Dublin International Literature Festival: Tales in Merrion Square


In a big year for literary anniversaries in Ireland, 2022 marks the 25th anniversary of the Dublin International Literature Festival. We are perhaps only a quarter of the age of Ulysses and as a festival we are still a boost from Listowel Writers Week (51) but when we have launched in 1998, the book landscape in Ireland was nevertheless a very different place. There was no Irish winner for fiction, no One City, One Book promotion, Dublin had not been declared a UNESCO City of Literature and Sally Rooney was only seven years old. The past quarter-century has seen books take center stage as a public art form in ways hard to imagine a generation ago.

Our slogan is “25 years of stories”, and 2022 seems to be a pivotal year for the festival. We are returning to the public stage after a two-year absence and are taking up residence in our new festival village in Merrion Square. For the first time, we are creating a hub where all our events take place. Where friends and families can spend the day across a huge range of walk-in events and activities. We are turning a new page, in what will be an exciting new chapter for the festival.

And yet, we are celebrating this anniversary in the disturbing context of a “real story” that is being made on the borders of Europe. And while the conflict in Ukraine seems too raw and immediate, too complex, to be handled by public debate, we know that its manifestations – the destruction of cities; the displacement of peoples; the displacement of territories; and the loss of loved ones are the human stories that artists will grapple with for decades, both directly and sometimes more obliquely. As the horrors unfold, how will the writers of the future tell the story of what is happening now in Mariupol, in kyiv, in the Donbass?

The stories brought to the festival this year by an international range of writers provide important clues. Through what lens do they reflect on past traumas? What tone do they adopt to describe the indescribable? How do they sift through the stories of their own lives and those of their families? Before becoming a writer, Joseph Conrad (born in Ukraine in 1857) traveled the world as a merchant sailor. He bears witness to the excesses of imperialism and colonialism but sees his writing in stark terms: “My task which I try to accomplish is, through the power of writing, to make you hear, to make you feel – c is, above all, to make you see.

Soldiers and Raids

With Conrad’s maxim in mind, discovering the work of Franco-Rwandan author Scholastique Mukasonga was a revelation, and no author at the festival reflects the writing of trauma better. Mukasonga left Rwanda in 1992 and her memoir, The Barefoot Woman, is peppered with flashbacks of soldiers raiding her family home. During the 1994 civil war, 37 members of his family were killed. It took 10 years for Mukasonga to find the courage to return to Rwanda, and in doing so, she found the courage to begin her journey as a writer. We are honored to partner with the Center for Resistance Studies at Trinity College Dublin to bring Scholastique to the festival.

Bosnian writer Lana Bastašic: Her first novel, Catch the Rabbit, is voiced by childhood friends Serbian Sara and Muslim Lejla.

Lana Bastašic grew up in Bosnia in the middle of the war and this year marks the 30th anniversary of the siege of Sarajevo. The writing of his first novel, Catch the Rabbit, became an act of physical and psychological return, expressed by childhood friends, Serbian Sara and Muslim Lejla, who come together to search for Armin, who is missing, presumed dead during the war. Bastašic will be in conversation with Priscilla Morris, whose father bought a bulletproof vest and traveled to Sarajevo to save his maternal grandparents. Her home in London filled with refugee relatives, and her debut novel, Black Butterflies, draws on those experiences – with their echoes of the conflict in Ukraine – in its depiction of life behind the barricades.

Faïza Guène is a writer whose dispatches from the suburbs of Paris helped bring peripheral voices to the center of French literature. Her new novel, Discretion, published in May, marks the 60th anniversary of the Franco-Algerian war and beautifully reflects how these period historical moments reverberate over the years, through the stories of women, through the experiences of second-generation immigrants, and by feelings of allegiance to a country, which is both home and not.

Poetry and resistance

We close our festival with a celebration of the work of Eavan Boland and Thomas Kinsella, both of whom have been lost to Irish literature during the pandemic. Our event, Pillars of a City, will reflect on the power of their poetry and their enormous legacy. And Kinsella also reminds us that sometimes political resistance happens much closer to home. His poem Butcher’s Dozen was written in direct response to the Widgery Report, which whitewashed the Bloody Sunday atrocities. It was published on April 26, 1972, with the poet himself saying that “The Widgery report was a great insult. [My] the response was instantaneous; the poem itself was written and published in seven days. Butcher’s Dozen is being published in a new edition this year, to mark its 50th anniversary, alongside a prologue to the Saville Report, an epilogue to the UK Prime Minister’s apology to the House of Commons and a new note from the ‘author. This shows that poems can offer both immediate dissemination, but also be part of the historical conversation for decades to come. Great writing both responds to the story and also helps shape it.

Faïza Guène's new novel, Discretion, marks the 60th anniversary of the Franco-Algerian war.

Faïza Guène’s new novel, Discretion, marks the 60th anniversary of the Franco-Algerian war.

And so our minds turn to Merrion Square later in May. After a period of restriction and limited horizons, it is exciting to welcome writers from around the world back to Dublin. We feature authors from Japan, Nigeria and Angola, USA and Europe and of course all over Ireland. There will be readings and lectures. There will be workshops, yoga, running and walks. We will build on the success of our online festival editions in 2020 and 2021, and broadcast live events to audiences across Ireland and around the world.

But it’s the return to public spaces – echoing Conrad – that gives us this wonderful opportunity to hear, feel and properly see the world again. And I can’t think of a better environment to hear the stories of the world than at a literary festival, in the company of other readers and writers. . . with other storytellers.

Martin Colthorpe is Program Director of the Dublin International Literature Festival, which runs from Thursday 19 May to Sunday 29 May in Merrion Square Park. To see the full program and to book tickets, visit: ilfdublin.com

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