Galway to host its first festival dedicated to Oscar Wilde

Galway will for the first time host a festival dedicated to Oscar Wilde. The festival, taking place in September, will celebrate the life and work of the writer and highlight his strong links with the west of Ireland.

The inaugural Oscar Wilde Festival will take place this September 7th and 8th. Along with revealing his strong west of Ireland links, the two day festival will present an enactment of Wilde’s poem ‘The Ballad of Reading Gaol’, explore the writer’s shadow on Ireland’s sexuality and close with a candlelit dinner and show event. The two day event has been warmly welcomed by Wilde’s grandson, Merlin Holland.

The festival is the brainchild of Sandra Coffey. “I’ve been a fan of Wilde since my college years in Limerick and read The Importance of Being Earnest,” she tells me over an afternoon coffee. “Ever since then I delved into his other works and have been hooked. I find both his life and work equally fascinating. I’ve had the idea of doing a Wilde festival for a few years. He has family connections with the west of Ireland and every day you go up Shop Street there are tourists posing with his statue. There are no other festivals dedicated to his work in the way there are festivals celebrating Yeats, and Joyce and Beckett so I felt Oscar deserved something to mark him out as well and decided to go with the idea.”

Among the participants in the festival is Galway writer Gerry Hanberry. His book, More Lives Than One, The Remarkable Wilde Family Through The Generations has received much praise. The book charts the Wilde’s family connections with the west of Ireland and is told like an intriguing story by its author. “Oscar had huge family links to the west of Ireland and I think here is the proper place to have a celebration of his work,” Hanberry declares. “Oscar’s father was born in Roscommon and Oscar’s grandfather was a GP outside Castlerea and he married a woman who had land around Cong. When Sir William Wilde, Oscar’s father, got established in Dublin he was able to buy land on his mother’s old estate and he built Moytura House as a summer house. And just outside Leenane he had a small hunting lodge. Oscar inherited those and he visited them on a number of occasions, he enjoyed hunting and fishing. Sir William and his family would often have taken the train to Galway, crossed the square and walked down by where the statue of Oscar is now located as they headed to Woodquay to take the steamer to Cong.”

Hanberry will give an illustrated talk on Wilde as part of the festival opening event at 4pm on Saturday September 7th upstairs in Busker Browne’s. “I’ll talk about Oscar’s west of Ireland links including the O’Flynns who were Oscar’s forebears,” he reveals. “The O’Flynns are the ancient chieftains of that area, they were second to the O’Conor Dons. Oscar’s great grandfather Ralph Wilde, who was an ironmonger married into the family. By marrying an O’Flynn Ralph was marrying well, in 1749, and raising his status. In terms of Oscar’s west of Ireland links, there is a whole swathe of land from Roscommon through Elphin, Cong and Leenane that could easily be called Wilde country.”

Gerry goes on to share an interesting anecdote about Isola Wilde, Oscar’s sister. “Isola was visiting her uncle and aunt at Edgeworthtown, she was almost 10. Sadly she fell and died and was buried in St John’s churchyard there yet at some point the headstone disappeared and the local folklore has it that when Oscar fell from grace Isola’s name was erased too. But I was recently up there at a reading and they had gathered funds and got a new headstone. I think that shows the evolution of the Wilde story; he was a hero and then fell so low from grace that even his little sister’s headstone was interfered with but now we see the renaissance of the Wilde story, we are beginning to own it again.”

Also taking part in the festival is writer Rab Fulton. At 8.30pm on Saturday evening, September 7th, Fulton will perform his interpretation of ‘The Ballad of Reading Gaol’ in the Town Hall Theatre Studio. This was Wilde’s last work and describes the moving story of his memories of prison, where he spent two years after being found guilty of gross indecency.

There are more events added to the line-up with a talk on how Wilde’s fall from grace was reflected in Ireland, given by Cork writer Eibhear Walshe. The festival will conclude with a candlelit dinner and theatre event in the Harbour Hotel on the Sunday night where Dublin actor Michael Judd will give his performance of Micheal MacLiammoir’s feted stage show, The Importance of Being Oscar.

For lovers of Wilde, this two day event encapsulates the essence of the man and writer giving fans something to really immerse themselves in. For those not familiar with his work, then this is the perfect introduction.

“I would love it to become an annual event,” states organiser Sandra Coffey. “I think there is a lot of scope for it to develop and I already have a lot of interest from people who would like to participate in next year’s festival. Oscar’s grandson Merlin Hollans is very supportive of the festival and he is hoping to come over for it next year. I can see its scope for growth. We got the funding this year from The Gathering but hopefully it will grow because there is no other event out there where fans of Wilde can gather and enjoy his work. I’d like it to see it be a platform for new work also, for artists to come with ideas.”

You can follow the festival on Twitter @OscarWildeFest All details are on the website www.oscarwildefestival.weebly.com

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