In July 2010, Dublin was designated a Unesco city of literature. It was a fitting tribute, suggested this newspaper’s literary correspondent at the time Eileen Battersby; a recognition that the city was “firmly planted on a bedrock of words”. Poet Thomas Kinsella was on hand for the announcement, photographed beside the Grand Canal Theatre. Kinsella had always drawn on the city, including its Georgian Heritage that he prized so much; that Dublin, for him, was “the panelled vista/ Closing on pleasant smoke-blue far-off hills.”
There was other good news that week in 2010 for Dublin writers. Both Emma Donoghue, author of Room, and Paul Murray, author of Skippy Dies, were longlisted for the Booker Prize, a reminder of an impressive literary continuity. Historically, Dublin was not just the cradle of great writers – Jonathan Swift, Samuel Beckett, Seán O’Casey, Oscar Wilde, Maeve Brennan and Mary Lavin being just a short selection from a very long list – it was also a city other Irish writers migrated to, including poet Patrick Kavanagh. Wexford-born writer John Banville’s 2016 memoir of Dublin, Time Pieces, opens with the line: “Dublin was never my Dublin, which made it all the more alluring … a place of magical promise towards which my starved young soul endlessly yearned.”
It is a city long decorated by declarations of its significance and cultural heft. In the first edition of The Dublin Magazine, launched in 1762, one of the contributors wanted readers to share delight in “considering my native city, as having arisen, in little more than a century and half, from the lowest ebb of wretchedness and contempt, to almost the summit of elegance, extent and magnificence”. Not everyone embraced such rapture and Dublin writers have been as attuned to their city’s misery – “Dublin remains, in many essential respects, shockingly low in the scale of modern civilisation” noted this newspaper in 1913 – as to its majesty.
It is also of course, the city of James Joyce’s “little story of a day”, the groundbreaking Ulysses, published in 1922 after seven years in the making. As historian David Dickson put it in his deft history of Dublin: “That moment in Dublin’s imagined history thus became utterly familiar to every student of modern English literature and Dublin itself became a distinctive corner of the global cultural landscape.”
That there has been such a blasé dismissal of the error is a worrying reminder of the contemporary casualness about truth, evidence and accuracy and it is not something that should be shrugged off
The 20,000 runners preparing for the Dublin Marathon next month do not need to be literary academics to know that they will be running on some hallowed literary ground. They deserve much better than to be given, for their heroic efforts, a medal inscribed with the facile, syrupy words, “There are no strangers here; Only friends you haven’t met yet,” alongside a portrait of Dublin-born poet WB Yeats.
There is no evidence that Yeats ever said or wrote these lines, but that does not seem to bother the organisers of the race, or indeed, Susan O’Keeffe, director of the Yeats Society, Sligo, who was quoted this week as saying it is “pretty certain” the quote does not belong to Yeats, but that to be misquoted is a sign of “greatness” and that the error is a “nice, quirky oddity”.
It is anything but. It is a travesty. The idea behind the medal is to mark the centenary of the awarding of the Nobel Prize for Literature to Yeats in 1923. He was awarded that “for his always inspired poetry, which in a highly artistic form gives expression to the spirit of a whole nation”. Misattributing a quote makes a mockery of the award and the poet. Yeats sought to be master of his country’s evolution and his native city’s historical hinterland and to frame that poetically; a conception of the historical nation had been central to his cultural crusade. That there has been such a blasé dismissal of the error is a worrying reminder of the contemporary casualness about truth, evidence and accuracy and it is not something that should be shrugged off.
Exhausted marathon runners do not need quotes wrongly attributed to Yeats at the end of their race. They might be happy instead to receive some words from his poem Under Ben Bulben: “Complexion and form prove superhuman, /That pale, long-visaged company/ That airs an immortality/ Completeness of their passions won”. Or lines from the poem What was Lost: “Feet to the Rising and Setting may run/ They always beat on the same small stone.” Or Yeats’s declaration in The Tower: “That, being dead, we rise,/ Dream and so create/ Translunar Paradise.”
But they only really need to read the words of another great Dublin writer, Samuel Beckett, from the end of his 1953 novel The Unnamable, which would fit nicely on a medal: “you must go on, I can’t go on, I’ll go on.”