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Toytowns of Literature: the UNESCO Kiss of Death

By Gerry Feehily.

So Dublin has been named a UNESCO City of Literature. Greeting the news, the Irish Republic’s Minister of Tourism said, “Being one of only four cities in the world to achieve the status of UNESCO City of Literature, will enable Dublin to increase its market share of tourists and attract more people to both the city and the island of Ireland.”

Indeed, Dublin is one of four cities, along with Edinburgh, Iowa and Melbourne — which are all, by the by, English speaking — to make it onto this apparently monolingual UNESCO programme. It is hard to know where to put the inverted commas around such titles as Cities of Literature awarded by an organisation best known for sending actresses out to Darfur for famine zone photo ops, but fortunately the Minister has helped clarify the issue. Literature, for her, and in Ireland in general, is merely one other article of consumption useful for generating revenues in the economic wasteland that is the actual existing Irish Republic.

The idea of Dublin as a city of literature, and by extension Ireland as some nurturing mother of creative freedoms, however, is — not to put too fine a point on it — rubbish. In the North-West region where I grew up, the only literary monument for miles, in front of Sligo’s AIB, was an erection to our national poet WB Yeats tenderly referred to as The Wank at the Bank. Saintly Oscar Wildes and I can’t go on/I’ll go on Beckett mantras aside, the evidence is rather that Mother Ireland has mainly smothered its artistic offspring and driven them over the Irish sea.

The embarrasing, non-Wikileaked facts prove that Dublin has always betrayed its best authors with the best in philistine contempt, muzzling Joyce, hounding Sean O’Casey and poet Patrick Kavanagh out of the country, and for those who stayed behind, sending the likes of Flann O’Brien and Brendan Behan to an alcoholic’s early grave. Joyce and O’Casey obviously returned the compliment. If anyone can straight-facedly sanitise the men who penned less than polite tableaux of slum-ridden, narrow-horizoned Dublin life in books like Dubliners or plays like The Plough and the Stars then he or she is obviously not reading the same thing as me.

“You’ve disgraced yourselves, again,” said Yeats, to the crowds rioting at the Abbey Theatre upset at the opening of Synge’s “vile and inhuman” Playboy of the Western World. In the teeth of Holy Ireland sentimentality, Yeats was trying to create a national literature, but the uncomfortable truth about our national literature is that it can hardly be said to exist. Its 19th and 20th century ascendency coincides with it still being part of the United Kingdom, (albeit struggling, here and there, to be free from that colonial yoke). And nearly a century after independence, no matter what UNESCO might think of Dublin’s “Quality, quantity and diversity of editorial initiatives and publishing houses”, Irish writers can only be heard, can only ever emerge, if they are part of a conversation with that entity known as England, and with English publishing houses. Basically, Irish literature can only get along if the Brits are listening. And extremely few, like Joyce and Beckett, who saw fit to spend much of their lives in broader minded climes abroad, had genius sufficient enough to speak beyond the Brits and to the world.

Leaving aside the parallel development of inner cities of Naples or Havana being UNESCO heritaged into toytowns for tourists, I simply wonder how in a Dublin literary world, “with experience in hosting literary events and festivals aiming at promoting domestic and foreign literature” — all so redolent of caffe latte zones and buy three for two deals — filth-mongers like Joyce or a young Edna O’Brien could now thrive. My guess is they wouldn’t. The only kind of literature that a UNESCO pat on the head supports is more Banvilles and Toibins and Sebastian Barrys that may well satisfy middlebrow, Sunday supplement assumptions of what constitutes writing, but cannot lift it beyond that to the “vile and inhuman” future of art.


London-born Gerry Feehily lives in Paris, but holds an Irish passport for his sins. His first novel Fever was published in 2007, a Spanish edition of which — since September 2009 — is sold in Spain and Spanish-speaking lands. He is a full-time journalist at Presseurop where he writes the Europhrenia blog and frequently holds forth on French TV and radio on European politics.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Thursday, July 29th, 2010.