Padraig Coyle follows the path of Dante's Divine Comedy into Marble Arch Caves and to White Island
I have a childhood memory of a fire and brimstone cleric terrifying our rural congregation with a cautionary tale about Satan’s dealings with those who stray away from the path of righteousness.
The clergyman told us that as a screaming, errant sinner was being dragged downwards to Hell on a dark winter’s night, none of his friends came to his aid. At day break the only marks to be found of his violent departure from this world were the smouldering footprints seared into the stairs of his house.
The cleric’s sermon reached its crescendo with a reminder that Lucifer could return for anyone, us included, unless we mended our ways. Apart from a couple of doubts about the detail and accuracy of that tale, the terrifying imagery it created in my mind has forever stayed with me.
It is with this in mind that I agree to descend to the depths of the world famous Marble Arch Caves in Florencecourt, along with 26 other nervous souls, to witness an interpretation of Dante Alighieri's 'Inferno' as part of the Happy Days Enniskillen International Beckett Festival.
Dante’s Divine Comedy trilogy was Samuel Beckett’s favourite literary work, and for this first part of the epic poem – which also features 'Purgatorio', the second part, partially performed on some of the islands on Lough Erne – there is an expectation of something frightening awaiting us.
The feeling is enhanced on our steep zig-zag journey into the subterranean world by the rush of water out in the darkness, where unseen streams seem to be pouring down to quench the imaginary fires below.
Yet, once inside the caves, fear is replaced by calm as a fleet of flat-bottomed ferry boats carry us silently through the water and under beautifully formed, yet sometimes grotesque, leering rock outcrops to our first stop for a performance of Beckett’s short monologue Not I, by Italian actress Chicca Minini.
In the pitch black, an open mouth – lit only by torchlight – spits out the sufferings of an old woman. Her jumble of words appear more traumatic when delivered in a frenzy of Italian, with the red glow from the torch showing the inner turmoil of her personal inferno.
The ancient stalactites of the Marble Arch Caves are our landmarks as we continue our quest deeper into the earth, strung out like Tolkein’s fellowship through the Mines of Moria. Our way is guided by the voices of 33 cantors reciting the 'Inferno' in a variety of languages, which merge at times into a constant babble.
At journey’s end, the soothing strains of 'Dido’s Lament', sung by mezzo soprano Ruby Philogene, restore a sense of sanity. We are then led safely back to the surface and personal salvation by Philogene's haunting rendition of 'Amazing Grace', which echoes through the hollows and the sink holes where the waters disappear.
Hours later, as the sun rises, our journey resumes across the purgatorial waters of Lower Lough Erne on board the Smeraldina cruiser. For 'Purgatorio to the Islands' – the second part of this ambitious site-specific series of events – we are transported 90 minutes northeast through plankton covered waters to a landing point at White Island.
In the ruins of an early Christian settlement famed for its stone carvings incorporated into the crumbling walls of a 12th century church ruin, the highly entertaining poet, musician and comedian John Hegley performs for us.
His own composition 'My Doggie Don’t Wear Glasses', sung to the strains of his mandolin, prepares us for something more cerebral as Hegley – using an American accent – launches into a reading of Beckett’s poem 'Ooftish', first published in 1938.
‘My first thought was rather than just read it, try and do something with it,’ explains the Luton born poet. ‘My American accent isn’t that good, but I feel that Beckett would approve of going with what you feel is right.’
Hegley, whose paternal family came from France, enthralls his audience within the walls of the old church by perching on an ancient window sill to read Beckett’s translation of Apollinaire’s poem 'Zone'. His use of the mandolin in the background for some of the repeating passages from the text works to great effect. It is not, perhaps, what we are expecting, but Beckett would have approved of this, too.