Thursday 15 November 2018

Books: Comedy, commerce and books at the seaside....

Memories: Festival director Sian Smyth, centre, talks books with Bono, right, and the late Seamus Heaney at the Dalkey Book Festival in 2012. Photo: Conor McCabe. For more information visit
Memories: Festival director Sian Smyth, centre, talks books with Bono, right, and the late Seamus Heaney at the Dalkey Book Festival in 2012. Photo: Conor McCabe. For more information visit

Lorraine Courtney

It’s beyond pretty. It’s got a myriad of cafés, pubs and a Masonic Hall. It is home to so many writers that you’d think Dalkey was designed specifically for a literary event.

Dalkey Book Festival was dreamed up five years ago by the husband-and-wife team of author and economist David McWilliams and former corporate lawyer Sian Smyth. Back at the beginning of the recession a public meeting was held in Dalkey’s town hall because so many local businesses were shutting down. “We live here, so David and I went along to the meeting. Something like twenty businesses had shut in about twenty months. David thought that he’d write something about encouraging people to shop locally if they want a vibrant community. He also thought that you can’t sit around waiting for the government to do something, you have to do it yourself.”

So, the pair sat down at their kitchen table and thought about what they could do for Dalkey. “David’s a writer and there are loads of writers living in Dalkey. He rang Maeve Binchy, who he didn’t know, and asked if she would take part in a book festival. She agreed and promised to find us two more writers. Then he rang Joseph O’Connor and he promised to find two more writers. So we had six writers.” But McWilliams was actually in the middle of rehearsals for a play in the Peacock and so he told Smyth she’d have to arrange everything herself in just six weeks.

“I think if I’d stopped to think about it, I just wouldn’t have done it”, Smyth says. “It’d have seemed too risky and I had no experience”.

Festivals stud the summer months. Watch them pop up as the days now lengthen. But the reason this one works is because Dalkey is so compact and artistic activity can burst out of every space in the community. We go to book festivals not just to hear and see famous authors, but to be near them, with them.

“Sometimes if you have festivals say in Dublin or other places, events can be so disparate that it doesn’t feel like a festival. But Dalkey has just one main street and we really pack it in with something like fifty events over three days. We’ve had an Edgar Allen Poe play at midnight in the graveyard. We’ve had things on in the chipper and in pubs. We have a funny little town hall that’s a bit Cinema Paradiso. We’ve also got things going on in the Masonic Hall so the public can go into the lodge and look around,” Smyth says.

“It has opened up a lot of the village’s buildings to the public that they wouldn’t normally see and the really quirky venues are what make it really special. Also a lot of the venues are really small so it’s lovely for the audience to think I was in a room with seventy people, Salman Rushdie, Amos Oz and Declan Kiberd’.”

Leafing through this year’s programme, you’ll find names such as the aforementioned Amos Oz and Salman Rushdie. So how does Smyth manage to persuade these heavyweights to come?

“You just ask. I’ve got some amazing guests lined up for next year already. I usually start by sending them an email with a little video of the previous year. You’re appealing to people and saying this is the calibre of people who come. John Simpson said Dalkey is the loveliest little seaside town on earth. It is. The village and the hinterland has been associated with writing for a hundred years from Joyce to Bernard Shaw to Beckett. That heritage gives it something special. ”

But if every town with a reading population is hosting some kind of annual books-based shindig, Smyth and McWilliams have created a masterpiece. “From the start we’ve tried not to make it too stuffy. Yes we have literary giants like John Banville but we try to mix it up by putting them with people you might not normally put them with. We try to make it all a bit more irreverent and a bit more fun. We mix in some comedy, some theatre and don’t take ourselves too seriously.”

Go along next weekend for a densely packed programme. As well as authors, the packed bill features renowned historians, comedians and journalists. David McWilliams will chair an event called Ten Global Trends that will change your life with Rory Sutherland of TED Talks, city planner Bruce Katz, political thinker Mark Blythe and trader turned novelist, Aifric Campbell. Kirsty Wark will be interviewed by Miriam O’Callaghan. And there will be musings on freedom of speech by Fintan O’Toole, Salman Rushdie and Olivia O’Leary.

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