Taking a walk on the Wilde (and Beckett) side in Enniskillen

Two of world literature's greatest figures, Oscar Wilde and Samuel Beckett, spent their school days in Enniskillen, and the town has become a 'living art gallery' to celebrate the link. Jane Hardy heads to Fermanagh to follow the trail of the renowned writers

The flight of the little golden Swallow is a Wilde idea for revitalisation of Enniskillen This week (10th May) sees the launch of the first phase of Wilde Island Town (WIT): Home of the Happy Prince, a Literary Tourism project by Arts Over Borders, which aims to stimulate new year-round tourism for County Fermanagh and to offer timely support for the revitalisation of the Enniskillen High Street. Five year old Thea Johnston, Enniskillen Integrated Primary helps artist Simon Carman and Helen Sharp as they begin the installation150 little swallows in gold leaf in and around Enniskillen centre, on the facades of retail stores and community buildings including its schools. Wilde Island Town: Home of the Happy Prince is part of a wider EU INTERREG Northern Periphery and Arctic Programme funded project called the Spot-Lit project, which focuses on the untapped potential of Literary Tourism in the area known as the Northern Periphery and Arctic region of northern Europe. Picture by Brian Morrison.
Jane Hardy

FEW places in Ireland have a better literary pedigree than Enniskillen. It's the small town where Oscar Wilde and Samuel Beckett were educated.

The future literary stars studied at different times in the handsome Portora School, a public school dating back as far as 1608 with proud institutions like the rowing and cricket clubs.

At school, Beckett was sporty and did caricatures of a science teacher who resembled Crippen. Wilde was the budding aesthete who ranked fourth in the school in Classics and had a cool reputation for speed reading.

A decade ago, Sean Doran founded the Happy Days Beckett Festival in Enniskillen, which has become a major draw, attracting international talent and support from people such as Adrian Dunbar, a big fan of the playwright.

Heading south-west to Enniskillen on a very sunny morning, the mood was quite unlike the nihilistic world often evoked by the author of Waiting for Godot. Clouds were fluffy, the sky was blue.

After checking into the comfortable 4-star Enniskillen Hotel, which boasts decent sized bathrooms, a Wilde and whiskey bar and a Beckett restaurant (where they do a scrumptious breakfast), we started exploring.

Our first delightful duty was to take a boat trip with Erne Water Taxis to Devenish Island. This is the site of a monastic community founded by St Molaise over 1,000 years ago.

We boarded Barry Flanagan's yellow eight-seater boat (£120 to hire for the day, operating March to October) and cut a very smooth path through Lower Lough Erne among bird fowl, including whooper swans.

We passed Enniskillen Castle, built by Hugh Maguire in 1428. Barry, who is expanding his fleet to include a 12-seater potential party boat, indicated the intersection between the mighty Shannon, which extends down through Ireland, and the Erne. Celebrity cleric Fr Brian D'Arcy loves this part of the world and told me once his favourite place was the inlets where hyacinths grow in spring.

Once on Devenish, you sense an atmosphere of utter peace. With a large community, it must have been noisy, though, and the early inhabitants were often at risk of a Viking attack via water.

Sadly the quirky headstones, with their distinctive heads drawn with wings (as the spirit transcended first, leaving the rest of the body behind) have been weathered by time. But the big round tower still defends the place and the scenery has been painted by TP Flanagan among others.

Of course, this is a written landscape too and poets including the Fermanagh-born Frank Ormsby ("when we flicked ash into the saint's stone bed...we meant no harm") have been inspired to pick up their pens.

But we were on the trail of Wilde and Beckett, now commemorated right round the town.

It's as if Enniskillen has taken imaginative flight, as 150 gilded swallows have now colonised the town in a superb installation, The Flight of the Little Golden Swallow, by Simon Carman and Helen Sharp.

Commissioned by Arts Over Borders, there is a special Follow the Swallow trail, hunting these cleverly placed sculptures, one or two of them containing jewels.

Wilde could see Cole's Monument from school. That view inspired one of the most poignant stories ever written, The Happy Prince. Wilde imagines the Statue asking the Swallow to deliver his gold and precious stones to the poor.

He sees a little match girl who has dropped her goods and risks a beating from her father, and wants to prevent this with the final gem in his eye. "I will stay with you one night longer," says the Swallow "but I cannot pluck out your eye. You would be quite blind then."

But the statue persuades him, the Swallow saves the little girl and the bird returns to comfort him.

You can also work out the Swallows' nicknames on a special map. Sean Doran has described literary tourism as a niche sector within cultural tourism with clear benefits that sit alongside the opportunities provided by literary festivals such as Happy Days.

Fermanagh and Omagh District Council is onside and has agreed to gild the figure of General Cole on the monument.

Cole's Monument wasn't completed until 1857, but a new attraction for 2021 is the Enniskillen Beckett Chess Set.

A launch event for this involved a chess game that features in the writer's novel, Murphy, enacted by members of Enniskillen Royal Grammar School's drama group, ably directed by Sally Rees.

In the original, Mr Endon, a patient in a mental hospital, plays Murphy and the game is unconventional. We saw the oversized chess pieces move slowly, the funny scene unfurl. The giant pawns and knights and rooks were then distributed to various locations as we discovered the next day.

One has even been placed in the men's urinal in town in a tribute to Beckett's regular chess partner, Dadaist Marcel Duchamp.

After an impressive ceremony in Enniskillen Castle courtyard, where details were given of the way literary tourism ties in with the local economy, we dined at one of the town's attractive restaurants, 28 at The Hollow.

Glen Wheeler trained with Neven Maguire and this shows in his menu of locally sourced sophisticated food, with a good fish element as you would expect. The hake was terrific, the scallops delicately cooked, the ham hock risotto tasty and the pudding, panna cotta with strawberries, pretty on the plate.

Midway through the meal, local MP Michelle Gildernew came over to talk, as she knew our guide. She engagingly set out the political picture, and was clearly enthusiastic about what culture is doing for the town.

It's worth doing the Walk on the Wilde Side and seeing points of interest relating to Oscar. We were lucky enough to go on a tour of his school, and learn about the institution's complicated relationship with one of its most famous students. Wilde won a scholarship to Trinity College, Dublin, and his name originally featured on the Honours Board.

When his affair with Lord Alfred Douglas became public during the infamous court case in 1895, the school removed Wilde's name as it was considered too scandalous. It has been reinstated, ironically in a larger font.

This place is definitely worth an overnighter; you'll come away in awe of these writers and the landscape that helped make them.

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