I’ve been a fan of Culture Night since it started in the early noughties. A nerdy fan, writing lists of places to see and cross-checking them off the map. The first couple of years, I took on too much, tearing over and back across the Liffey and needlessly walking the legs off myself, but then I got cannier and marked out a sensible route and prioritized a few places.
It can help to think of Culture Night as a citywide theme park: the main attractions on main streets will get the most visitors, but taking yourself off to the smaller venues on side streets means shorter queues. My criteria for choosing Culture Night events have always been venues that were usually not open to the public (the Freemasons Hall in the early 2010s), or had high entry fees (the wax museum). But of course that’s everybody’s priority so queues at these places are lengthy unless you arrive early or talk loudly in the queue about your highly contagious, extremely painful symptoms.
My highlights over the years have been a tour of Croke Park (complete with a run from the dressing rooms through the tunnel on to the pitch to the simulated roar of a full stadium – every wannabe’s fantasy), and a glimpse at James Joyce House on Usher’s Island where Joyce’s great-aunts lived and where his story The Dead was set (complete with feast laid out for the dinner). The Dead house is unfortunately no more, having succumbed to hostelisation, but even without it, there’s a decent whack of culture on offer to make up for any Covid cancellations or compromised versions in recent years.
Staying with the Joyce theme, the Abbey Theatre’s world premiere of Edna O’Brien’s Joyce’s Women on Culture Night allows the women in Joyce’s life to speak for themselves; given his complex relationship with his wife, Nora, this should make for interesting viewing. The Abbey also has theater walking tours around the north inner city.
The Irish Writers’ Center is offering free creative writing sessions, as well as Emerging from the Center readings, and the bilingual Taking the Mic. The anti-poverty group All Together in Dignity Ireland is hosting an open mic event featuring participants of their writing group formed during the pandemic, the Lockdown Liberties. In the same way that going off the beaten track can yield the most interesting venues, showing up and listening to unknown writers’ work can surprise you; writing success is so unpredictable that the next Booker winner could be right there, reading their first work in front of a small crowd.
Staying on the northside, the LGBTQ+ community resource center Outhouse on Capel Street is showing Living, a photographic exhibition of people living with HIV in Ireland. Pavee Point Traveler and Roma Center has an exhibition of Traveler and Roma personal belongings that offers insight into their respective heritages.
The Book of Kells and Old Library in Trinity College is hosting a “behind the scenes” evening with the library staff: anything behind the scenes is catnip for me, and a glimpse at such a beautiful, eerie building haunted by cranky-looking marble busts should not be missed. You can learn about the conservation project which will see the 200,000 books removed in a massive redevelopment. When my job was to clean the Long Room Library a few years ago, I lost control of an independently minded buffer machine, so keep an eye out for tell-tale dents in the exhibition cases.
Sticking with dusty old books in musty old libraries, Marsh’s Library (1707), the first public library in Ireland, is worth a look for the reading cages, where the readers were locked in with rare books. Joyce’s name is in the visitors’ book, having visited in 1902, and Marsh’s Library is referenced in several of his works by him. The Dublin Port Company, founded the same year as Marsh’s Library, is hosting various musical and literary performances, including Ulysses 2.2 at the Pumphouse, which features conversations with several artists discussing their responses to Ulysses for the year that’s in it.
For a different take on the lad with the wire spectacles, the Leopold Bloom Press’ talk, Seeing Ulysses, explores Ulysses from the perspective of Joyce’s eye troubles.
The Royal Irish Academy has a beautiful library that’s open to visitors. And while I accept that the phrase “Learn how dictionaries are made” might not make everyone’s heart sing in the same way it did mine, the library collections and maps and texts from the Irish Historical Towns Atlas project just might.
The exhibition Into the Island at the Museum of Literature examines Peig Sayers and the Blasket Island storytelling tradition. There will also be pop-up events and performances, which probably don’t involve puppets or jack-in-the-boxes even if they sound like they do.
The National Library of Ireland is open till 11pm for a real Night-at-the-Museum vibe: being in an echoey old building this late feels almost illicit. The domed reading room and Yeats exhibition are worth seeing, if only to learn about Yeats’ colorful personal life from him (his interest from him in the occult and his marriage proposal to Iseult Gonne when Iseult’s ma, Maud, rejected him for starters). The National Library toilets are worth a visit for their mosaic floors; if you need to go, you might as well go in nice surroundings.
Oxfam Books on Parliament Street missed out on celebrating its 20th birthday during lockdown, so it is having a belated birthday party with poetry and music. Marrowbone Books also has performances, and staying in Dublin 8, Pallas Projects/Studios’ Art Nomads, a collective of artists living in Ireland who have come from all over the world, is performing short multilingual spoken word pieces. If words aren’t your thing, they’ll also provide “some traditional sweet tastes from around the world”.
As a near-professional ligger, my advice for scoring freebies is to focus on galleries and embassies. Embassies these days aren’t quite at the level of a ’90s Ferrero Rocher ad (Monsieur! With this Culture Night you are spoiling us), but the catering budgets usually stretch to more than a few mauled crisps in a bowl. There are so many offering refreshments this year that you could take yourself from embassy to embassy in the fancier parts of Dublin and be unable to remember your own nationality by the end of it.
As well as satisfying any Bond-inspired espionage fascination, the embassies of Colombia, Peru, Bulgaria, Slovenia, Portugal and Lithuania are showcasing their countries’ dance, costumes, art, literature, and, importantly, culinary delights. There’s an interactive live digital art project from the French embassy at the National Gallery which allows you to stick your face in the frame and channel your inner Monet. The Taipei Representative Office has a display of the Chinese translation of Joyce’s Ulysses, and will host readings from Irish poets with translations by a Taiwanese poet. And, the four most glorious words in the English language: refreshments will be provided.
While we’re on the southside, the Mill Theater Dundrum is putting on a performance of all of Shakespeare’s 37 plays and sonnets in 97 minutes, a great way to impress people that you’ve seen all of Shakespeare on stage.
If I interpret my brief – to write about the literary-themed events on Culture Night – with a large amount of poetic license, I reckon that some of the following tours, while not directly book-related, could certainly spark the imaginations of practicing and potential writers: Sex, Drugs, Saunas & Clubs: Queer Social Spaces in History; Talking Shite: Dublin’s Sanitation from the 18th Century to Present Day; 1700s Coffee House Tour & Tasting Experience; Flood Walk (a futuristic look at the impact of climate change on Dublin); and Never Business as Usual: Businesswomen of 19th-Century Dublin.
The National Lottery HQ is showing what happens in the winners’ room, and the Podcast Studio is offering visitors professional editing on their own podcasts – although in the same way that we all think our dreams or stories about our kids are interesting, some podcasting restraint might be advisable.
So, my advice would be to wear comfortable shoes and pace yourself, don’t take on too much. And if refreshments are not as plentiful as promised or have been raided by the time you get there, pack your own back-up snacks to avoid hangry outbursts but maybe leave the hip-flask at home. Sharpen those elbows and get culturing.
Culture Night Dublin takes place on Friday, September 23rd. The full program is available to view on culturenightdublin.ie