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Interview The arts have a unique ability to dissolve hostility

Festival director Sean Doran talks about hosting the world’s largest multi-arts festival in a small town in Co Fermanagh, and how the arts can melt away tensions in Northern Ireland.

Founder and director of the annual ‘Happy Days’ Beckett festival, Seán Doran talks to Jade Hayden about what makes this particular celebration unique, and how it works to benefit the communities of the area.

I HAD ALWAYS been a fan of Samuel Beckett’s work. However, as a Derry man, it was not until later in life that I got the opportunity to visit the small town of Enniskillen, Co Fermanagh, where Beckett had attended boarding school. As soon as I arrived I began to learn more about the man himself, and his work, through the exploration of this seemingly undiscovered town.

Having run other festivals previously in places like Belfast and Australia, I was keen to begin a new project; one that would support various art forms from all around the world, and would be as challenging as it was enjoyable. Seeing as Beckett was passionate about a long list of art forms including theatre, poetry and story-writing, it seemed only logical to hold a celebration in honour of him in the place where he learned his art.

A unique twist on a classic

There are huge differences existing between our Happy Days festival and other typical festivals that are being run in Ireland these days. For starters, its location is not a large, bustling city at the centre of national cultural excellence, as many other festivals tend to be, but a compact space that has the potential to present, and celebrate, the artistry of Beckett to a population who flock from all over Ireland, and the world.

Our festival’s model is also unlike many others that dominate Ireland today, as Happy Days operates as a ‘Biofest’. Instead of appearing loose and generic, the Biofest begins with the celebration of one single artist, allowing other art forms to stem from this and extend throughout the five day period of the celebration.

Dissolving hostility and tensions

The arts have always had a heavy influence in dissolving any hostility or tensions between various groups, and this has proved no different concerning the Beckett festival.

Last year, Happy Days successfully neutralised Enniskillen of any sectarian discomfort during the days it was running, through its ability to model itself on Beckett’s imagination. There was no strict form to be adhered to, buildings were re-appropriated regardless of their prior use, and the atmosphere in town remained as animated and light-hearted as possible.

Art is a useful territory, and although I didn’t enter into Happy Days with an agenda, the festival appeared to naturally melt away any existing barriers… even if for a short time.

Vaudeville in the Unionist hall

The specific utilisation of existing spaces is essential in establishing an excitement amongst the festival goers, many of whom may never have even set foot in some of the buildings and areas available to them – whether due to personal reasons or travelling difficulties.

For me, the act of removing negative connotations associated with certain venues, like the Unionist hall (previously the old cinema), is the key to creating a sense of enjoyment and comradeship. As locals get the chance to explore the places they’ve never been before, those who have travelled from elsewhere experience a summer celebration in Northern Ireland that is free from political parades and an explicitly separated community.

‘Fooling Around Beckett’, or F.A.B, is a new programme that will be introduced to the festival this year, dedicated to Beckett’s time spent in Paris engaging in works of mime, vaudeville, cirque and clown. In contrast to many generic considerations of his career, I would recognise these particularly ‘light’ aspects as the hallmark of Beckett’s work, and consider them as important as his other pieces that are commonly seen as ‘high art’. It is for this reason that the festival is called Happy Days – it remembers Beckett’s banter and thus, reflects the arts’ ability to eradicate forms of judgement within communities, leaving only festival-goers with the power to enjoy the celebration of this Nobel Prize winning writer.

Happy Days have taken spaces in Enniskillen – like the Unionist hall and churches, both Catholic and Protestant – and filled them with the words of Beckett.

A cultural renaissance in Northern Ireland?

It may have been suggested that the North is in the beginnings of a ‘cultural renaissance’, but I believe that it has always been there.

I see Northern Ireland as an area of vibrancy; one which is as concerned with theatre, music and poetry as the most established cultural destinations of the world. However, it is festivals like Happy Days that are allowing Northern Ireland’s cultural significance to become more visible – both nationally, and among a global audience.

Seán Doran is the founder and director of the ‘Happy Days’ Enniskillen International Beckett festival. He has also directed many other major worldwide festivals, including the Belfast festival at Queens in 1997 and 1998, and the Perth International Arts Festival from 2000 to 2003, for which he was awarded the Centenary Medal by the Australian government.

Happy Days Enniskillen International Beckett Festival 2013 runs from 22–26 August. For more information, click here.

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