I mentioned in my recommendations for August having read and been thoroughly dismayed by a recent Irish Times article, ‘If ever you go to Dublin town’. In it, Rosita Boland reports that Dublin ‘might be a Unesco City of Literature with a rich literary history to be proud of’, but Irish visitors, locals, and tourists alike all seem a bit uninterested and uninformed about this history. One Texan tourist calling herself ‘just a clueless American’, for instance, said that she couldn’t actually name ‘any writers or books from Ireland, let alone from Dublin’. Others echoed her response with heart-wrenching regularity.
Boland’s unofficial experiment doesn’t bode well for Dublin’s new status as Unesco City of Literature. Dublin was awarded the designation – one of only four such honours – after a three-year long process headed by Dublin City Council under the auspices of Unesco’s Creative Cities Network. Other cities that already boast the ‘Unesco City of Literature’ title include Edinburgh, Melbourne, and Iowa, but what exactly does this mean for the cities involved? Reporting on Dublin City Council’s bid for ‘city of literature’ status in March 2009, Irish Times writer Charlie Taylor suggested that it all comes down to the tourism industry. As Taylor then wrote, ‘According to estimates, landing the prestigious recognition in 2004 has generated about £2.2m per annum for Edinburgh and an additional £2.1m for the rest of Scotland’. In her comments upon the award of the designation on 27 July 2010, Minister for Culture Mary Hanafin suggested the same; the designation was, she said, ‘a great recognition of the vast literary wealth for which we are renowned and will be a welcome boost for cultural tourism’. Novelist Jopseph O’Connor’s comment that the designation ‘might bring in the odd tourist’ seems more accurate, however, if Boland’s brief questioning is anything to go by.
One of the requirements to be designated a city of literature, as listed on the Creative Cities Network website, is that the city boast an ‘Urban environment in which literature, drama and/or poetry play an integral role’. In tourism terms, this is probably best represented by the likes of the Dublin Literary Pub Crawl (reviewed here late last month), the Dublin Writers’ Museum, and the self-guided Literary Walking Tour of Gothic Dublin. The extent to which these efforts to heighten Irish literature’s place in the minds of tourists succeed is questionable, however, if we consider the echoed remarks of a couple of tourists recorded by Boland. One from the US and the other from Austria, these visitors wanted to be able to take tours ‘of famous Irish authors’ houses’ and to ‘visit birthplaces of writers’ – missing the fact that such opportunities are already largely available via, for instance, the George Bernard Shaw Birthplace (open to the public) on 33 Synge Street, Dublin Tourism’s iWalk series , and the James Joyce Museum in Sandycove.
Evening Herald writer Sinead Ryan hit the nail on the head when she wrote on 28 July 2010 that not only do we need ‘to grasp this wordy honour by the throat and rattle it for all it’s worth, [or] it will just pass into insignificance’, we also have ‘to find an alternative for tourists to the literary pub crawl’. Noting that ‘A Google search will give a smattering of writers’ workshops, the odd poetry reading and a handful of library festivals in the city’, Ryan presses for more, including tax breaks for writers, more funding for libraries and creative writing classes in schools, and increased commissioning of literary projects. Her best idea, however, as far as I’m concerned is ‘a writers’ forum [including ‘readers’ and ‘wannabes’ as well] to submit ideas to Government’. Count me in! This is, as Ryan rightly notes, an opportunity that should not and, in the light of the literary blanks noted by Boland, cannot be missed.