If ever you go to Dublin town
We might be a Unesco City of Literature with a rich literary history to be proud of, but to what degree are visitors to the city actually aware of that legacy? asks ROSITA BOLAND
ON MONDAY, it was announced Dublin has been designated a Unesco City of Literature, joining the cities of Edinburgh in Scotland, Iowa in the United States and Melbourne in Australia.
So what do locals and tourists make of the designation, and how will it affect their expectations of the city? What writers – if any – do they associate with Dublin?
There are scores of people outside The Long Room at Trinity, either waiting to go in or, like Maryann Harmon from Denver, Colorado, who have just come out.
“For me, Dublin’s most famous writer is Maeve Binchy, and the book I associate most with Dublin is Tara Road,” Harmon says. “I’ve called my daughter Tara. I guess Dublin must be very proud of its writers because they have a whole room of them in the Wax Museum, where we also went, even though I’ve never heard of any of them. I thought Sean O’Casey was the name of a bridge until I saw a poster advertising one of his plays. Dublin could do a better job of telling us who these writers are.”
“I don’t even know what Unesco is, so I sure don’t know what a City of Literature is meant to be like,” confesses Kim Walsh from Texas. “I couldn’t tell you the names of any writers or books from Ireland, let alone from Dublin. Maybe the Book of Kells? Is that right? I’m just a clueless American.”
“I suppose The Deadis the most famous book about Dublin,” says Jon Cordova from Zurich, Switzerland. “But I don’t regard Joyce as Irish as most of his books are set in England or Europe – aren’t they? Of living writers from Dublin, I would say Colm Tóibín is the best-known.”
Cordova would like to see “books integrated into the city, so that you can go to the places where the action takes place. There needs to be a connection between what’s written and what’s seen.”
Maureen Heath from New York city offers Swift’s name as a Dublin writer. Beyond that, she can’t name any Irish writers, or books. What she would like to see happening in Dublin as part of a literature initiative are “tours of famous Irish authors’ houses”.
Neither father nor son, Frank and Thomas Seidl, from Graz, Austria, can come up with the name of a single Irish writer or book. When asked what they’d expect from a Unesco City of Literature, Frank suggests, “To be able to visit birthplaces of writers. And to have more big libraries like this one,” he says, indicating the Long Room behind him.
At the Irish Writers’ Museum, friends Susan Farrelly and Caroline Farran, both from Co Meath, are on a cultural day out. Both of them say they consider Roddy Doyle to be Dublin’s best-known living writer. “ Ulysseswould have to be the most famous book about Dublin,” they agree.
“I’m not sure what ‘Unesco’ stands for, what it actually means or what this award means, but I’d like to see literature and books in Dublin becoming more accessible to people who are not ‘literary’,” suggests Farran. “To be more inclusive. I’d never be without a book, but I’d read anything. A lot of what goes on at present is very academic. As Unesco City of Literature, I’d like to see Dublin making all sorts of literature accessible, especially for kids in working-class areas – the kids that Roddy Doyle writes about, for instance. I’d like to see more inclusive events. There’s the Ulyssesthing every year, Bloomsday, but who’s read it?”
“I’d like to see more women writers promoted,” Farrelly says. “We never hear about them. It’s all men.”
Manuela de Boes from the Netherlands cannot think of the name of any living writers associated with Ireland or Dublin. “Joyce is the most famous dead one. There’s Oscar Wilde too, or was he British? I’m not sure. What I’d like to find out more about is about modern writers. That’s hard to do here. The only writers I’ve heard about while I’ve been here are dead.”
Dubliner Carmel Nash and her daughter Ellen (9), are on a day out, and visiting the Irish Writers’ Museum. “The most famous book about Dublin is Ulysses– not that I’ve read it,” Carmel says. “I hope Dublin will get a lot more children involved with reading now that they have this award.”
Karen and Bob Leroux, who have been on the Dublin Literary Pub Crawl tour, live in Iowa, which is one of the other three Unesco Cities of Literature. Ironically, Bob is aware of Dublin’s new title, only three days old, but neither of them know their own home city has also been a City of Literature since 2008.
“Is it?” they ask, amazed. “We had no idea. They obviously don’t do a good job of promoting it if we live there and we didn’t know that, and we’re interested in literature.”
Asked which living Irish writer they associate with Dublin, Karen says, “John Banville? Is he from Dublin?”
As tourists, they would like to see Dublin now looking “at ways of making literature more of a direct, interactive experience,” Bob suggests. “Maybe putting on dramatisations of work in the streets?”
As for Karen, she’d like to see “Irish literature being made more accessible to people who don’t know who Brendan Behan is. Who is Brendan Behan? We’d never heard of him until we took the Literary Pub Crawl, but he seems to be really famous.
“The only writers’ tours here in Dublin seem to be around pubs. We had been looking out for something like what we found in Paris, where we went round the cafes where writers used to sit and write, and we could imagine where they sat and got their ideas.”
“But what we saw here in Dublin were pubs where writers sat and probably lost their ideas,” Bob laughs.