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Carrying the Fire on the Emerald Isle

On the north coast of Ireland there’s a town called Castlerock, where I left a bit of my heart. I’ve thought about it every day since our return to Nashville. In fact, if ever go missing from the States for a few years and you need to find me, it should be the first place you look. You may see me happily repairing an old boat on the beach, just like Andy Dufresne. The town rests on the white shores of the North Atlantic between crags and green fields. It’s flanked by the mouth of the River Bann on the right and an old castle ruin called Downhill Estate on the left. After a few days there my geek bells rang when I discovered that dear old C.S. Lewis came there regularly as a boy on holiday.

Since Northern Ireland is proud (and rightly so) of its connection to C.S.L. many places there claim to be the inspiration for Narnia, but none have as strong a claim as quiet little Castlerock, where a train pulls into the station every two hours then disappears into a deep tunnel at the edge of town; or where you can still see the window where as little boys he and Warnie likely watched the train steam past; or where you can still walk the path to Downhill and encounter castle ruins, or a tangle of forest called the Black Glen. “This is Narnia,” said my new friend Mark proudly as he talked about his family’s front yard: a field of waving wheat with Downhill castle off in the distance. In fact, here’s a great picture among many that Mark took just a short walk from his house.

That building out on the headland is called Mussenden Temple, which the owner of Downhill Estate built to house his library back before the United States was a country. Crazy. We made several new friends while we were there–the aforementioned Mark and his family, artist Ross Wilson (who sculpted the famous C.S. Lewis centenary statue in Belfast), Alan and Tracy (who graciously let us stay at their place in town) and Jonny and his family (who had us over to play some songs one night). We spent a fine day with Heidi Johnston and her family down in Newtownards (Heidi is the author of an excellent book called Life in the Big Story). One of the folks we met was a filmmaker named Clive McLaughlin, who arranged to shoot this video while we were in town. We met at Downhill Estate for some of the footage, then took a 10 minute drive to Benevenagh, one of the prettiest places I’ve ever seen (pictured in the header). It overlooks the green fields where St. Aidan’s bones lie. (Yes, I took my son Aedan there to pay his respects.)

After all our lovely travels this summer, where Swedes, Brits, and Irish alike welcomed us like kin, it felt as though God had Castlerock waiting for us—a place of history, rest, great beauty and great scones. I wrote a significant portion of The Warden and the Wolf King sitting out on those cliffs. We were humbled and blessed by this place and its people, and it delights me that we had time to shoot this video there.

Many, many thanks to Clive and the good people of Derry, who welcomed my family and I like one of their own. Truly, I pray that we’ll come back for a visit. For a year or two next time, maybe?


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