Una Mullally

Society, life and culture on the edge

Writing about Dublin

A Banter session raised some interesting questions about the politics of city publishing.

Thu, May 1, 2014, 11:48


At the Living in the City Banter session last night, people from Rabble, Le Cool, Totally Dublin and LovinDublin spoke about covering the city. It’s a topic I’m interested in as someone who occasionally writes about Dublin, and in the past for Dublin publications; I had a column with The Dubliner, wrote for The Event Guide, and a couple of times for The Slate.

I missed the discussion so just made it in for the question part of the evening. I love Le Cool. I don’t think anyone needs to talk about how useful it is, how it alerts loads of people to stuff they wouldn’t know was going on otherwise, how its IRL events are fun and informative, how its Web Summit freebie talks are really great and so on and so forth. I also like Totally Dublin. And I’m into Rabble, it’s got an edge and soul. I’m not a fan of LovinDublin. On the rare occasions that I’ve read it, I’ve found the writing is sometimes terrible, especially when it strays into “opinion”, the tone is immature, and it’s very suburban and straight for my taste. I’m sure restaurants will feel compelled to get on board as its readership grows, but I – and most people I know – are not its audience, and therefore my opinion is pretty irrelevant to its success. There are a couple of other Dublin-ish sources I read, namely GCN and Come Here To Me.

A question that I asked was about how most of the writing about Dublin seems to be in the realm of culture, art, stuff to do around town, nightlife and so on, and therefore is mostly really about entertainment in a superficial form. One of the words that popped up again and again was “community”. Community is of course built around cool cafes and clubs and artistic collectives and so on, but over the past few years, I think it’s weird that people have become so detached from the politics of the city; who runs the place, what impact building regulations, planning laws, and so on have on what we do in the city, why rents are so crazy right now, how can we make our design better, why so many people are homeless, why videos of people getting attacked in the city centre keep popping up, what’s going down in Grand Canal Dock, what’s the story with vacant lots, what’s the deal with SDZs, why is it so hard to change the use on buildings, is it possible to build a gaff in the city centre, who cleans the streets, why do fire officers have so much power, why is the price of a pint something here and something else there, what galleries get funding, what festivals are struggling, why are so many potentially residential buildings still derelict, why can’t we drink past 2.30am, why do hardly any people live in our Georgian Squares, how can you squat, why are we getting away with clubs staying open late, what’s the craic with the housing bubble, how can you live in a houseboat, where the after-hours spots are and why they have to be sketchy, how do you get the council do give you a few quid for something, which parks are private and which are public, why is there still gaybashing, why are not-for-profit social spaces so contentious, why are so many restaurants opening up but hardly any clubs, why and how have 26% of people in their 20s disappeared, why education isn’t free anymore, is unemployment going up or down, communal living, cycling, why can’t we use the Liffey more, will streets ever get properly pedestrianised, and on and on and on and on.

I raised a question about publications being politically engaged. Now obviously it’s not the job of a restaurant website to be politically engaged. But I meant in writing about the city as a whole. I don’t mean publications endorsing a candidate, or giving us council meeting reports, or picking a party, just, you know, engaging with the life of the city in a way beyond “where to go and what to do when you get there.” Every question asked about city living is political really, and stuff like Le Cool and Totally Dublin does ask those questions sometimes purposefully and sometimes automatically. Even by virtue of covering Granby Park, or Happenings, or doing new-school walking tours, that’s being engaged with the city, that’s asking questions about the city, that’s political in a way. But I do feel that a lot of the stuff written about Dublin is more “here we are now entertain us” rather than “what’s going on?” That’s why I like going to Banter, because there can occasionally be decent substance to the topics posed.

In terms of local journalism, though, I wonder why and how this happened? One of my ideas about it (which could be totally off the mark) is how self-publishing (in other words, blogging) has made people more introspective and individualistic. When I started writing (during the war while I was wearing a string of garlic around my neck which was the style at the time), the first port of call was zines, and I worked on two with my buddy. They were as terrible as you can imagine, album reviews, music features, big political rants, “satire”, opinion pieces, cartoons, our grand ideas about international geo-politics and Nine Inch Nails records. Cringe. At that time, the best Dublin publication was The Slate, a totally political beast. The Dubliner was still in its Trevor White days, asking interesting questions about the city and reflecting what was going on for a certain demographic, and Mongrel was also occupying a space that was totally needed, poking fun at the Celtic Tiger losers pretty successfully as well. The Event Guide was the does-what-it-said-on-the-tin listings and interview free sheet, and In Dublin filled the more generic magazine-y vibe.

I guess when young writers start writing now, either in student publications (which are so unbelievably conservative and anodyne), or online, a lot of it tends to be more introspective, sarcastic in the hipster sense as in childish and knowing rather than actually saying anything pertinent, self-indulgent, wordy for wordiness sake. Whatever. Or maybe people don’t feel the need to write beyond a rehearsed Twitter quip or emo Facebook status update. Could something like The Slate exist now with its outrageous covers and druggy innuendo? It does feel as though like everything in Ireland, austerity has bred a don’t-rock-the-boat conservatism, so maybe independent publishing doesn’t want to stick its neck out as much as it had in the past. It’s one of the toughest games to be in, so of course you want to make it sustainable. Maybe people don’t want to upset their relationships with brands or sponsors, maybe they feel there’s not an appetite for anything beyond socialising and consuming bits and pieces of art, or maybe there’s no one really interested in writing that kind of stuff for Dublin outlets. But it’s not the job of Totally Dublin, Le Cool, or LovinDublin to be telling wider stories of what’s going on in the city beyond what their remit actually is – and as I said they do in many, brilliant ways (I’m leaving Rabble out of this because I do think it’s a political animal), but I wonder if there’s space for something that has a little more grit in its teeth?

As an aside, Niall Harbison who runs the LovinDublin website spoke about being “disenfranchised” as his reason for not being politically engaged. The word came up a couple of times. But I’m not sure if people really get the meaning of it. Being disenfranchised means that you are being deprived a vote, and if you want to push the meaning out further, deprived privilege, deprived a voice, excluded from wider society. Being in charge of a media company is hardly the essence of being disenfranchised! It’s the very opposite. Maybe people mean apathetic? Purposefully disconnected? Wilfully ignorant? Individualistic? That’s fine. There are plenty of people in Irish society who have a genuine claim to being disenfranchised, but if you’re in charge of a media source that loads of people read, you’re not one of them.

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(Photo by Dan Heap via WikiCommons)