A wonderful celebration took place in East Belfast a few days ago. It was a tribute to one of Northern Ireland’s greatest writers: C. S. (Clive Staples) Lewis, a prolific author and the creator of The Chronicles of Narnia series, The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, and many other memorable stories.
The C. S. Square, featuring seven stunning sculptures based on characters from his books, is part of an ongoing £40 million investment in the development of this part of East Belfast. With thousands of visitors arriving in Belfast every year to visit the world famous Titanic Exhibition Centre, only a short distance away, the square is expected to be an additional stop on the new tourist trail. In fact, a local taxi driver told me recently that over 80 cruise ships now arrive in Belfast each year!
I grew up in East Belfast in the post-war years. My father worked as a painter in Harland and Wolff, shipbuilders of the Titanic and its sister ships, and I was very aware of the thousands of men who worked there, as well as the women employed in other industries across Belfast. I’m now a resident of Holywood, a small town situated a few miles further along on the shore of Belfast Lough, where the mighty Titanic left its home and sailed into a fateful history. And as I look back, I can only marvel at how times have changed since those eventful days. I certainly never imagined that famous writers, actors and golfers would be part of the world I came from.
It was the opening of the square that brought to mind the amazing number of famous personalities that originated in this small corner of Northern Ireland, and went on to make their mark on the world stage. There are many more throughout Ulster who could, and should, be mentioned; but in this little area, virtually on my doorstep, are a few I can name – besides C. S. Lewis. They are:
The Cregagh area of East Belfast was home to George, before he was selected as a ‘Busby Babe’ for Manchester United F.C. George was probably the first celebrity footballer, receiving 1000’s of fan mail letters every week. It’s said that the Brazilian footballer, Pele, said of George: ‘He is the greatest player ever.’ Northern Ireland also thought so, and in 2006 our local airport was renamed in his honour: George Best Belfast City Airport.
Sir George Ivan Morrison, probably better known to his fans as ‘Van the Man’, has received numerous awards for his contributions to music. He has been inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and the Songwriters Hall of Fame, and his albums Astral Weeks and Moondance are judged by many to be among the greatest ever recorded. However, I have to admit that my only connection to him is that my mother and I used to visit one of his neighbours in Hyndford Street where he grew up!
Rory was born in my home town of Holywood. I live a short distance from the golf club where he was at one time their youngest member, at the tender age of seven years. He also attended the same local school, Sullivan Upper, as both my children did. And from these early beginnings, a local boy became the number one golf player in the world. Holywood Golf Club, I’m told, is now on the tourist trail, and is open to anyone who wants to see where it all started for the young Rory.
Born in Holywood and later moved to Belfast, Jamie has carved out a remarkable career for himself. At home in Belfast, as an actor working alongside Gillian Anderson, he became known as the serial killer in the TV series The Fall, but perhaps more famously worldwide as Christian Grey in the film adaption of Fifty Shades of Grey.
Perhaps not so well known these days to a younger generation, but Sophie Rosamund Praeger MBE, HRNA, MA, was a writer, poet, artist and sculptor, of international renown. She was born in 1867 and died in 1954, and following a period in Paris she came home to Holywood to open her own studio. One of my favourite sculptures Johnny the Jig is a centre piece in the town, next to the children’s playground. And now a local pub has been named after her – it doesn’t get much better than that!
Another old friend from Holywood, sadly departed, Rowell Friers was the most marvellous political cartoonist and artist who ever graced our community. His works, greatly treasured and valued, are still appreciated by many collectors. They also hang in Stormont Parliament Buildings, for the benefit of our local politicians who no longer have to fear his witty comments and visual insights. I am delighted to say that his grandson, of the same name, at the age of fourteen years is recognised as a very gifted pianist, and whose reputation will carry Rowell’s name to new pastures.
This is a small group of talented people from my part of the world, but I have no doubt there are many more with hidden talents yet to surface.