A toast to Culture Night – and a black mark for Arthur’s Day

From The Irish Times


IN 2002, PRETTY late in the evening, I stood in Amsterdam ’s Van Gogh museum while a DJ played in the lobby, and inspected some of the greatest works put on canvas.

In truth, because I had a beer in my hand, about 30 per cent of my brain was engaged with looking at the paintings; the rest was concentrating on not wobbling into a head-in-Sunflowers moment. It would have ruined the vibe.

This was Amsterdam ’s Museumnacht, or Museum Night. For a tenner, a ticket bought us a night of carousing through the city ’s culture: the Rijksmuseum, Tropenmuseum, Modern Art museum. We ended up at a party in the zoo. It felt extraordinary. The idea. The openness. The trust. It felt a world away from anything that could be done at home, where a touring public exhibition of cow sculptures had only recently visited Dublin, and at least one had been minced.

Four years later  – on September 23rd, 2006  – Dublin ’s first Culture Night began at 6pm. It ended, mostly, at 9pm. It was heralded with the put-put of the Culture Bus pulling up at a stop outside Dublin Castle, offering lifts to Imma and Farmleigh. It was a minibus. No one wanted to get ahead of themselves.

As it turned out, more people were waiting than there were seats.

That was the first hint that this might have a future.

This year? Amsterdam ’s Museumnacht takes place again in a few weeks. Fifty museums, with a capacity of 27,500 people. Tickets will cost  €17.

Dublin ’s Culture Night will take place in 154 venues, but it is no longer the capital ’s night. It is the country ’s. Thirty-four areas are signed up. Three hundred venues. And it is as free as you want it to be. It is claimed that 300,000 will experience the night. Such estimations always demand a raised eyebrow in response, but if you saw the crowds last year it would put a brake on your scepticism.

On Culture Night in Dublin, it is not that the city is reclaimed from the wobbling herds of hen parties or themed T-shirt throngs of stags. It doesn ’t elbow out the end-of-a-working-week boozers with ties and decorum loosened. Instead, those who are normally absent from a Friday night  – children, families  – come flooding in with the understanding that the streets are theirs, too.

The result is a surprising equilibrium in which much of the city ’s giddiness is fuelled by something purer than just pints. For a few hours Dublin briefly becomes the city it claims to be.

Or perhaps, that should be one of the cities it claims to be. Because a few days later that equilibrium will be lost. On September 27th the city  – with others  – will stagger and stumble and barge its way through Arthur ’s Day. It makes me queasy just to use the title.

Both Culture Night and Arthur ’s Day (uurgh) are marketing wheezes, but the latter has forced itself on to the calendar like a drunk throwing a threatening arm around the shoulders of a sober unfortunate on the last Nitelink home.

As the Dutch appreciate, it ’s very possible to mix alcohol and culture. As the Irish know, it is possible for drink to be part of a nation ’s culture and identity. But when Arthur ’s Day (bleurgh) says in its marketing that the day is  “all about ” getting live music out around the country, not even the thirstiest of barflies would swallow that.

It ’s a celebration of getting absolutely hammered. Lamped. Langered. It ’s on a Thursday for the extra night ’s drinking. It ’s happy to raise its toast at 17:59 for the extra few hours. By midnight it will be a city of the drunk, propped against walls, falling into AE, snoring on the last train, their dishevelled suits the one indication of the civility with which they began the day. It ’ll be a blast for a lot of people; if you ’re not one of them it ’s a day to get to out of Dodge.

This year Guinness ’s adverts exhort:  “Paint the Town Black. ” The towns will be painted, all right. The city will be a canvas to be splashed and dashed with a palette of regurgitated burgers and pints.

O ’Connell Street will be a Pollock of puke.