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An account of DublinSwell by Emer Liston

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Dublin has a lot to celebrate – especially with its recent listing as a UNESCO City of Literature. This title will certainly encourage even more excellent literary events in Ireland’s capital and at writing.ie we hope to cover as many as possible. To kick start our coverage of the Dublin UNESCO events, Emer Liston has given a rich and indepth account of DublinSwell…

Joyce was not only a writer, and the first cinema manager in Ireland, but also a tenor of some note in Dublin – “a city that venerated the male voice”.  The veneration continued apace some days ago at Dublin Swell.  The tone of the literary celebration was exultant and a little nervous in its slightly late start and packed programme.  The mood in the foyer was happy, and the crackling atmosphere was one of a sold out event and its lucky ticket holders.  Many of us had never been this close to the Convention Centre before, much less seen the full views of Dublin offered by the fifth floor escalators. The building sits stout on the Liffey, like a well fed member of society, but would it deliver a night of literary entertainment, as promised by the organisers? What would the acoustics be like? They sold two thousand tickets! Would we be able to hear..? Not to worry.  The first voice we heard was Mike Murphy’s, as familiar as a family member’s, in spite of a ten year break from public appearances.  This was a rich tone, and we would hear every note clearly throughout the evening.

Mary McAleese asked the audience how we were, and sought the answer brilliant, in an echo of the sentiments of Roddy Doyle’s already beloved short story, commissioned especially to mark the UNESCO title – available to read here.

Surprisingly, to my ears, two of the strongest performances of the evening were from two of the most oft-quoted ‘aul Dublin’ voices in Irish literature: Dominic Behan’s ‘The Auld Triangle’ as performed by Damien Dempsey, and Seán O’Casey’s The Plough and the Stars, of which an extract was read by a troupe of Abbey actors.  Though very familiar, especially to us as school-goers, both pieces were brought to us with freshness and a candid talent.  Mrs Clitheroe’s turn was especially moving, in her meditation on war and the destination of every bulletSitting where I was, I couldn’t quite make out the small detail of Mrs. Clitheroe’s mouth, but I could hear the strain. Beautiful.

Christine Dwyer-Hickey read from a forthcoming novel The Cold Eye of Heaven, and then another fresh voice, one we are unused to hearing in the context of a celebration of Dublin literature – that of Biddy Jenkinson, and her poem, Ab Dhroimeanaigh.  Biddy Jenkinson writes under a pseudonym, and I was disappointed not to see and hear her in person – though the poem was read fantastically well in her absence, once introduced in English as the story of the Abbott of Drimnagh and his childbearing ability.  The lines were accompanied by Seán McErlaine on saxophone and by Margaret Lonergan’s projected images.

The rich tone again.  Barry McGovern, read a really delightful piece from Beckett, enunciating incredulity and deadpan wit from Watt; Watt’s travails with a lover, and whether he should sit with her, upon her, or in some other way about her. Sebastian Barry has no less a tremendous voice, and recalled the First World War when he read from A Long, Long Way, and he later read from Joyce’s Portrait of an Artist as a Young Man. We heard crime fiction from Declan Hughes, popular fiction from Cathy Kelly who roused us with a poke at ourselves and our shopping habits; Paul Howard, a.k.a. Ross O’Carroll Kelly, performed a really good comic turn from Mr S. and the Secrets of Andorra’s Box, and the audience responded to every tickle, restating the importance of Grafton Street to those of us who wish to be seen on a sunny day in town.  Neil Jordan was warmly welcomed and he read from his critically acclaimed novel, Mistaken.  His voice was given to nuance, rumination and the creation of a scene in Sutton, where two young men search for a space in an old wall, a space that will lead them to the sea.

I recall, last year, hearing Joseph O’Connor read from Ghostlight.  He read the lines about Synge’s speech and his accent – “the Etonian vowels; the soft ‘t’, as in ‘theatre’”.  We were treated to more of Ghostlight in as exquisite a timbre this time, the story taking us by train to the other side of Dublin bay, to an escape to meet a lover in Bray.  O’Connor was accompanied by Robbie Overson, whose soft guitar was a sure footed partner on this trip along the atmospheric railway, as it was once known.

Claire Kilroy read from All Names Have Been Changed, bringing us a tawdry picture of a gin soaked writer standing at traffic lights on a Liffey bridge, with stapled trouser turn-ups and a fleet of seagulls screaming in his wake.  Gerry Stembridge read from a forthcoming novel, and Eamon Morrissey performed a piece on the eating of children– the only performance which was not read – from Jonathan Swift’s A Modest Proposal.  Paul Durkan was first to perform in the second half of the evening.  The Woman Who Keeps Her Breasts in the Back Garden was the most memorable poem of the night, though every poem of his was funny, thrilling, with every line a lively one. What a torturous delight, to go back for more entertainment, after an insanely short break in which to interview your companions as to what they liked, and how they liked it.

Paula Meehan delivered a poem about her grandmother’s viperous opinion of the Catholic Church – and only then did I realise that our friends in the church had not featured on stage this evening, and that we had been doing just fine; Lisa Hannigan sang and played a gentle piece, titled Lille.  An enduring birdsong, and a reminder that music was used to important effect throughout the night.  Mike Scott performed three times in the evening, accompanied by Iona Marshall.  Twice he performed the poetry of WB Yeats, set to song –  September 1913 and Let The Earth Bear Witness – the second time with images from the Iranian election protests of 2009.  In between both, he performed This is the Sea.  The brimful programme lent a sense of urgency to the last audio visual performance from Scott and Marshall.

When Seamus Heaney arrived on stage, the auditorium almost stopped for a moment before rising to a standing ovation.  His voice was a note or two quieter than his fellow writers, which imbued his performance with its own need to engage, to sit and listen. The audience had eagerly waited for him, like the aria at a night at the opera. Indeed, the entire evening felt somehow similar to the collective buzz, the sense of scale, and the heightened sense of place that you will feel amongst the crowd at a night at the opera.  We should surely have more of this – If we can have an opera season, why not a literature season?  A swell season, at that.

Emer·Liston·is a Dublin dweller, and an Irish and Spanish speaker. She has worked as a teacher, focussing on PLC classes, as a·promoter and translator with Dún Laoghaire VEC as an·tOifigeach Gaeilge, as well as working on various events·throughout Ireland. Emer’s strongest interests in writing lie in fiction , playwriting and performance.

 I’d like to say a huge thank you to Emer for contributing this post and giving us such a detailed account of so important and fabulous an event – Elizabeth Rose Murray

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