Arts Over Borders' plans for celebrating Ireland's 'northern literary lands' beyond Brexit and Covid

David Roy speaks to Arts Over Borders team Seán Doran and Liam Browne about the impact of Covid and Brexit on their annual festivals celebrating Samuel Beckett, Oscar Wilde and Brian Friel and how the ongoing pandemic and political debacle have affected their plan to highlight Ireland's 'northern literary lands' on the global stage

Domhnall Gleeson and David Pearse performing Waiting for Godot at the Marble Arch Caves Global Geo Park on the Irish border. Picture by Matthew Andrews

OVER the past decade, the annual Happy Days Enniskillen International Beckett Festival, A Wilde Weekend and Lughnasa FrielFest events have become cultural beacons for visitors from across Ireland and beyond, who travel to Co Fermanagh and Co Derry / Donegal to enjoy innovative celebrations of the life and works of the Irish literary greats Samuel Beckett, Oscar Wilde and Brian Friel, presented and performed by top talent.

All three events are programmed using a 'bio festival' model, with festival curators Seán Doran and Liam Browne, the Derry-bred founders of festival organisers Arts Over Borders (AOB), taking their inspiration from the work, lives and interests of their subjects.

Thus, the impact of the local landscape on these Irish literary giants (Dubliners Beckett and Wilde both boarded at Portora Royal School in Enniskillen) is always very much to the fore: Happy Days has hosted dawn pilgrimages to Devenish Island for readings of Beckett to highlight the spiritual and inspirational role of Enniskillen's natural beauty.

2019's festival featured a Walking for Waiting for Godot event where audiences were bused from Enniskillen to the Fermanagh/Cavan border – a pointed response to Brexit – before walking to an al fresco performance of Beckett's best known work featuring Domhnall Gleeson.

The last A Wilde Weekend in 2019 featured David Grant-directed excerpts of Oscar Wilde's plays staged at his alma mater and 'Wildtowne' readings held in various Enniskillen shops, while FrielFest has offered Brexit-baiting 'border-hopping' promenade productions of Brian Friel's Faith Healer and readings from Homer's Odyssey (a key influence on Friel) on Donegal and Causeway Coast beaches.

The 11 counties of Ireland's 'northern literary lands' have a strong association with great writers

It's all part of AOB's plan to shine a year-around spotlight on the strong links between literature and landscape in Ireland's 11 border counties under the mantle of 'the northern literary lands'; along with Beckett, Wilde and Friel, the borderlands have also fostered famous literary names including Seamus Heaney (Co Derry), Patrick Kavanagh (Co Monaghan), WB Yeats (Co Sligo), John McGahern (Co Leitrim), Dermot Healy (Co Cavan), Flann O'Brien and John Montague (Co Tyrone), Jonathan Swift (Co Armagh), CS Lewis and St Patrick (Co Down), the latter's fifth century Confessio being the earliest known writing from Ireland.

However, the ongoing global pandemic forced the cancellation of 2020's Happy Days, Wilde Weekend and FrielFest events, as well as effectively freezing funding for this year's festivals.

While many other arts events have switched to online models, the AOB duo felt that virtual alternatives were just not viable.

"They are very much landscape-based experiences and 'of the moment,' explains Doran of their festivals. "They are 'site specific' because of the relationship between the place and the work," agrees Browne.

"You lose that completely once you go online. So, in terms of the ethos of those festivals, to try to replicate that online would be very difficult if not impossible. We have always said it's about 'being there' and enjoying a completely unique experience."

Adrian Dunbar took part in a 'wake' to launch a world record attempt at a continuous live reading of Finnegan's Wake during 2014's Happy Days Festival

The Happy Days audience listening to Dublin's Pan Pan Theatre pre-recording of Samuel Beckett's radio play, Cascando, on headphones. Picture by Matthew Andrews

Instead, for this year they have hatched one of their most ambitious plans ever, which will hopefully involve special productions of two key works tied to Beckett and Friel taking place across and around Ireland this August – funding permitting.

Doran explains: "All Mankind is Us, which takes its title from Waiting For Godot, will be a shared all-Ireland project where within one month we could do one event in every single one of the 32 counties from two of our past projects.

