Lit City: Dublin, UNESCO City of Literature

Poetry Ireland News September/October 2010

The UNESCO City of Literature designation is part of the Creative Cities Network established to support social, economic and cultural development. There are seven designations for which a city may apply – Literature, Music, Gastronomy, Design, Crafts & Folk Art, Film and Media Arts. Dublin’s recent designation as a UNESCO City of Literature recognises not only the literary greats of the past, but also the fact that the city has a lively contemporary literary environment at all levels.

Along with Edinburgh, Melbourne and Iowa City in the US, Dublin is only the fourth City of Literature – a measure of the stringent application and evaluation process. Three years ago, led by the then City Librarian Deirdre Ellis-King, a management group consisting of Joe Woods (Poetry Ireland), Sarah Bannan (the Arts Council / An Chomhairle Ealaíon) and Alan Hayes (Publishing Ireland) was set up to coordinate the submission for designation. The UNESCO contact person was myself, Jane Alger from the city library service, I’d already been researching and gathering material for the application.
UNESCO stipulate that a city’s application must demonstrate an environment in which literature, drama and poetry play an integral role; it must also show experience in hosting literary events and festivals and in promoting domestic and foreign literature. The existence of libraries, bookstores and cultural centres dedicated to the preservation, promotion and dissemination of literature is important – as is the involvement of the media in promoting literature and strengthening the market for literary products. The quality and quantity of educational programmes, focusing on domestic or foreign literature in primary and secondary schools, as well as universities must also be shown.

The historical aspects of a city’s tradition are important, but there is a strong emphasis on a city having a vibrant contemporary scene. Links with cities from the developing world are also desirable and a recognition of the aims of the UNESCO Manifesto – emphasising the economic and cultural benefits of cultural diversity must also be evident.

After much revision the submission was finalised in June 2009 and was then produced in the form of an illustrated 110-page hardback book. It was finally submitted to UNESCO and accompanied, as required, by a letter from the then Lord Mayor of Dublin, Councillor Emer Costello, in November 2009.
UNESCO’s assessment process meant that Ireland’s National Commission for UNESCO had to approve the application; this was followed by assessments by experts nominated by international organisations representing writers, publishers, booksellers and librarians. The final decision in favour of Dublin was made by the Director General of UNESCO in July this year. The evaluation process was by no means a foregone conclusion – not every applicant city has been successful. The success of the Dublin bid was largely due to the wholehearted cooperation of the literary community and the dedication of a small number of people who gave their time and expertise over and above the ‘day job’. Special mention should be made of the recently-retired Dublin City Librarian Deirdre Ellis-King whose support for the project was crucial to its eventual success; Dr Eibhlín Evans who put the research into report format; the editing skills of Alan Hayes (Arlen House / Publishing Ireland), Alastair Smeaton (Dublin City Libraries). The expertise of Dr Seán Ó Cearnaigh was called on for the section on linguistic heritage. As per the UNESCO recommendation, a Steering Group has been established to ensure that the designation is widely used. Its members represent literary organisations, libraries, national and local government, tourism organisations and the media.

A logo has been designed which will brand literary activities in the city as well as being a tool to encourage cultural tourists to choose Dublin as their next destination. Street banners have been erected and it is hoped to have a major celebratory event in the new Convention Centre next March. A special Irish Times supplement will be published in September. Each relevant organisation is encouraged to examine how the designation can be used to the best advantage of their members. A dedicated website (see below) has been created, with the assistance of Fáilte Ireland and Foras na Gaeilge. The site is designed to draw international attention to literary Dublin and is not intended as an event calendar, but rather as a portal site aimed at directing users to sources of further information. The site went live on 26 July – the day of the designation announcement. UNESCO City of Literature is a permanent designation making Dublin a member of an expanding network of cities thus creating opportunities for future cooperation. Cooperation with cities outside the Literature designation also offers interesting possibilities – Music & Literature; Design & Literature; Folk Art & Literature, and so on. UNESCO also recognises that many cities have advantages not enjoyed by others especially in the developing world. In her letter to the Lord Mayor of Dublin the Director General of UNESCO cites Dublin’s ‘innovative capacity and spirit of solidarity with cities in developing countries’ – in other words it’s not just a pat on the back for ourselves, we have to reach out to others and share the advantages we have.

The designation is a huge honour for the city, for its writers who are now writing in many languages and for its literary industries. It does not come with funding attached – it is up to us all to imaginatively decide how we can use the designation to best advantage for the city.

For more information visit

Jane Alger is Divisional Librarian and UNESCO contact person at Dublin City Libraries.

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