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Beckett link brings 'Happy Days' back to Northern Irish town

By Conor Humphries

ENNISKILLEN Northern Ireland (Reuters) - The man who brought an opera to Britain's biggest rock festival is using the enigmatic plays of Samuel Beckett to lure tourists back to a town better known for one of Northern Ireland's worst 'Troubles'.

Sean Doran, who arranged for the English National Opera to play "Ride of the Valkyries" from Wagner's Ring Cycle at Glastonbury a decade ago, is using everything from rugby to readings in caves to try to engage the people of Enniskillen, where Beckett went to boarding school a century ago.

A native of Londonderry, Doran hopes the "Happy Days" festival - named after a Beckett play - will help Enniskillen revive the tourist ambience shattered in a 1987 bombing.

He wants to fill Enniskillen's schools, bars and halls with the avant-garde prose of a playwright and novelist who made his best-known play "Waiting for Godot" doubly obscure by writing it not in English but in French

"Beckett's work has become niche," Doran said. "We want to show his work is much more inclusive, embracing than it's given credit for," he said of the Dubliner widely seen as one of the leading playwrights of the 20th century.

Doran wants to challenge the idea that the plays are overly intellectual and inaccessible. "We are little more laconic up here and understand Beckett's dark humor," he said. "Words have hidden weight - as they do in troubled places."

Hundreds of Beckett devotees from around the world are expected to descend on the waterside town for its third annual festival, joining thousands more from around Ireland. But Doran hopes that at least 40 percent of the audience will be locals.

To broaden the appeal, the festival embraces music, lectures and visual arts that inspired Beckett or were inspired by his work.

This year's program includes a lecture on the food of Europe's Jews, whose plight helped inspire "Waiting for Godot", and lectures on World War Two, when Beckett was in the French Resistance.

But the selling point for locals, Doran says, is using performances to shine new light on peculiar corners of the town, which has only one purpose-built theater.

Venues run from Beckett's hilltop Portora Royal School to the site of the bomb blast that killed 11 people, and extends to stately homes and lakes in the countryside.

The most successful event is an annual reading in a flooded cave at the end of a short boat ride.

Beckett, a Protestant Dubliner not associated with the struggles between Catholic Nationalists and pro-British Protestants that tore Northern Ireland apart before a 1998 peace deal, attracts audiences from both sides of the border.

The town has already enjoyed the renovation of a cross-border system of canals and the hosting of a summit of G8 leaders nearby last year.

Doran admitted the rural setting could be jarring to Beckett enthusiasts, some more used to festivals in major capitals like Paris, where Beckett spent most of his career. But he says the quirkiness of the venues and the stunning setting on a string of lakes brings people back.

"There can be too many festivals but if there's a need in an area neglected but beautiful and it puts a focus on it, it's superb," said David Gothard, a regular participant in the festival who knew Beckett before his death in 1989.

Neil Morton, principal of Portora Royal School, said Beckett had stood out more for sporting rather than academic ability during his schooldays. He was unsure how much the local community was engaged with Beckett's texts, but said that was not the point.

"It's not necessarily about creating a new audience for Beckett, but a new platform for his work," he said.

(Reporting by Conor Humphries; Editing by Ruth Pitchford)

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