Tuesday, 3 November 1998
Seanad Éireann Debate
Mr. D. Kiely: This Adjournment debate arises out of a motion I put down in Kerry County Council in an effort to get urban renewal designation for small towns in Kerry. I had Listowel in mind but I was defeated in a vote. Somebody read about this in a newspaper and wrote to me from Wales and asked me why a book town could not be created in Ireland. Listowel would be an  ideal location given its high unemployment and the lack of industrial development in the area as well as the Listowel Writer's Week and the history of the area. I subsequently put down a motion to this effect in Kerry County Council and that led to this Adjournment debate.
The first book town was set up by Richard Booth in 1961 in a small Welsh market town with a population of 1,400 called Hay-on-Wye. There were many derelict buildings in the town but today there are 34 book shops in the village that attract approximately 500,000 people every year to look for and swap books.
There are four other book towns in Europe — two in France and one each in Belgium and Germany. Scotland is setting up a new book town which will come on stream next month and I received information on their proposals which include figures for visitors to book towns that are staggering.
Ireland would be an ideal location for a book town. I ask the Minister to consider Listowel in Kerry. There has been no new industry in Listowel in 25 years and there is massive emigration from the area but there are also famous writers from Listowel — the late Dr. Bryan MacMahon, John B. Keane and Dr. Brendan Kennelly. In addition, there is the Martin family of Ballylongford, the O'Rahilly family of UCC and Maurice Walsh, author of The Quiet Man. The Blasket Islands are renowned for their writers in Irish, and Dingle Library holds those writers' collections as well as collections from An Seabhac and other writers. Recently, an tAthair Pádraig Ó Fiannachta, the former professor of Irish at Maynooth, presented his entire personal collection to that library. Scholars visit the library from all over Ireland for research work. In south Kerry, there are such famous writers as J.J. Kelly, known as Sceilg, as well as the writings of the Liberator. There are other historical factors also.
Writer's Week has been established for over 30 years. Writers, artists and poets visit from all over Ireland and Europe. The numbers visiting book towns all over Europe are huge. They are not affected by weather conditions; they come just to visit the book towns. Hay-on-Wye was a derelict town and the book town is the biggest single industry created there since the war. There are restaurants and bed and breakfast businesses springing up all over that area in addition to the 34 bookshops.
I understand there is EU funding available for this, and we should work on this proposal. The concept of a book town should be established, and once it is I will seek to have it established in Listowel. It would be of enormous benefit to a place like north Kerry that does not benefit from tourism as much as south Kerry with its panoramic views. This would bring an enormous tourism boom to the area; a huge number of people stay overnight in other European book towns and this would be as good as a new industry for Listowel. It is food for thought, and if the Minister looks at this proposal I hope she considers Listowel.
Minister for Arts, Heritage, Gaeltacht and the Islands (Miss de Valera): I commend Senator Kiely on his research. It is not surprising he should have an interest in this matter, given that he comes from Kerry and that county's literary traditions. The motion he has put down is very interesting.
The first book town was established over 30 years ago in a small town, Hay-on-Wye, on the English-Welsh border. It was established mainly as a commercial venture, and today it has a total of 34 varied bookshops as well as antique and craft shops. It has been very successful from both the literary and tourism points of view.
In the 1980s, with the development of heritage and cultural tourism, a number of book towns modelled on the Hay initiative were developed in France, Belgium and the Netherlands. Senator Kiely alluded to these. These were initiated and developed very much as tourism products to allow for the economic regeneration of the rural areas in which they were situated. In more recent years, new book towns have been successfully developed throughout Europe in Norway, Denmark, Finland, Germany and Switzerland, as well as in Asia and America.
The establishment and promotion of these book towns has resulted in a major increase in visitor numbers to them, both from the general tourism markets and specialist tourist markets, such as literary groups and universities. Activities other than retailing, including specialist activities such as printing, design and publishing, book binding and book restoration, have also flourished in these book towns. Special events, such as literary festivals, writers' workshops, summer schools and conferences, are also an integral part of the book town concept and add considerably to the economic benefit to be gained.
Book towns also provide the opportunity for international and cross border cultural networks, which is a key objective of European Union cultural policy, and I understand that twinning arrangements already exist between some of the European book towns.
Therefore, the idea of a book town is not a new one but, as far as I am aware, the idea has not been promoted or proposed in Ireland. I welcome this opportunity to speak with the Senator on the suggestion this evening.
Ireland, as we know, has a very rich literary heritage and tradition that go back hundreds of years and span both the Irish and English languages. Irish writers, through the quality of their literary work, have provided an enormous legacy to the people of Ireland and many of their works have been translated for the appreciation of varied audiences throughout the world. I am happy to say that the Irish literary tradition lives on, with many contemporary writers winning international acclaim for their work and whose  names are recognised throughout the world as leading literary figures.
This literary tradition comes from every part of the country, but I must agree with the Senator that the north Kerry region has produced some eminent writers, such as John B. Keane, Bryan McMahon, Brendan Kennelly, Maurice Walsh and George Fitzmaurice, to mention but a few, all of whom have given great pleasure to their readers throughout Ireland and beyond.
The Writers Week which is hosted each year in Listowel is a celebration of the literary achievements of its writers. It also facilitates the holding of many other literary activities, such as writing competitions, poetry, writing workshops and readings. Its organisers are to be commended for their work in providing a very varied and interesting programme each year. As well as its significance to the literary tradition, I am sure the festival is of great economic benefit to the town.
Senator Kiely will be aware I am already supporting the literary tradition in Listowel with the provision of funding under the cultural development incentive scheme, which is being administered by my Department, towards the establishment of the North Kerry Cultural and Literary Centre. I commend the Listowel literary task group for its very active and enthusiastic work on this project, which will see a very exciting and unique centre being established in Listowel.
The aim of the project is to capitalise on the unique literary tradition of Listowel and north Kerry, and the centre will serve to celebrate the unique literary contribution of the very many writers of north Kerry. I have no doubt that this development will also act as a catalyst for the future development of the arts and the expansion of tourism in the region. I am delighted to reiterate my support for the project and look forward to its realisation in 1999.
It is not surprising, therefore, that Senator Kiely is recommending that Listowel should be considered as the location for the development of a book town in Ireland. It is interesting to note that most book towns which have been developed in Europe have been located in scenic, historic, rural settings and in towns that were small enough to be visibly transformed as book towns, rather than towns with book shops.
Any such development would have to be on a partnership basis between the local community, local authorities and literary, tourism and commercial interests. As I said earlier, I am happy to be already financially supporting a major cultural and tourism project in Listowel; perhaps, the establishment of the North Kerry Cultural and Literary Centre might provide the necessary impetus and can be looked on as the first step towards the development of Listowel as Ireland's first book town. Thank you.
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