Oscar Wilde swallows a golden opportunity for year-round literary tourism on the streets of Enniskillen

David Roy chats to Arts Over Borders man Seán Doran about how the new Wilde Island Town project is creating an innovative year-round link between Enniskillen’s literary heritage and tourism...

Arts Over Borders man Seán Doran with the new golden swallow sculptures. Picture by Brian Morrison
Arts Over Borders man Seán Doran with the new golden swallow sculptures. Picture by Brian Morrison

IF YOU'RE visiting Enniskillen this weekend, be sure to keep your eyes peeled for an influx of visually arresting visitors taking up permanent residence on the facades of shops, schools and public buildings in the picturesque Co Fermanagh town.

Throughout this month, the highways and byways of Enniskillen are being adorned with 150 specially created golden swallows to mark the 150th anniversary of Irish literary genius Oscar Wilde leaving the town after completing his studies at Portora Royal School, now Enniskillen Royal Grammar School, which also counts Samuel Beckett among its famous alumni.

Although Wilde never returned to Enniskillen, his formative days as a boarder at the school overlooking the River Erne certainly appear to have fuelled his imagination. The Dublin-born writer is thought to have taken the statue of Sir Galbraith Lowry Cole atop Cole's Monument in Enniskillen's Forthill Park as his inspiration for his well known 1888 short story The Happy Prince.

In this fairytale, a lone bird, Swallow, helps a gilded and bejewelled statue bestow its riches upon the inhabitants of an impoverished city: the local landmark would have been clearly visible to the school-age Wilde from the windows of Portora on the west side of town, and the geography of the city in the story echoes that of Enniskillen with its reed-trimmed river.

Now, a new literary tourism initiative aims to cement this relationship between the writer, his work and his former childhood home in the imagination and conciousness of the general public by bringing Wilde's Swallow back to Enniskillen – this time in eye-catching numbers.

Wilde Island Town: Home of The Happy Prince will see the installation of 150 gold-leaf gilded stainless steel sculptures at locations throughout the Co Fermanagh town. They have been created by locally based visual artists Dr Helen Sharp and Simon Carman for the first phase of the new project curated by Arts Over Borders, the same organisation behind the popular annual Wilde Weekend literary festivals which have been bringing Wilde's works to life in Enniskillen since 2015.

It will be a work in progress throughout this month, with event curator Seán Doran, artistic director of Arts Over Borders, having spending the past few days helping the artists with the placement of the striking new sculptures along Enniskillen's High Street and elsewhere.

"We've had a totally enthusiastic response," enthuses Doran of how local shops have been embracing the project, which is meant to represent the flight path of Swallow in Wilde's story.

"Our project co-ordinator in Enniskillen, Sally Rees, has been pulling it all together, as she knows everybody – and it's just been 'yes, yes, yes' from everyone she's asked to get involved. And in fact, now that our swallows have actually started to appear, we've had a bit of a rush from other businesses who want one for themselves."

Indeed, anyone out and about in the town this weekend can expect to catch a glimpse not only of the shiny new arrivals, but also of Seán and co as they continue with the delicate business of actually installing them.

"We've developed a system over the past few days which means we can do it pretty fast," explains Doran who, along with his Arts Over Borders partner Liam Browne, has also helped create/curate other innovative high profile literary tourism events in the north including Enniskillen's annual Happy Days International Beckett Festival and Lughnasa FrielFest on the Donegal/Derry border.

"We choose a bird, we get out our ladder and then I stand on the other side of the street to help them position it. It's been quite a profound moment actually, with local traders opening up post-Covid: in our psyche, the swallow is a harbinger of hope bringing warmth and lightness to things."

Five-year-old Thea Johnston from Enniskillen Integrated Primary helps artists Simon Carman and Helen Sharp as they begin the installation of 150 golden swallows in and around the town. Picture by Brian Morrison
Five-year-old Thea Johnston from Enniskillen Integrated Primary helps artists Simon Carman and Helen Sharp as they begin the installation of 150 golden swallows in and around the town. Picture by Brian Morrison

This neatly sums up one of the main aims of the project, which hopes to utilise Enniskillen's impressive literary heritage as a driver for year-round tourism in the area – a a serious and engaging upgrade from the simple blue plaque at Enniskillen Royal Grammar School which is currently one of the few permanent reminders of Wilde's connection to the town.

Even Arts Over Border's own Wilde Weekends – which first forged a visual connection between Enniskillen and The Happy Prince when sculptor Alan Milligan gilded Cole's statue in gold leaf in 2015 – are transient events by their very nature, as Doran acknowledges.

"The Achilles heel of all festivals is that they are not ever-present," he says.

"The aim of this project is that, when A Wilde Weekend returns, it will come back to a town which has hopefully developed an intimacy with the story of The Happy Prince and how that knits into how the town sees itself – and is hopefully proud of that association, particularly in these post-Covid times.

"When you re-read it today, its themes of community, compassion, empathy and wealth redistribution are quite striking."

And, despite the ongoing Brexit debacle, Wilde Island Town: Home of the Happy Prince is being funded by the Interreg Europe's Northern Periphery and Arctic Programme via their Spot-Lit project, which focuses on the untapped economic potential of literary tourism in the Northern Periphery and Arctic region of northern Europe.

"It's economic development funding, not creative funding," explains Doran of the €40k which has been secured for the Wilde Island Town endeavours, "but we sort of insisted and said 'You've got to look at how you can substantiate literary tourism'.

"Our model is to say, 'there's a connection [to Wilde] here: how can we develop it holistically through the whole community?' They are embracing that and so the money will be spread across several projects – our swallows are just the first of a number we're going to do in the town between now and October."

Oscar Wilde studied at Portora Royal School, now Enniskillen Royal Grammar School
Oscar Wilde studied at Portora Royal School, now Enniskillen Royal Grammar School

The Arts Over Borders man adds: "We were very lucky to get this money – we mightn't have got it through channels of artistic funding, which is something of an irony."

Along with selected local businesses, Enniskillen Royal and 12 other schools will each receive their own Happy Prince swallow, as will the children's ward at South West Acute Hospital and all hotels and charity shops in the town. They will form a 'Happy Prince Trail' which tourists will be able to follow from Cole's Monument right through Enniskillen from east to west and back again.

"We wanted to create a sense of the swallows being in flight, so we've placed them in off-centre, off-piste places," reveals Doran of his aesthetic strategy for the project.

"Already I've heard from one local person that their child went out to try and spot them, even though we actually only started to install them yesterday. So they're already capturing imaginations."

He adds: "We've now achieved something in Enniskillen that we've always wanted to do as a festival organisation – to be gifting something that has permanence to a place with which we have associated ourselves is very rewarding.

"We'll also be looking at republishing The Happy Prince and other Wilde stories so that you can actually get them in the town. Having reread it recently, I was really struck again by the beauty of Wilde's prose – it's really just extraordinary and deserves to be read anew."

:: See Artsoverborders.com for more information.