Sunday 25 September 2016

Imagination can help Ireland take its place among the world's nations

Published 13/05/2015 | 02:30

PJ O’Rourke is coming to Ireland to speak at the ZurichDalkey Book Festival (Michael Loccisano/Getty Images)
PJ O’Rourke is coming to Ireland to speak at the ZurichDalkey Book Festival (Michael Loccisano/Getty Images)

When asked, the great American satirist PJ O' Rourke responded: "Yes of course I'd like to come to Ireland in June". And that was about it. O'Rourke, the most quoted living man in 'The Penguin Dictionary of Modern Humorous Quotations', will be coming to Dalkey on June 13 to speak at the Book Festival.

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This reinforces rule number one of book, literary or arts festivals, which is that nobody ever got offended by being invited to something. Sometimes we forget that and think that people are "above" being asked; they are not. All they can do is decline. So why not ask them?

O'Rourke is that rare gem, a giant of American satire and analysis who has been poking fun at his own generation, the American liberal baby boomers, for years. He proves not so much rule number two but perhaps observation number two of book festivals, which is that the right-wing tend to have a better sense of humour than the left, take themselves less seriously and are inclined to be more forgiving than the men of the people.

This is the opposite of what you would imagine, but it is often true. Many commentators on the traditional left love to talk seriously about justice, equality and the rights of man, but tend to suffer massive sense of humour bypasses when their views are queried, even in a jocular, eyebrow-raising bout of scepticism.

O'Rourke also proves rule number three of book festivals - and festivals in general - which is the one I want to talk about today. It is that people like to come to Ireland to talk literature. It is a comparative advantage of this country and it is due to a rich literary tradition here.

Irish writing has for many years allowed this country to punch above its weight internationally. Irish writing in the English language has allowed what might be viewed as an Irish worldview to be projected out of this island, bringing a certain type of Ireland or Irishness to the imaginations of millions of people all over the world. Most of these people had no reason to ever think about this country before they opened a book or read a piece of poetry, listened to the lyrics of a particular song or sat in a theatre to experience an Irish play or film.

In today's global economy, this notion of projecting an image of the country is extremely important.

Its potential is known as soft power.

In the old days, only countries with hard power - the power of the "big guy" such as military or economic power - could project an image of a country far from the homeland. Making foreign people think twice about you was power. Typically, hard power manifested itself not simply by others thinking twice about you but being afraid of you and what you might do to them.

Military power was always a function of economic power, which itself was a function of dominant resources such as coal, steel or agriculture. Hard power is the power of force: dirty, gritty, brute force. The era of hard power has lasted for millennia. It is not over, but gradually soft power is playing a role for countries without obvious resources. Soft power is the opposite of hard power.

Soft power is the power of imagination. It is the power of persuasion rather than force. The essence of soft power is getting inside other people's heads so that they form a positive impression of you or your country.

This power can enhance the national brand enormously in a modern era. And, of course, the ability to project this brand is hugely amplified by the Internet and modern communications.

But soft power isn't just invented. It comes from various aspects of deep culture because, like all forms of branding, the country's brand has to be based on something. For example, the Danes' pre-eminence in modern interior design comes from a deep artisanal tradition of furniture in Jutland.

You can see these links from the past to the present all over the world in the most unlikely of place and in the most unlikely of fields.

For example, last week I was working in Argentina and was surprised to see that, for the ridiculously fashion-conscious locals, the trendiest restaurants in Latin America are now Peruvian. This is based on the fact that Peruvian ingredients have always been highly sophisticated due to the indigenous peoples of the high Andes being so adept at agriculture.

Today, the brand of Peruvian cooking is based on this historical fact. I am no foodie, but it does seem to accord with the notion that for the national brand to be successful it has to derive from something fundamental.

In Ireland, we have this tradition of writing and, in many ways, the reservoir of historical writing nourishes successive generations of new Irish writers. It is almost as if there is a historical echo of great previous writing which emboldens those who are writing today. All endeavours need heroes who can act as role models - and what better heroes can a modern writer have than the likes of James Joyce, Samuel Beckett and John McGahern?

A good example of this is poetry.

On June 13 in Dalkey we are celebrating the 150th anniversary of WB Yeats' birthday. Yeats reverberates today and, who knows, maybe our next Seamus Heaney is writing away crafting poetry today, inspired by the words of Yeats?

So Ireland has a comparative advantage in literature. And we are good fun, decent hosts and are easy to get to with great air links from all over the world. So why not build a small, but global business on book festivals?

In Dalkey our main sponsors, Zurich Insurance, a massive international company with deep roots here in Ireland, can see the potential and have come in to support the venture. In many ways, building a global brand with a local vibe is just what Ireland has been doing with the multinational sector. By this I mean that every time a foreign company is thinking of locating overseas, Ireland is bound to be part of that conversation. This is a huge accolade and is the product of lots and lots of small successes.

Why not do the same in the expanding business of literary festivals, building brick by brick, so that every time a big global writer is thinking about showcasing their latest work, doing it in Ireland is on the table? With global media, Twitter, Facebook and international branding in the language of the world, English, this is not an outlandish proposition.

It has to be worth a shot, no?

PJ O'Rourke will be speaking at the ZurichDalkey Book Festival on June 13th. Check out www.dalkeybookfestival.org

Irish Independent

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