Wednesday, 25 January 2012

Written in Dublin

As part of my trip to Ireland last year (hosted by Aer Lingus and Tourism Ireland), I investigated the famous literary heritage of Dublin.

Though it's not a huge city, over the centuries it's produced many towering figures in English literature, including the likes of James Joyce, Oscar Wilde, Samuel Beckett, George Bernard Shaw, Jonathan Swift and Bram Stoker.

But how do you engage with these geniuses in the 21st century city? I spoke to an expert to get the literary lowdown on Dublin. Catherine Duffy works for the city's City of Literature office; like Melbourne, Dublin is a recognised UNESCO City of Literature.

Tim: How important to the city is its literary identity?

Catherine: I think it’s of great importance, it’s a huge sense of pride and identity. Everyone would know the main writers, both the contemporary and classical writers. They would know some of their major works and what parts of the city they’re from. So it’s strong, writers and artists in general are looked up to in Dublin. It’s a cool thing to be.

Even children, they love meeting writers and they think it’s really trendy. A lot of them say "I want to be a writer". So, there is a sense of pride in it, and we do identify with it. I think because we know what we’re good at. Horse racing and writing are two things that we know we’re good at.

Tim: There's that picture of the literary type at the cafe and the pub, a kind of sexy image from the past - Oscar Wilde with his absinthe.

Catherine: Although many would believe that the classic Dublin writers weren’t very la-de-dah or nerdy, they were hellraisers really. They did things that would provoke society and they were trendmakers, they did quirky things. Oscar Wilde was in prison. WB Yeats, some of the things he wrote about angered and provoked society. Another writer was Brendan Behan, an alcoholic but a very colourful man.

They were all very different, and unique personalities and characters. They were bookish but they also had strong character traits that were kind of reckless, and probably self destroying in a way. They didn’t really care what effect it would have on their reputation. All they cared about was producing good work and producing what they wanted to produce.

Tim: What are the top literary highlights of the city for visitors?

Catherine: There are two bike companies that run tours of the city and they have a strong background on literary Dublin and they will tell you the tales. They’ll go to the different statues and the different birthplaces of the writers and they will tell you about them, they’re quite knowledgeable on it.

You’ve also got the Literary Pub Crawl. You don’t really drink on it, but a lot of the writers congregated there and exchanged their work, and so a literary pub crawl tells you about the writers that frequented them. It’s actors who do it, so it’s quite entertaining. It’s a good evening.

Another experience, especially if you’re interested in the old oral tradition, is an evening in the oldest pub in Dublin. It’s this guy, Johnny Daly, he’s an historian, and he tells you about the folklore and the fairies of literary Dublin.

Another thing which is quite quirky is Archbishop Marsh’s Library. It was the first public library in Ireland, it opened in 1701. The keeper there can bring you round and show it to you, the books are chained to the wall.

Another thing to go to is the Chester Beatty Library which is right beside Dublin Castle. It’s quite beautiful and it has a lot of Islamic manuscripts. And of course there's our National Library.

Tim: What’s your personal favourite?

Catherine: Probably the Book of Kells and the Long Room at Trinity College, but that’s because every time I walk into there I gasp. That’s not an exaggeration. It’s such a thing that you’d really miss out if you didn’t walk through there. It’s stunning.  It shocks me, actually. It’s amazing.

This post was sponsored by Octopus.com. Check out its site for deals on Dublin hotels.