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Lewis’s “Irish Enthusiasm”

The Lewis Legacy-Issue 82, Autumn 1999 The C.S. Lewis Foundation for Truth in Publishing

by James O’Fee

Letter to Arthur Greeves, 31 August, 1918: “So you are inclining to the New Ireland school are you? I remember you used rather to laugh at my Irish enthusiasm in the old days when you were still an orthodox Ulsterman.”

Lewis was influenced around 1918 by the “New Ireland school”, a circle around Lady Gregory (founder of Dublin’s Abbey Theatre), W. B. Yeats and John Synge. This Irish Literary Renaissance (as it is often known) was inspired by a renewed interest in the pagan Irish myths and legends written in the Gaelic language.

The Gaelic language was widely spoken in the western half of Ireland until the Great Potato Famine of the 1840s. It then entered into a sharp decline; therefore, the Gaelic League was founded in the late 1800s to revive it and restore it to preeminence. With the establishment of the Irish Free State in 1922, Revival became official policy and Yeats became a Senator of the Free State, if a questioning and critical one. Although the pro-Gaelic policy has not succeeded in increasing the number of Gaelic speakers or even in arresting the decline, it has led to an increase in the status of the language.

Lewis wrote to Greeves that he planned to have his book of poems (which became Spirits in Bondage) published in Dublin. This book publisher he named would have identified Lewis with the “New Ireland School” had he gone through with his plan.

Neither Greeves nor Lewis would have considered themselves “othodox Ulstermen'” and by using this phrase Lewis is teasing Greeves, specifically about his interest in Irish myth and legend. By an “orthodox Ulsterman”, both youths would have thought firstly of their fathers, with whom neither of them got on.

Greeves introduced Lewis to County Donegal, in the far north-west of Ireland (and west of Ulster). The Greeves family had a holiday home in Donegal, and Gaelic is still spoken in some parts of that county. But I can find no evidence that Lewis ever had any proficiency in Gaelic, or that he ever attempted seriously to learn the language.