United by words: Celebrating Ireland's borderland literary greats

Ireland's border counties are associated with three Nobel Prize-winning literary greats and many other giants of the written word. David Roy spoke to professional arts curators Sean Doran and Liam Browne about their plans to highlight our 'northern literary lands'

Sean Doran and Liam Browne at the official opening of the Seamus Heaney HomePlace in Bellaghy, Co Derry, last year Picture: Margaret McLaughlin
Sean Doran and Liam Browne at the official opening of the Seamus Heaney HomePlace in Bellaghy, Co Derry, last year Picture: Margaret McLaughlin

SEAMUS Heaney, Samuel Beckett, Patrick Kavanagh and St Patrick are just four famous names associated with Ireland's border counties.

The landscape of rural Co Derry is integral to much of Seamus Heaney's work, while Inniskeen poet Patrick Kavanagh also wove his Co Monaghan surroundings into his verse.

Samuel Beckett's time as a boarding school student in Co Fermanagh has been prominently highlighted by the annual Happy Days Enniskillen International Beckett Festival – and, whether he was originally Scottish or Welsh or actually buried in Co Down, St Patrick's famous fifth century Confessio is the earliest text known to have been written in Ireland.

Now, a new endeavour is urging us to embrace and celebrate such borderland pairings alongside WB Yeats's Sligo days, Louth's links to The Tain, John McGahern's Leitrim roots, Cavan's claim to Dermot Healy, Tyrone's ties to John Montague and Armagh's association with Jonathan Swift.

'The northern literary lands' is the latest border-busting brainwave from professional arts curators Sean Doran and Liam Browne, the driving creative force behind the aforementioned Happy Days festival and FrielFest's annual cross-border celebration of all things Brian Friel.

"We had already mapped out this idea of there being this extraordinary constellation of writers along the border," enthuses Doran, whose CV includes stints as programme director with the Belfast Festival and director of the Perth International Arts Festival in Australia.

"It spans 11 counties from the north west's Wild Atlantic Way and its landscape associations with Brian Friel and Seamus Heaney to Ireland's 'ancient east' with The Tain, St Patrick and CS Lewis and the mythology of Narnia.

"There is no parallel to this extraordinary cluster of writers and writings anywhere else in the world."

"When you bring those writers and regions and all that history together, it's extraordinarily powerful," agrees Browne. "Geographically, it's a small area – but in terms of culture, it really is quite extraordinary. You have three Nobel laureates (Heaney, Beckett and Yeats) in that list."

The notion began as a "long-term vision" for the Derry-born duo, who have been collaborating regularly over the past 25 years after meeting for the first time while working on the Impact festival in their home town.

Seamus Heaney
Seamus Heaney

The recently formalised DoranBrowne partnership is currently in charge of programming the events at the Seamus Heaney HomePlace in Bellaghy during its inaugural year and was the creative force behind both this year's Home of St Patrick Festival in Armagh and Down and 2015's Enniskillen-centric Wilde Weekend, which emphasised Dublin-born literary giant Oscar Wilde's connection to the Co Fermanagh town.

It was the arrival of Brexit which stimulated the duo to accelerate their plans for 'the northern literary lands', which they envisage as an open and collaborative cross-border entity with events running year round celebrating writers and writings of note from all eras in the l1 counties.

"We're not saying that we own the concept," emphasises Browne. "But it's something that we will try and galvanise in terms of galvanising relations with other organisations and individuals. It's not 'ours', it's for everyone."

Doran adds: "We're very into co-operating, collaborating and sharing. That's a key thing for us to do in our part of the world."

The duo have already enjoyed great success in programming events using an innovative 'bio-fest' model focused on the life, work, inspirations and surroundings of the subject at hand, thereby broadening the scope for potential performances and happenings.

Thus, Happy Days has hosted dawn pilgrimages to Devenish Island for readings of Beckett's work in order to highlight the spiritual and inspirational role of Enniskillen's natural beauty, and brought Beckett favourite Dante's Inferno to life in the bowels of the Marble Arch Caves.

Meanwhile, this year's FrielFest will find Adrian Dunbar directing actor Niall Cusack in five Donegal beach-based recitals of The Odyssey by key Friel influence Homer, while the five-day programme will also find them placing a giant Trojan war horse in Derry's Guildhall Square as a focal point for creative happenings during the festival.

Indeed, before any actual programming happens, the pair delve into the life and works of the artist at hand, while also taking a closer look at the festival location with a mind to matching locations to inspiration.

"It's a new model for festivals," explains Doran. "It's unique in the sense that a lot of our work and ideas are born from our knowledge of the place and what comes out of the place.

"That steers how, what and where we programme. In a rural environment, we can use landscape, ruins and other locations which will fit the work. They are not gimmicks – they actually help underline the piece."

"It's all about the relationship between the work itself and place, agrees Browne. "For us, it's very important that the two are properly integrated – everything leads back to the artist.

Patrick Kavanagh
Patrick Kavanagh

"And, because so much of what we do is site-specific, it often means that people are going to things in parts of the town they've never been in before. They're discovering more about their local places as well, which adds a wonderful element to the festival."

The duo's innovative work with Happy Days found them being invited to curate Liverpool's recent 50th anniversary celebrations for The Beatles' Sgt Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band.

Yet, ironically, last year's annual week-long celebration of Samuel Beckett was cancelled due to a loss of core Arts Council funding: a much reduced weekend-long programme will return to Enniskillen later this month.

"Obviously we were very disappointed, but you also have to roll with the punches," Doran philosophises. "For four years the Arts Council were our great supporters and hopefully they will be back with us in the future.

"In the meantime, we seek money elsewhere – this year Ulster University, The Nerve Centre and The Department of Foreign Affairs are new partners ­– and tighten our belts. That pushes the imagination in a different way.

"So we don't get hung-up about it: our responsibility is to try to find a way for the event not to be lost when it is so special to the local to the community. Both Liam and myself came into this with the intention of creating a world-class international arts festival for our home in Northern Ireland. We will not ever walk away from that."

For anyone who wants to help contribute to or get involved with 'the northern literary lands', the Arts Over Borders team would love to hear from you – because they are aiming big.

Brian Friel
Brian Friel

"If all the counties work together, we could possibly in a few years time have the region marked as a Unesco region of literature in the way that Dublin, Norwich and Edinburgh are Unesco cities of literature," says Doran.

"We already have the Wild Atlantic Way and Ireland's Ancient East, but the inland is always left out. We hope this offers something to create a communality for the inland counties and turn the border into something which unites people as opposed to dividing them."

:: ArtsoverBorders.com