Growing up in Belfast, my wife was urged by teachers – with limited success, it must be said – to read CS Lewis for the essential Christian message in his writings. Lewis, the brilliant creator of The Chronicles of Narnia, is often described as an English writer. In fact, nothing could be further from the truth. This is the man who wrote of his first visit to England that ‘‘the strange English accents with which I was surrounded seemed like the voices of demons.
But what was worst was the English landscape – I have made up the quarrel since; but at that moment I conceived a hatred for England which took many years to heal’’.
Like many Northern Irish Protestants, his relationship with England – and, by extension, Ireland ,was considerably more complex than the political posturing at Stormont this weekend would suggest. In later life, Lewis described an experience which many of us who have spent time in England will recognise.
‘‘Like all Irish people who meet in England, we ended by criticisms of the inevitable flippancy and dullness of the Anglo Saxon people. After all, there is no doubt that the Irish are the only people – I would not gladly live or die among another folk.”
Despite living in exile in Oxford for most of his adult life, he kept his connection to Ireland, even going on his honeymoon in 1958 to Crawfordsburn – a picturesque village in Co Down beside beautiful Helen’s Bay.
Lewis’s Irishness is the same type of multidimensional Irishness that was on display yesterday in Croke Park. Hundreds of politically British, Ulster Unionist and DUP voters were wearing Irish jerseys as if it was the most natural thing in the world. They sat happily in the Hogan Stand, oblivious to the fact that it was built to commemorate Michael Hogan, the Tipperary captain shot by the Black and Tans on Bloody Sunday – who themselves were under military orders to keep Ireland both British and unionist.
Maybe CS Lewis, the Belfast man who created the parallel universe of Narnia, would have smiled at the ambiguity of it all.
But the beauty of Narnia for children is that it is a fantasy world where they are the main players, far away from the drudge, rules and dreariness of the world of adults. It is a playful place of talking animals and adventure – just the type of place that children themselves would imagine if they could.
Narnia is a dream world, which doesn’t mean that everything is saccharine sweet. There are pitfalls, there are nasty witches and dangerous, duplicitous characters, but there is also hope. When the children walk through the wardrobe, and enter Narnia, they enter a different world.
Last Thursday, I walked into an economic Narnia – a world of possibilities, optimism and positive energy – which was so far away from the relentless reality of Ireland’s battered economy that it was inspiring just to be there. The only difference is that this Narnia is real. It is not a fantasy. It is a world where Irish entrepreneurs are doing their stuff, where young and very charming Americans have blazed a trail. It is the world captured by the Dublin Web Summit. The idea, conceived by a young man called Paddy Cosgrove, was to bring some of the world’s most successful young web entrepreneurs here to talk to Irish people who want to set up their own companies.
The summit was held in Trinity College and the packed house heard how a laidback, laconic Californian called Craig Newmark created the world’s biggest classified ad site.
The site serves over 20 billion page views per month, putting it in 37th place overall among websites worldwide and 11th place overall among websites in the United States. It has over 49.4 million unique monthly visitors in the United States with over 80 million new classified advertisements each month, Craigslist is the leading classifieds service in any medium. The site receives more than one million new job listings each month, making it one of the top job boards in the world.
The company has fewer than 50 employees and an estimated turnover of $200 million. Craig Newmark, who said he had no interest in selling the company or in money in general, is the man who, more than anyone else, is responsible for shaking the foundations and the income stream of the newspaper industry. For a journalist, this man represents a huge threat, but I was transfixed by the opportunities he evidenced.
Next up was the very charming Matt Mullenweg, the 27-year-old creator of WordPress. WordPress is the software programme that is favoured by bloggers and used on over 200 million websites worldwide.
One of the key developers of WordPress is an Irishman, Donncha O’Caoimh. The world of Mullenweg is one of limitless growth and, as pointed out by a question from the floor, he makes his money from the efforts of others. In what Marx would have called turbo capitalism, all these ‘web 2.0’ millionaires are making their cash explicitly from other people using their technology and increasing the value of their sites and products exponentially. For young Irish entrepreneurs, the opportunities on the web do seem enormous, and more important, as some of the ideas are so simple and cheap to set up, it has to be worth a go. At the conference, I also heard Irish entrepreneurs Dylan Collins of Jolt, Colm Lyon of Realex, Ciaran Bollard of Muzu and Fred Karlsson of donedeal.ie, explain how they created their companies.
The most fascinating thing about these entrepreneurs was the sense that they all had created something out of nothing. They saw opportunities with small -or, in some cases, no – investment, and went for it. Now anyone involved in the tech world knows this is not how it works. There are too many bankrupt venture capitalists around for this to be easy.
In fact, in the tech game, the difference between success and failure is often wafer-thin. One of the most interesting aspects of many of the experiences was how many successes stem from competitors making elementary mistakes. These mistakes seem elementary now but, given that there is no blueprint to follow, how could anyone have known any different?
For a brief moment, listening to the chronicles of this financial Narnia, it is easy to forget the world of Nama, Anglo and developers’ loans. There was precious little about why things can’t be done, only talk of what can be achieved. But this isn’t Narnia. These companies are real, and the explosion of what is called ‘disruptive commerce’ (which refers to companies which are disrupting the ‘normal’ way of doing things by using new technology) is here to stay. Arguably, this is the future – or at least part of it.
CS Lewis created a new world simply by using his imagination. In fact, he created a parallel world. Imagine our own parallel world where, at one side of the wardrobe, we have the dross of the banks, the property hangover, Nama and the politicians who led us into this.
On the other side, we have the opportunities afforded to Irish entrepreneurs which will allow them to transcend the limitations of this country. Despite all the obstacles, like CS Lewis, we can do this.