Lewis’s “Irish Enthusiasm”
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
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.