Welcome to Beckett country

Last Thursday was the centenary of the birth of Samuel Beckett - after James Joyce, Ireland's most-celebrated 20th-century writer. Hermione Eyre reports from Dublin on how this lifelong exile and reclusive poet of existential despair has become an unlikely poster boy for the Irish tourist industry
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The Independent Culture

The madness begins before you get through duty-free. Posters for the Beckett festival are ranged along the travelator at Dublin airport, where adverts for Rolex and whiskey normally hang. "Surfing for Godot - www.beckettcentenaryfestival.ie" reads one. Another quotes, in large letters, "Didi: Shall we go? Gogo: Yes. Let's go" and then, in smaller text, gives the hard-sell: "You should go", rather in the manner of a poster advertising a former Soviet beach resort. A third simply states: "A hundred years on. Still waiting."

These give anyone arriving in Dublin the conviction that they are in the right place for the Beckett tourist trail. They give particular encouragement, also, to a group of 24 international journalists, myself included, who have flown in to cover the festival. Reporters from Japan and Holland, from a bibliophile journal in Paris and from The Lady magazine in London all coo when they see, from their tour bus, that the lampposts of central Dublin are hung with fluttering bunting bearing one great, white image - Samuel Beckett's disembodied head.

It is right and meet that Dublin should so honour one of its greatest sons. However, it is also difficult to reconcile the jolly commercialism of a festival with the rarefied existentialism of Beckett's work; to match the hurried superficiality of tourism with his distillation and intensity. And our interest in his biography ("He had many lovers?" asked a journalist on the coach) sits ill with his intense privacy: when awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1969, he didn't even go to the ceremony.

As Edna O'Brien, who knew Beckett, wrote in 1986, "The perils of fame and the clamorousness with which people pursue him can make him sick... [he is] fretful at the fact that so many hound him and that he is by now such a figure that the thought of meeting him has, for some, the talismanic sanctity of touching the robe of Christ." Yet here we are, making our international pilgrimage on his birthday, to his birthplace.

I entertain these misgivings while sitting on the tour bus heading through Dublin's graceful Georgian streets. According to the festival programme, commemorative gold Beckett collector coins have been issued. Will there also be Godot tea-towels and Endgame-themed travel chess sets? Beckett keyrings and rulers embossed with "I can't go on. I'll go on"? Tate Britain, I remember, had a "Jackson Pollock doughnut" in its canteen, splattered with drips of coloured icing. If you can make a doughnut out of Abstract Impressionism, can you make a merchandising meal out of Beckett?

We shall see. For the moment, the press corps struggles out of the coach for one of the city's Beckett-related activities. Not the academic symposium led by Terry Eagleton and Marina Warner. Nor I Not I, the inspired special exhibition contrasting Beckett with Philip Guston and Bruce Nauman. We are heading for another, altogether more informal homage to Beckett: the Dublin Literary Pub Crawl.

This is guided by two professional actors, who escort us into the solid Georgian quadrangle of Beckett's alma mater, Trinity College, Dublin. We gather on the steps of the library here to play a game of trivia - "On which portentous religious festival was Beckett born?" "Good Friday!" "A miniature bottle of Jameson to the winner!" We then watch while our guides inhale and exhale dramatically before launching into a passage from Waiting for Godot - an increasingly familiar passage, as it happens. "Vladimir: We should go. Estragon: Yes, let's go." The actors stay stock still on the library steps, breathing audibly. The effect is somewhat undermined by some students who are standing behind them, rolling their eyes, having emerged from their library for a cigarette break.

Round the corner, in the Trinity College Library's Long Room, another more authentic commemoration of Beckett is taking place. This is a new exhibition of his archive of personal correspondence and his notebooks, entitled all this this here. This is surely the destination for true Beckettians. And there seems to be an impressive number of them: despite the gloomy skies, there is a queue of about a hundred visitors, hushed in their Pacamacs. I soon learn, however, that they are actually waiting for admission to the medieval Book of Kells.

Upstairs, in the grand, quiet and queue-free Long Room, Beckett's accumulated papers are displayed under glass. There is a Dublin University Cricket Club photograph from 1925 featuring a dozen or so young faces, his eventually recognisable for its spectacles, its angular wince. There are his careful, neat notes on Dante, written in a curving youthful hand. This becomes crabbed and smaller with age - a first draft of a 1950s work called "Still" is written in a tiny fastidious script, the hand that Edna O'Brien called "a study in fugitiveness". Some of his personal correspondence is pleasingly characteristic: he writes, about a bicycle trip, to his old friend Barbara Bray, "Legs not quite gone. Going though." There is a formal letter written in the mid-Fifties in which he turns down an invitation to sit for a photographer because he is not "due" a sitting till 1960. And there is a certain piquancy, also, in seeing on display in Trinity College, Dublin a letter in which Beckett complains about his editorial treatment by the college's student newspaper.

