hand, miraculously created wine for a wedding party, and offered the Passover wine to his disciples with the words “this cup that is poured out for you is the new covenant in my blood.” (Luke 22:20)
11 thoughts on “C.S. Lewis the Irishman”
Wise counsel, indeed.
We all don’t have fit the national mold as a believer. We have the Lord to show us how to be the best Englishmen, Irishman, or American we can be. I think of the time I lived in South Korea. You saw the best and the worst. Believers who shined showed us the best Koreans could be. Those who clung to only themselves represented that. Each culture has something wonderful to offer the world and glorify the Lord. That is the salt and light in each individual nation.
Quite true. God’s kingdom knows no boundaries. His children manifest the most praiseworthy aspects of whatever ethnicity they represent.
What a beautiful testimony to what the Lord can do in a nation with it’s believing citizens. Lord, help us to know how we are salt and light to our nation especially now. America impacts the world as we all know.
Yes, and with the secularization of the West it’s all the more impressive how salty and bright many portions of Africa are growing!
Great article. It is great to see someone really pointing out Lewis’ Irishness. I think his method of “baptizing” pagan (or what may seem pagan) imagery to explain and illustrate the Gospel has its roots in classical Celtic-Irish Christianity: you even find it in the writings of St. Patrick.
Glad you agree that Lewis was a true Irishman… even while he was a patriotic Brit.
I have no doubt you’re right about the influence of Celtic mythology on him, especially during his early years. Eventually, though, just like his friend J.R.R. Tolkien, he found that Northern (Norse) mythology resonated with him even more loudly.
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I found the article on Lewis’ Irishness valuable. The library where I work is having a reading of Irish poets later this month and Lewis’ Irish Nocturne was offered to me because I am such a fan of Lewis. Although I have read each of his novels at least six times and most of his works on Christianity and Christian faith once, I have never read his scholarly works in his chosen field. Although I knew that he was also a poet, I am new to his poetry. I have a question that I hope you can answer: To whom is Irish Nocturne addressed. When Lewis says, “Bitter and bitter it is to thee”, to whom is he speaking? My thought was that he is addressing Ireland, the land, itself, but, without more information about the circumstances under which he wrote this poem, I cannot be sure.
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Wonderful to hear from you, Janet. I love to hear about your familiarity with Lewis’ Christian writings. As a librarian, you may be better acquainted than I am at interpreting poetry. It always seems so subjective to me—that getting at the intentions of the author is always a challenge.
In that sense, poetry reminds me of Jesus’ parables. It is wonderful the way he so often explains the meaning while everyone is sitting there uncertain. Unfortunately, poets seldom do that. :)
In understanding “Irish Nocturne,” I would offer several thoughts. First, it’s not really one of Lewis’ scholarly writings, having been written while he was a very young man, and published shortly after his return from combat in the First World War.
Second, and this is essential for understanding it, the poem was written while he was an atheist. If you’ve read his autobiography, Surprised by Joy, you’ll understand Lewis’ shifting worldview during the major periods of his life. Naturally, Spirits in Bondage is still permeated with religious imagery.
Third, in part due to its length and composition over a period of time, the work does not flow as a novel. It’s themes (and even its voice) seem to vary.
Now, to address your specific question. I wish I knew the answer to your question. I’m not sure Lewis had an audience in mind. It arises from the angst of a teenager, probably 17-18. It includes the tempestuous themes of a boy enraptured with Northern mythology, such as Grendel and thanes. And then there is the entire question of the challenged “Irish-ness” of the Protestants of Northern Ireland. Politics aside, the cultural differences have been distinctive.
Don King, a Lewis scholar, says “Lewis uses the mist as a metaphor to indicate Ireland’s obscured understanding of itself.” In C.S. Lewis, Poet, he adds, “Lewis’s complaint against his countrymen for being dreamers and talkers rather than doers is stereotypical; however, because Lewis does not connect this poem to a specific incident, it is difficult to know how seriously we should take his lament.”
I hope this helps.
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