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Malcolm Guite: Poet’s Corner

11 November 2022

On a visit to Northern Ireland, Malcolm Guite savours the work of C. S. Lewis

I HAVE been spending a day or two amid the beauties of Northern Ireland, along the Antrim coast, with its Giant’s Causeway and tantalising glimpses of Scotland across the water, and also, a little inland, in Coleraine, on the banks of the beautiful river Bann, where I was speaking at a C. S. Lewis conference put on by the University of Ulster.

It was a fitting place to celebrate and explore Lewis’s works; for he was, and often affirmed himself to be, an Irishman, and, within that broader identity, more specifically, an Ulsterman.

Of course, when Lewis was born in Belfast in 1898, and, indeed, for the first 23 years of his life, Ireland was still united. When, as a teenager, he wrote enthusiastically to his Belfast friend Arthur Greeves about having discovered the poetry of Yeats, he said: “Here is a poet who really loves our mythology.”

But, even after partition, Lewis still referred to himself simply as “Irish”. When he was recording the talks that became The Four Loves for an American audience, one of the producers queried his breathing and intonation. Lewis replied: “I’m Irish, not English. Did you ever know an Irishman who did not puff and blow?”

More seriously, and with more particular nuance, he once disagreed with an Oxford student’s praise of Cromwell, because he shared the collective folk memory of the massacre Cromwell perpetrated at Drogheda, saying: “You see, I’m an Irishman. Yes, Northern Irish, but that makes it worse; the offenders you can’t forgive are the ones on your own side.”

The conference in Coleraine was very much alive to the nuances and particularities of Lewis’s Irish identity — not just politically (Lewis was a “Home Ruler” and quarrelled with his father, who was a Unionist), but also, and perhaps more importantly for Lewis, the influence of those mutually enfolded miracles of language and landscape.

Lewis loved the Irish landscape, particularly the beauties of Donegal (for which he invented the special word “Donegality”), but also the Carlingford Mountains in County Louth, especially where those mountains overlooked Carlingford Loch, a landscape that, Lewis once said, “most resembled Narnia”. Indeed, his hand-drawn map of Narnia, made to guide his illustrator Pauline Baynes, resembles quite closely the county and coastline of Louth, with Cair Paravel sited where Louth has its 12th-century King John’s Castle, a place where the first drafts of Magna Carta were begun.

There were linguistic experts at the conference, delighting us with some of the felicities of “Ulster Scots” as a dialect, and also, a wonderful surprise, we heard a reading from The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, as it has been translated into Irish, and not just generic Irish, but its specifically Ulster variants. The reader of that translation told us that the common term for a large wardrobe in those parts, in both languages, was a linen press; indeed, if you were to retranslate that book back out of Ulster Irish into English, its title would read The Lion, the Witch and the Linen Press.

The day after the conference, I made my own pilgrimage to another special site — for me, at least: the magnificent Bushmills Distillery. On the tour, they explained how the distinct and subtle flavours of the whiskey were acquired over many years, from the particular woods of the barrels that they matured in. I, for one, will now feel more able to savour the distinctive flavours of the Irish landscape and language in which Lewis was steeped for so many years.

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