Thursday 26 April 2018

Books by the sea

Summertime is book-festival season. It's hard to believe the staples of the Dublin Writers Festival and Listowel are already behind us but still to come are the West Cork literary festival and, one I am particularly looking forward to this year, the second annual Dalkey Book Festival, which takes place next weekend.

The south county Dublin suburb is not just beloved of movie stars, pop singers and racing drivers but by a host of writers, too.

The fledgling event is run by husband-and-wife team David McWilliams and Sian Smyth. McWilliams is better known as an economist and, unsurprisingly, there was a fiscal inspiration at the heart of the festival.

"I'm from this part of the world and my granddad had a shop on Castle Street in Dalkey, which failed in the 1950s when there was a serious stigma attached to going bankrupt. I know most of the traders in Dalkey and they were saying people weren't shopping locally. Sian [his wife] said, why don't you do something?"

McWilliams started with the doyenne of Dalkey writers, Maeve Binchey, who gave the festival her blessing (she will also appear at next weekend's event).

"It was much more successful than we ever expected. Lots of people came into the town and went shopping, traders opened their doors and there were lots of quirky events, not just in bookshops, but in all the town's nooks and crannies."

One of the local writers taking part this year is crime author Declan Hughes. "Growing up in Dalkey and you'd see Hugh Leonard go by in his Rolls Royce. Now writers are more accessible at festivals like this so it's not as awesome to meet one."

So just what is it that attracts so many writers and artists to Dalkey? Hughes thinks there is something about the serenity of the area that is conducive to creativity.

"I lived in Leeson Street for two or three years and it was too much. The city was happening in front of me but, for writing, you didn't have any distance. It's too easy to go to the pub and say 'I'm writing a book' and for your compadre to say 'neither am I'. In a seaside place it's easy to feel you are in another zone."

Hughes will interview Roddy Doyle at the Masonic Lodge, Castle Street, next Sunday at 4pm.

The festival has doubled in size this year, with 70 events taking place over the weekend, including a Cinema Paradiso-style event in the old tramyard.

Of course, Dalkey has no end of film talent to choose from and this year Jim Sheridan, Conor McPherson and Stephen Rea will all take part.

This year's festival is doubly special as it will celebrate the centenary of Flann O'Brien, author of The Dalkey Archive and a number of comedians, including Tommy Tiernan, Barry Murphy and Kevin Gildea, will give their interpretations on his work. Other events include Vincent Browne talking about the fall of Fianna Fail in the Freemasons' lodge and Paul Murray giving a talk in Borza's chip shop.

"Ireland has a terrible tendency of waiting for people to wave the magic wand or wave some Obama dust," says McWilliams. "I'm a huge believer we can get out of the recession by doing things ourselves. There's an immense sense of community. In a way everyone does come together and it's not fleeting either, it lasts."

Sian agrees. "The community here is so behind it. People are so willing. The reason we started doing the festival was for the businesses. "Unless you have vibrant businesses in the town it's just going to end up like a ghost town. It's encouraging people to buy local. I hope it's a really good example of when people actually decide they're going to do something and get off their backsides you can do so much."

As for the idea of an economist running a books festival, McWilliams shrugs off the naysayers. "People who can carry the long division can also read. If it does raise an eyebrow, it only does with those who pigeonhole you. Life is there to be lived."

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