This year marks the birth of a new festival on Galway’s already bustling calendar; the Oscar Wilde Festival. The two day event is both a celebration of the famed writer’s life and works as well as a reminder of Wilde’s strong links to this city and the west of Ireland.
Wilde’s ties to Galway go much further than the popular Shop Street landmark upon which he sits. Wilde visited parts of Galway and Connemara in his childhood and had a very keen interest in the area though he never settled here for too long.
The upcoming festival is seen as a long overdue mark of respect for one of Ireland’s most gifted and controversial writers. Among the small events that make up the festival, Wilde’s last completed work, The Ballad of Reading Gaol, will be performed and examined by local Galway-based artist Rab Fulton. The lengthy poem was written by Wilde at the most vulnerable point of his life, in exile in France after his release from Reading Gaol in 1897. He had been imprisoned after being convicted of homosexual offences in 1895, sentenced to two years of hard labour. The poem centres around the hanging of a man at the prison, Charles Thomas Wooldridge, and the significance the event had on Wilde’s troubled psyche at the time.
Rab Fulton is a writer, performer, and storyteller, and a man who truly loves Galway, its finer hidden details, and its dedication and capacity for the arts. A Glaswegian by birth, he has spent 14 years in Galway and considers himself proud that his children are Galwegian. He sees Galway as a city that affords its people the space and comfort to pursue passions and interests, in particular the arts. “Is there anyone in Galway who is not an artist or a writer? Everybody seems to be doing something artistic. It is a smaller city and it is more intimate, which is why I have stayed here longer than anywhere else in my life. You just get to know a place really well and it becomes a part of you.”
His career direction, like his appearance at the festival, was largely unplanned, “I am fortunate enough that nothing in my life has ever been planned. I kind of stumble into things but I have always been surrounded by words and stories ever since my childhood. Being an artist, you go through feasts and famines, which is the nature of it.”
At the moment, Rab is certainly going through a feast time. His dark fantasy novel Transformation was published in 2012; his collection of mythical tales entitled Galway Bay Folk Tales was published this year; work on online sci-fi blog novel Marcus Marcus and the Hurting Heart is still ongoing; and his horror short story The Face of God is set to be published in the American anthology Dark Harvest. His next installment will be the festival performance at the beginning of September, something he has long anticipated.
Fulton has always been an admirer of Wilde’s work, since his childhood in Scotland. When the opportunity arose, he had already studied all but two of the writer’s works, one of which happened to be The Ballad of Reading Gaol. “Instead of treating it as a poem about Oscar Wilde in jail, to me it became a verse play written by Wilde about a prisoner. It is about humanity’s machine, what we call laws and morals, which are things that have been created by someone. It grinds down those of us who are in the wrong part of the machine.
“Ireland is at a point where people need to be pushed from a safe perspective and be challenged and have new ways of looking at what is going on around them. This machine is still here in Ireland with austerity, the difference between those who will never be touched and those who have been ground down. This work is an account of someone’s privileged experience of the sharp end of the machine.”
Although Rab is aware that people will have their own expectations, he hopes that the audience will be moved by his personal interpretation of the piece. He is currently hard at work, perfecting his performance and his deeper understanding of the poem, its darkness and its beauty alike. “There is so much love, humanity, and vulnerability in his work and to think that someone like that spent two years in jail because of their heart is just horrific. It has been difficult working on it and it has been overwhelming for me to try and keep the performance contained, allowing the space for the words and for the audience to come in as well.”
Rab Fulton’s performance of The Ballad of Reading Gaol will take place on Saturday evening, September 7 at 8.30pm in the Town Hall Theatre Studio. Tickets are €5 and are available at www.tht.ie For more information on Rab’s background and previous works, visit his website rabfultonstorie s.weebly.com. He will also have copies of his recent collection Galway Bay Folk Tales for sale after the performance.