“My personal highlight? Seamus Heaney. Having him at an event was just unbelievable for me, because I remember loving him as a child and as a teenager and then – suddenly – he’s here!”
Sian Smyth laughs as she remembers jumping up and down with excitement the day the Irish poet, playwright and Nobel Prize winner said he’d speak at Dalkey Book Festival, which she co-founded with her husband David McWilliams 11 years ago.
“The audience was absolutely spellbound and he’s turning around and saying: ‘Am I allowed to read one more?’ …I couldn’t believe he was asking me. Can he read one more? Of course he can!”
Sian’s enthusiasm for books and reading is infectious – our conversation is derailed several times with us both sharing recommendations – and it’s her passion for storytelling that might well explain how the festival has rapidly grown from being what she describes as a “kitchen table idea” to a four-day event featuring more than 70 sessions, and now amongst the biggest literary festivals in the country.
Making the most of literary connections
But even before Sian came along, the seaside suburb of Dublin had played host to literary heavyweights for decades. “James Joyce taught at a school here, and Samuel Beckett walked around the area as a child. Flann O’Brien was just up the road. Who else? Oh yes, George Bernard Shaw used to live in Dalkey.”
The roll-call continues, with several contemporary writers now calling Dalkey home, but despite this bookish backdrop, the festival was in fact born out of the recession. “It was the late 2000s and the place was really decimated, so many shops and businesses were closing – people were up in arms,” remembers Sian. “David wrote about it for the newspaper, saying we shouldn’t wait around for the government and that we need to do things ourselves – that it was up to people to shop locally and make different decisions. So I said to him – well, what are we going to do? Within minutes, we were talking about hosting a book festival.”
Having set a date just weeks away, the next step was to start booking speakers. A distant family connection to Joseph O’Connor – a Dalkey resident and author of the bestselling Star of the Sea – proved useful, and he agreed not only to attend but to also invite two more authors. “Then we reached out to Maeve Binchy – another local, who said someone should have done this years ago – and requested she ask two authors. So then we had six guests, and it went from there.”
Since then, Dalkey’s programme of events – along with its reputation – has grown enormously. After all, as Sian acknowledges, once you’ve had a few good guests, it’s easier to get more good guests.
But her thoughtful, curatorial approach is about more than simply securing big names. “I try to think a little bit laterally about what might make it attractive for an attendee, and so I like to mix guests who wouldn’t normally be put together – political thinkers and comedians or musicians and poets – that can make for very interesting discussions.” As a result, the festival has seen iPhone inventor Jony Ive talk to Stephen Fry and Bono about aesthetics, while last year The Edge discussed music and balckholes with scientist Brian Cox.
An immersive event in a unique location
And so the conversation turns to the pandemic, and the two years that required a very different approach to the usual programme of events. Sian admits she didn’t relish the idea of going digital in 2020, and so that summer they decided to launch a couple of literary awards in order to give something back to writers. The Dalkey Literary Awards are now the biggest literary awards that exist for Irish writing, with a prize fund of €30,000.
Then 2021 rolled around and, with no desire to skip the festival for a second year running, Sian set about exploring how the team could offer an experience that was just as dynamic and immersive as the real-life thing. This resulted in the team taking a televisual approach and setting up a studio in Dalkey’s iconic Martello Tower – “it’s not actually the one in the opening chapter of Ulysses, but it’s next door and is really beautiful. We had Irish writers and three really experienced presenters to carry the show in the tower, and guests were beamed in from around the world, like Isabel Allende who’s in Los Angeles.”
With the new event format came new operational needs: “Eventbrite – that started in June 2021, I didn’t really need all the bells and whistles that my previous ticketing provider had provided. Because we weren’t doing 70 events, we were doing one ticket [to the televised version of the festival]. Everything worked so smoothly, the app worked well, I understood it and there wasn’t a hitch. And I think ticket-buyers trust the brand”.
Despite the event’s success, however, Sian is keen to return to the in-person format next year. After all, with its mediaeval town centre and magnificent coastline, it’s Dalkey itself that makes the festival so special. “It’s a really beautiful place. There’s a local feeling and a sort of informality, but then we have these amazing writers and speakers from Salman Rushdie and Malcolm Gladwell to Deborah Levy and Edna O’Brien, and they’re in small venues – the largest holds 400 attendees at most. So you get to see these people up close and that’s just something you can’t replicate online.”
Books that bring people together
Thinking about what the audience wants – and worrying about getting it right – has meant Sian’s never slowed down. Despite the international guests and well-known media partner (the Financial Times), she never loses sight of the fact that the majority of attendees are local and she regularly seeks their thoughts when it comes to shaping future schedules.
“I’m always trying to find the balance between being intelligent and being accessible. The event shouldn’t be rarefied,” she says, adding that the team tries to keep ticket prices affordable – between €15 – €20 – and fosters an inclusive atmosphere where everyone’s welcome, even if they might not have thought of themselves as someone who goes to a book festival. And while the online version did certainly make the festival more accessible, she remains adamant that nothing can match the atmosphere that will descend on Dalkey again this year.
“We close the street, and everyone’s milling around – meeting people in pubs and cafes, talking to each other as they queue for a book signing. I love seeing that.” And it’s moments like these that keep Sian motivated, despite the challenges of running an event of this size.
“It’s difficult to sell 20,000 tickets – I’m not selling them to see a rock band in a stadium, I’m selling them to individual literary events, so you need to work very hard on publicity. And especially pre-pandemic, when so many events were going on, you really had to vie for people’s attention.”
But despite the obvious hurdles, and those pre-event jitters that never go away no matter how experienced you are, Sian still thrives on welcoming authors to Dalkey: “I just really, really love doing it. I love the run up when it’s crazy busy and you feel like everything’s going wrong, but of course, everything isn’t really going wrong. The team that works with me rolls their eyes, because five days before the event I’m convinced no one’s coming. I’m telling them to take out chairs, and thinking I need to change the description. But then we end up pretty much selling out.
“But what’s really great is, when you’re the person who runs the festival, you can discover writers. And if you like them, you can invite them and that’s a really lovely privilege.”
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