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The Dalkey Book Festival, Dublin

24 April 2016

Words: Andrew Birbeck / Images: Conor McCabe

Alittle over seven years ago, economist, broadcaster and author David McWilliams and his wife, Sian Smyth, had a brainwave. Things in their hometown of Dalkey weren’t too good. The recession had hit hard, local shops were closing, and an air of gloom had descended on a Dublin enclave long associated with more than a touch of glamour – it’s most famous son being U2’s Bono, no less.

McWilliams and Smyth asked themselves what could be done to restore confidence, raise visitor numbers, and in turn boost trade to local businesses. “My suggestion was for people to take action,” says McWilliams. “Then my wife, who reads and edits much of my writing, turned around and said, ‘Well, what are you going to do?’”

Having predicted both the Irish economic boom and subsequent crash, McWilliams had not only earned a reputation as an astute economic commentator, but also that of someone able to offer creative solutions to seemingly intractable problems. There and then, over a cup of tea in their kitchen, the idea for a book festival was born.

As with all success stories, timing was key. “After we had the idea I really felt that we had to rise to the challenge, and take things into our own hands rather than wait around,” says Smyth. “There was a sense of urgency, of not wanting to let the moment slip through our fingers.” Then it was a case of picking up the phone. McWilliams took the plunge and, out of the blue, called two best-selling authors who lived locally – Joseph O’Connor and the late Maeve Binchy. They both loved the idea and signed up straight away. “From that point on the first festival took shape, and we set ourselves a deadline of just nine weeks,” says Smyth. “The only problem was that David had committed to a one-man-show, so he scarpered off to do that, and I was thrown in the deep-end.”

According to the BBC’s world affairs editor John Simpson, another local resident, Dalkey is “the prettiest little seaside town on Earth”. He may not be too far off the mark. It also had a unique literary heritage just ready and waiting to tap into. James Joyce lived in nearby Sandycove and taught at a school in Dalkey.

Irish writer Flann O’Brien penned the comic novel, The Dalkey Archive, set in and around the town, and Tony Award-winning playwright Hugh Leonard was Dalkey born and bred. That heritage, according to Smyth, “played no small part in attracting world-class speakers and authors, such as Carl Bernstein, PJ O’Rourke and Roddy Doyle. No one ever minds being asked and most love to come. The location and atmosphere are terrific and there’s the allure of getting together with other writers in a truly unique setting. Here too the writers mingle with everyone else. Last year I saw U2 guitarist The Edge chatting with Amos Oz over a couple of drinks in a local café! You don’t see that every day.”

The festival has blossomed, now red-letter days on the literary calendar, and the knock-on effect is undeniable. “With more than 10,000 extra visitors to the town there’s an undeniable financial boost, and many businesses have their best trade over the festival weekend,” says McWilliams.

For those with a love of books, a fascination with current affairs, or simply an interest in the arts, a trip to The Dalkey Book Festival is an opportunity not to be missed. Expect a stellar line-up this month too, including the former Greek finance minister Yanis Varoufakis, legendary music producer Brian Eno, and Booker Prize-winning author John Banville. Asked why people should come, Smyth doesn’t hesitate: “It’s a festival of books and ideas. Global names. Great local vibe.”

dalkeybookfestival.org

LOCAL KNOWLEDGE

The top spot to grab a post-event drink is…
The Grapevine for a glass of wine, Finnegan’s for a pint, a coffee in Dillon’s Park, I could go on.

For the best scenery in Dalkey/Killiney head for…
A short stroll on Killiney Hill – unforgettable panoramic views of Dublin Bay.

To sample fresh local seafood go to…
De Villes, Ouzos and The Guinea Pig.

For a great place to stay check out…
Locally, Fitzpatrick’s Castle in Killiney, and The Haddington Hotel or Royal Marine, both in nearby Dun Laoghaire.

The best advice is…
Believe in your idea and don’t listen to naysayers (including the one in your own head). An idea drummed up at the kitchen table can become a reality. Don’t procrastinate.

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