Avid readers should head to Dublin in April, says Lee Atkinson, when the city becomes the world's largest book club.
If you're planning on visiting Dublin next April, you'd better take a book. And not just any old book; you'd better make sure it's the right book. For one month each year, the UNESCO City of Literature, home to four winners of the Nobel prize in literature and more illustrious, infamous and otherwise interesting writers than there are letters in the alphabet, is strictly a one-book town.
Lots of cities celebrate their literary heritage with writers' festivals, but Dublin takes it one step further with its month-long Dublin: One City, One Book program. Organised by Dublin City Public Libraries and now in its seventh year, the idea behind it is simple: they want to get as many people reading, and talking about, the same book during April each year.
You can forget George Bernard Shaw, W.B. Yeats, Samuel Beckett, Seamus Heaney, Jonathan Swift, Oscar Wilde, Iris Murdoch, Roddy Doyle, John Banville, Maeve Binchy, John Connolly or Marian Keyes. In April next year, James Plunkett's Strumpet City will be the one book everyone is talking about in Dublin.
It's the ultimate book club meeting on a grand scale, with more than 60 events during the month-long book fest, including readings, talks, live performances, art exhibitions, guided walking tours, literary pub crawls, themed dinners, music and comedy events held across the city. If you don't know about the featured book when you arrive in the city, you certainly will by the time you leave.
The chosen book for this year was Dubliners by James Joyce. Which was just my luck. I'm a book nerd, but the virtues of Joyce have always escaped me - his befuddling language and obscure references waft over my head more often than not, and his plots are about as rewarding as waiting in line to check your lotto ticket: you hope something exciting is going to happen but it never does.
Thankfully, not all the events were just for Joyce fans - you didn't even have to really like (or understand) the book to have fun, and not all events were just about the book. The 2012 program included bike tours that focused on Dublin's literary heritage, Joycean tours of the cemetery, self-guided audio-walks where actors brought to life the characters as you visited many of the locations described in the stories, art exhibitions focusing on the art of the period, tours looking at the architecture of the time the book was set, countless readings and lunchtime plays in cafes and nights out with singers, dancers and comedians giving their interpretations of the book, the times and the city.
Even if you don't read the book, the program of One City, One Book events is a great way to explore the city through the eyes of a writer, and many of the events are free.
More often than not, the book is just an excuse to delve into areas and aspects of the city that usually fly beneath the tourist radar. Dubliners, a collection of short stories depicting Dublin life at the end of the 19th century, did not paint Dublin in a very attractive light; Joyce felt the city seemed to him "the centre of paralysis", and he described the book as being written in a "style of scrupulous meanness". Much of the action is set in less-than-genteel areas of the city.
When we walked the streets of Dublin with a guide from the James Joyce Centre on a Dubliners tour, not only did the book begin to make more sense but we were introduced to a darker side of Dublin past and present, where alcoholic fathers beat their children, mothers turned a blind eye to their daughters' immoral behaviour, women were locked into lives of drudgery, petty politics ruled and religion divided.
Later that night, local comedians on stage at the National Concert Hall picked apart the character faults of modern Dubliners, raising the ire of real-life Dubliners in the audience who heckled the talent in colourful language of their own that I'm sure would have made Joyce proud.
Next year's book, Strumpet City, looks set to deliver more of the same, providing a way of getting under the skin of a city through a series of themed events. Written in 1969, it's a historical novel set during the Dublin Lockout in 1913, when 20,000 workers were locked out of their workplaces in an industrial dispute that lasted almost five months. One of the big events planned will be a street party for which a street will be dressed as it would have been 100 years ago; you'll be able to buy period snacks from street vendors with "old" money and go into the houses of the period and interact with actors in costume - a glimpse of life in Dublin a century ago.
The novel is described as an epic, a tale of "love, loyalty and anger". It was made into a six-part mini-series in 1980, so if you don't want to read the book you can always watch the DVDs. The cast of characters includes destitute downtrodden workers; boozy, bickering priests; snobby members of the middle class; vicious policemen; tramps; socialists; and strumpets. They sound like the perfect group of tour guides if you ask me.
The writer was the guest of Etihad Airways and Tourism Ireland.
Etihad Airways flies Sydney to Dublin via Abu Dhabi 10 times weekly. Return fares start about $2000. etihadairways.com.
The Fitzwilliam Hotel Dublin is right in the heart of the city, opposite the arch on St Stephen's Green, and almost all rooms have a view; some have terraces with gas heaters. Rooms start at €165 ($204) a night. fitzwilliamhoteldublin.com.