Downstairs in the library shop there is a comprehensive display of Beckett texts and biographies. I also notice, tucked behind the stand, a set of greetings cards printed with his famous phrase "Fail again. Fail better". But no fridge magnets. These are reserved for the illuminated letters of the Book of Kells.

Outside, the Beckett press corps is struggling with broken umbrellas and blustering rain. Motherly members of Tourism Ireland distribute umbrellas; there is a little squeal as the Japanese reporter steps on the foot of the Parisian bibliophile. "It's an international incident," says the laconic reporter from The Lady.

We make it, finally, to the Gate Theatre. This small grey Palladian-style building, where the young Beckett first saw Synge and O'Casey, is the beating heart of the festival. Ten new productions of his plays are being performed here, by actors including Sian Philips and Michael Gambon. Tonight, we are here for an appointment with Edward Beckett, Samuel's nephew and the executor of his estate.

He is a controversial figure, since he grants or denies theatre companies the right to perform the Beckett oeuvre. He is notoriously strict, disallowing free interpretations of the plays. Two months ago, Italian female actors took him to court to win the right to play the roles of Vladimir and Estragon. Perhaps we will be able to quiz him about why he is so inflexible, and whether he sees Beckett's stage directions as integral parts of the text. We mill about expectantly in the small hot room backstage at the Gate. The press corps talks among itself, a Babel of different tongues.

Edward Beckett enters. In a dark, street-wet overcoat, he is shock-headed like his uncle and surprisingly tall. The assembled journalists now display a terrier-like professionalism and tenacity unsuspected hitherto. They surge towards him as one, aiming microphones into his face. The questions come thick and fast. "Did ya know your uncle well?" asks the New York reporter.

"We used to meet once a week when we were both living in Paris."

"Did ya talk a lot?"

"We talked about ordinary everyday things. He was very good to me, protective of me as I lost my father when I was 11. He was very supportive."

"Supportive financially?"

Edward Beckett laughs. "Yes. He was very kind. We used to play billiards."

"Who was better at billiards?"

"He was."

The journalist representing an Indian periodical pipes up, quickly.

"What do you want us to know about your uncle?"

"His work, I'd say."

"Does he deserve his reputation?"

"Well, what do you think?" replies Edward Beckett. By this time he is backed up into the doorway, the press corps seeming to encroach closer with every question.

"Of course I think he does," replies the Indian journalist. "That's why I'm here. But what do you think?"

"Well, I think so too. That's why I'm here. I spend a lot of my time working on the estate. I really must be off now."

Quick as a long thin streak of silver, Edward Beckett disappears out of the door, his overcoat still wet from when he came in.

A country trying to reclaim one of its exiled artists is an embarrassing sight. To Dublin's credit, it does no such thing. JM Donoghue, Minister for Arts, Sport and Tourism even introduces the festival with these words: "Many are not fully at home in this world. Samuel Beckett was less at home than most," (a quote from Anthony Cronin's biography). Beckett, who lived most of his adult life in France and wrote his masterworks in French, could not have been said to be at home in Ireland ("I didn't like living there," he told The New York Times once, "Theocracy, censorship, you know the kind of thing") - though he was very Irish. O'Brien, again: "His lamentations, his rhythms, his vituperations and his curses all seem to me to be thoroughly Irish... He does have the fibulations of his country in him, while at the same time doing everything to disown and ridicule the unctuous, gombeen, crubeen twilightitis mistakenly thought to be Celtic."

Perhaps the most touching part of the whole Beckett bandwagon are the exhibitions by modern artists who are currently being inspired by him. There is a new show called No Colour, No Colour of oil portraits of great Beckettian actors in character by Coin McLoughlin, a young artist and Beckett fanatic. And there is a small, off-beat show in a back room at the Writers' Museum called Meeting Samuel Beckett, by the artist Brian Breathnach. This consists of many different interpretations of Beckett's head, which is shown as a pixellated blob, as a multicoloured engraving, as a shadow splattered with imitation bird muck, as an Art Brut biro scribble.

These shows, though sidelines in the festival, felt like spontaneous tributes - true indicators of Beckett's continuing resonance. While officialdom honours him in a great and glorious centenary festival, ordinary artists honour him all the time.

The international press corps is dispersing off to dinner. "That's the hidden benefit of Beckett," one is saying to another. "His plays are so short." We all laugh, perhaps too heartily. m

www.beckettcentenaryfestival.ie . For tourist information visit www.discoverireland.com or call 0800 039 7000