Enniskillen's Wilde Weekend

A magical, informative programme of events celebrates Oscar Wilde's dual nature – bohemian/academic – formed while attending Portora Royal School from 1864-71

Once again, Sean Doran waves his magic wand and creates an arts festival beyond our Wildest dreams. In Enniskillen, the May Bank holiday weekend celebration of Oscar Wilde is now an annual fixture, and a fitting companion to the Happy Days Enniksillen International Beckett Festival, which takes place in the town during late July/early August. Oscar Fingal O’Flaghertie Wills Wilde and Samuel Barclay Beckett, after all, were both boarders at Portora Royal School, Wilde from 1864-71 and Beckett from 1920-23.

While there are weekend visitors from Belfast, Omagh, Galway and London, the festival audiences are overwhelmingly local; one might conclude that Wilde’s flamboyance and wit, his charming children’s stories, well-known plays and pithy aphorisms find more immediate appeal than the intellectual brilliance of the Nobel-prize winning Beckett. Town businesses also enter into the festive spirit, with the Happiness Trap café offering Lady Windermere’s Flan, a Pitcher of Dorian Gray juice and a Happy Quince tagine.

Festival director Doran’s programme highlights key links between the town that Wilde seemed determined to forget (of which more later) and his writings. From his dormitory window on the top floor of Portora school, Wilde would have had a fine view across town, to the statue of Sir G Lowry Cole, GCB atop the Forthill. It seems not at all far-fetched to suppose that Cole’s monument provided the inspiration for The Happy Princewhich Wilde wrote for his sons, Vivian and Cyril.

It is, of course, the story of a gilded statue high above the city, whose leaden heart is softened and finally broken by a visit from a late season swallow, who brings news of the misery of the townsfolk below. 'There is no mystery so great as misery,' says the Prince. He thereafter asks the swallow to pluck out his sapphire eyes and to take the ruby from his sword hilt to the needy seamstress, the shivering, hungry student and the little match girl who has lost her matches. Then, leaf by leaf, the swallow collects the gold from the statue and carries it to the poor. 

A reading of the story is given at St Macartin’s cathedral on Sunday afternoon. Then, on Monday, as families enjoy fun and games on Camomile Hill in Forthill Park, artist Alan Milligan climbs the column’s 180 spiral steps to apply gold leaf to the statue, so that it will gleam in the sunshine and then, over time, shed its golden particles over the town below.

The Ballad of Reading Goal, written while Wilde was subsequently serving his two-year prison sentence, is staged by Kabosh Theatre Company in the assembly hall of Enniskillen’s South West College, a large room that retains the high walls and lofty windows of the town’s former gaol. Instead of seats, the audience is invited to experience the performance lying on individual mattresses taken from the now obsolete Portora dormitorie; a truly moving experience.

In the solemn setting of the upper room at Enniskillen’s Masonic Hall, it is easy to imagine oneself in the Bow Street courtroom where the trial of Wilde for homosexual acts opened on April 26, 1895. The author was accused by Lord Queensbury, the father of his young lover, Lord Alfred Douglas, who was represented by Sir Edward Carson, a barrister and future leader of the Ulster Unionist Party, and a contemporary of Wilde at Trinity College Dublin.

In this setting, the festival proposes a fascinating discussion of the trial by Toby Carson, grandson of Wilde’s nemesis, renowned scholar Owen Dudley Edwards, Honorary Fellow at the University of Edinburgh, and Eibhear Walshe, literary critic and author of The Diary of Mary Travers. (Travers' accusation of rape by Oscar’s father, Sir William Wilde, resulted in a Dublin trial.)

In this same venue, critic and cultural historian Robert Hewison, an expert on John Ruskin, describes the influence Ruskin had on Wilde while he was a student at Magdalen College, Oxford. Wilde took part in Ruskin’s road building experiment, an experience which fostered his conviction that art had a role to play in the improvement of society.

At Oxford, he espoused the Aesthetic Movement and became an individualist in the Hellenic mode. Despite the distance that developed between the two men following Wilde’s disgrace – Wilde was omitted entirely from the 39 volumes of The Works of John Ruskin – Wilde later acknowledged his debt to the great Victorian critic in a touching letter quoted by Hewison.

