Enniskillen gears up for a Wilde Weekend to celebrate its other famous old boy

Happy Days festival revived Samuel Beckett’s ties to the town. Now it is Oscar Wilde’s turn and there will be plenty of stars to look at


Imagine, if you would, a meeting between Oscar Wilde and Samuel Beckett. How would the conversation go? Would Wilde do all the talking while Beckett sat in enigmatic silence? Perhaps, but if common ground were sought they at least had their schooldays to fall back on, for both attended Portora Royal School in Enniskillen; Wilde between 1864 - 71 and Beckett 1920 - 23. Their presence in Enniskillen is not as surprising as it might seem for Portora had a long-established link with Trinity College, Dublin. Nevertheless, the small market town and the austerity of its boarding school must have presented a considerable contrast to the style and comfort of their early lives in Dublin.

Their relationship to Enniskillen might have remained no more than a footnote in the biographies but three years ago, working with Sean Doran (the festival director) I became involved in programming a new arts festival, Happy Days: Enniskillen International Beckett Festival, which has reanimated that relationship. From the off it was a great success; in our first year a local woman came up to me and warned, “Don’t you think of taking this festival away to Dublin or London, it’s ours now.” But in truth, we couldn’t have moved it even if we’d wanted to because what gives the festival its distinct character is its relationship with Enniskillen. With only one purpose-built arts venue in the town, we’ve had to be imaginative in the marriage of event and venue. Churches, school halls, basements, bars, Enniskillen Castle, National Trust properties, Portora itself, the Marble Arch Caves and even the small islands that dot Lough Erne have all been requisitioned.

Enniskillen’s main street runs long and undulating through the town and were you to sit at a café window you could watch the festival-goers, programmes in hand, hurrying back and forth as they move between concert, reading, exhibition, discussion, one-act play, comedy gig or recital.

Whilst the festival audience is international, it is remarkable how many local people, for whom Beckett was previously but a name, have been prepared to give events a try. Out of curiosity perhaps – after all, the festival is on their doorstep – or simply because they want to support it; whatever the reason it means that people who might not be prepared to travel to Belfast or Dublin are having the opportunity to experience in their home town international artists of the highest quality. And each year that local audience comes back for more.

A Wilde Weekend trailer

Happy Days festival trailer

Last year I travelled the short journey from Enniskillen to Devenish Island at seven o’clock in the morning on a boat full of festival goers to hear the actress Lisa Dwan read a short story of Beckett’s. Once out on the lough, with barely a human habitation visible on shore, the journey had a timeless quality; you could as easily have been in the sixth century (when Devenish was a major monastic site) as the 21st. And after Lisa’s reading, with time to wander the small island, to examine the beautiful round tower, the priory and the graveyard (where inscriptions warned the living, in case they were in any doubt, of their own inevitable demise), the astringency of Beckett’s writing seemed absolutely right to that time and place, as if in some way it had come home.

But Enniskillen and its environs also offers the great houses of Castle Coole and Florence Court and these, amongst other places, will be the settings this year for a new annual festival, A Wilde Weekend, which celebrates Oscar Wilde. The tone and style of the festival will be very different from Happy Days; part of the thinking behind it is the belief that Wilde deserves reappraisal, that he is a much more important artist than the public perception of him today. Instead of the Wilde of the well-known plays, the festival will focus on readings and stagings of De Profundis, The Decay of Lying and The Ballad of Reading Gaol, writers such as Alan Hollinghurst, Will Self and Neil Bartlett will engage with Wildean themes, there will be performances of Mahler, Schumann, Grieg and Richard Strauss, and the town and surrounding gardens will be bedecked with flowers.

Beckett and Wilde lived and studied in what was for them a completely new environment, a new landscape, amongst people notably different in tone and manner from those they had known previously. While it is difficult, if not impossible to determine the influence of schooldays on any great writer, some influence, however subconscious, must surely be at play. One of Wilde’s finest fairy tales, The Happy Prince is the story of a gilded and jewelled statue, the happy prince himself, high on a column above the town, and of a swallow that has remained behind in the reed-beds whilst his fellows have migrated. The swallow tells the prince of the poverty and suffering he sees about the town and he in turn instructs the swallow to strip him of his gold and jewels and distribute them to those in need. It is surely no coincidence that at the centre of Enniskillen is Cole’s Monument, a statue high on a column, from the top of which you can look in one direction towards the reed-beds of Lough Erne and in the other to the rows of streets that make up the town. And in honour of this connection between fact and fiction, a local artist, Alan Milligan is at the behest of the festival covering the statue in gold-leaf and over time, over weeks and months, the gold-leaf will flake off piece by piece and drift down among the houses and gardens of Enniskillen.

A Wilde Weekend will have its inaugural outing this May Bank Holiday Weekend from May 1st-4th wildeweekendenniskillen.com. The Enniskillen International Beckett Festival, Happy Days returns for its fourth year and will run over two long weekends, July 23rd and August 3rd happy-days-enniskillen.com.

Liam Browne is assistant artistic director of both festivals.

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