"The first is a reading of Homer's Odyssey, which we've been doing on beaches during FrielFest. There's effectively 16 Irish counties that are coastal and have beaches, so we will take it to one beach per county moving clockwise across four weeks.

"What we want to do is to commission 16 female writers to pen their own response to that particular chapter and for that to be read by an actress.

Actor Greta Scacchi reading Homer's Odyssey on a Donegal beach. Picture by Matthew Andrews

"Then for the 16 internal counties, we will start in Fermanagh and go round anti-clockwise with our Walking for Waiting For Godot with Antony Gormley's Tree For Waiting For Godot [created for the debut Happy Days event in 2012] and four male actors.

"We've found that both projects are great for audience engagement, engagement with landscape – and probably very Covid-friendly too!"

With a 'lighter footprint' planned for their 2022 festival programme, which will find AOB focusing more on events based on an aspect of a single work by Beckett and Friel spaced throughout the year, the duo are also plotting a year-long celebration of the centenary of James Joyce's classic Ulysses for 2022.

Ulysses: A European Odyssey will span 18 cities across Europe, opening in Athens on June 16 and completing in Dublin and Derry in June 2023.

"While Joyce's imagination was all 'Dublin', he saw himself as a European artist, " explains Browne of their approach, which will centre on bite-sized events aimed at making the formidable tome more accessible to all.

"He lived most of his life on mainland Europe, but also in terms of his influences, friendships and where he saw his work sitting – he saw it within a European context."

AOB's principal strategy for 2022 will be to help energise a connection between all literary initiatives across the 'northern literary lands' and to seek Unesco status for the region. In the more immediate future, they will be launching a new Oscar Wilde/Enniskillen-related digital presence as Northern Ireland's contribution to the Northern Peripheries & Arctic Area European Funded Literary Tourism Initiative, which also involves the Republic, Scotland and Finland.

Their project, WildeTown: Home of The Happy Prince will bring home the literary connections between the town and Wilde's popular 1888 short story to users of computers and smartphones everywhere. The project will involve Enniskillen's high street shops hosting appropriate Wilde epigrams and a 'Happy Prince trail' from Portora to Cole's Monument in Forthill Park.

Actors Adrian Dunbar and Ciaran McMenamin celebrate the opening of the inaugural Wilde Weekend in 2015 with organiser Sean Doran and Gilly Campbell from Arts Council of Northern Ireland

"It's fascinating, if you go up to Portora and look out the window, the geography of The Happy Prince is the geography of Enniskillen," enthuses Browne of the fairytale involving a lone swallow that helps a gilded statue bestow its riches upon an impoverished town: the statue of Sir Galbraith Lowry Cole atop Cole's Monument was gilded in real life for the first A Wilde Weekend in 2015.

"You have the lake, you have the reeds, you have the town and the statue on Cole's Monument – it's quite extraordinary."

Doran elaborates: "The idea is to create a website and an app that establishes a potential 365 day tourism layer for the town and Fermanagh. We tested the water at last year's festival when we had the fairytales of Hans Christian Andersen and Edgar Allan Poe stories read in various Enniskillen shops. The shopkeepers loved it – audience members were buying from them while they attended.

"While the festival is ephemeral, this would create a year-round tourism link between Enniskillen and the young Wilde."

With all three of their annual literary events drawing tourists across the Irish border every year – for example, 40 per cent of 2014's Happy Days audience hailed from the Republic – Brexit has been very much on the minds of the AOB team for the past couple of years.

"For us, the border has always connected counties rather than dividing them," comments Browne.

"So it's always felt quite natural to be programming work that crossed the border."

"We've always felt that the arts can change people's understanding of things," adds Doran.

"The way we look at Brexit is to do with the negativity it's generated concerning the border. By bringing in interesting artists or making interesting events happen and connecting either side of the border, we can hopefully send out a positive message instead."

The audience for Freedom of The City were taken on a pre-performance walk across Derry's Peace Bridge led by spirituals singer Tayo Aluko during Lughnasa FrielFest. Picture by Matthew Andrews

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