At Portora, where Wilde’s name was temporarily struck off the school’s Honours Board following his trial and later reinstated, audiences file past a portrait of the artist by one of the school masters to hear Heather White, co-ordinator of the festival, and Jarlath Killeen, Associate Professor at Trinity College Dublin and an acknowledged expert on Wilde, describe his days at Portora and at TCD. White, author of Forgotten Schooldays, Oscar Wilde at Portora, believes that Wilde preferred to forget his time at the school because his years at Portora were defined by tragedy.

Oscar and his brother Willie were probably sent to Portora to remove them from the scandal surrounding the Mary Travers scandal in Dublin. In their first year, two boys were drowned in the lake and two years later the headmaster’s son, Frederick Steele, also drowned, casting a veil of gloom over the school and the town. Two years after that, Lois Wilde, the sister to whom Oscar was devoted, died of a fever aged nine.

Killeen proposes that Wilde’s dual nature was defined at Portora. The extrovert, flamboyant, excessive side came from a desire to confront death in the way Irish folk tradition portrays mourners celebrating lewdly at a wake, while his serious, spiritual and scholarly side was nurtured by a Protestant acceptance of God’s will.

What this inaugural festival also reveals is the range of Wilde’s work beyond the well-known stage plays such as Lady Windermere’s Fan or the novel, The Portrait of Dorian Gray. Extracts from these works, including the famous handbag scene from The Importance of Being Ernest, are included in Oscar Wilde at Home at Florence Court House, where cameo performances by young actors like Enniskillen’s own Stefan Dunbar are directed by David Grant of Queen’s University and presented in the entrance hall, the library, the Venetian room and the Drawing room.

In the Countess’s bedroom, following the recitation of 'Requiescat', Wilde’s poem for his sister Lois, Donal Morgan gives a spirited performance of an excerpt from The Remarkable Rocket, a tale for children about a firework display that celebrated the King’s marriage to a Russian princess.

The same sequence is repeated in For Alphonso, written and directed by Neil Bartlett and read by actors in The Regal late on Saturday evening. Risteard Cooper, who because of his height and obvious charm gives a brilliant impression of Wilde, at one point delivers the famous line 'I am so clever that sometimes I don’t understand a single word of what I am saying'. Killian Burke, meanwhile, plays Alfonso while Stuart Graham and Orla Charlton (who also displays her talent for mimicry) provide narration.

The piece describes the evening Wilde spent in a hotel room in Brighton in September 1895 with a young newspaper seller, Alfonso Conway, during which he read him extracts from The Remarkable Rocket. The secret tryst was discovered by the Marquess of Queensberry, who used it as evidence against Wilde in the subsequent trial.

In the morning room at Castle Coole, audiences witness a reading of 'The Decay of Lying', in which Wilde shows off his erudition, his love of the classics (a subject to which he was first drawn at Portora), and his wide knowledge of art history. The dialogue ,which takes place between the grown up Vivian and Cyril, hinges around the question of whether life imitates art, or art life. The work is intellectually challenging and audiences may have appreciated a more measured delivery by the actors.

A real highlight of A Wilde Weekend, however, is the reading over three nights by Stanley Townsend of 'De Profundis', Wilde’s confessional essay, which looks back at his mistakes yet seeks solace in a newfound awareness of who he really is. Directed by Adrian Dunbar, and delivered with deep sensitivity by Townsend, the reading is greatly enhanced by the set in St. Michael’s church, where an enormous ornamental screen, cleverly designed by Alan Milligan, veils the altar and the actor.

After Ruby Philogene brings the monologue to a close with a song from Mahler’s Ruckert Lieder, a long and telling silence prevails before the audience show their appreciation for a truly exceptional event.

Fittingly, one of three fairytale concerts, a programme of Strauss songs performed by the brilliant soprano Katherine Broderick, takes place at the Graan Monastery, where Passionist priests were trained. On his deathbed in Paris, Wilde was attended by Passionist priest, Father Cuthbert Dunne, and converted to Catholicism. He died on November 30, 1900 and is buried in the city’s Père Lachaise cemetery.