Sunday Times, 16 Feb 2003
Down a long and winding road
Liam Fay, Sunday Times, February 16, 2003
Manchan Magan’s desire to escape Ireland and broaden himself took him all over the world. But it also led him into a career as TG4’s thoughtful travel presenter — not bad for someone who hated Gaelic, writes Liam Fay
Seven years ago, Manchan Magan was slowly losing his mind in a hut in rural India when he heard glad tidings from a distant west. An Irish-language television station was to be launched in his home country, offering new opportunities for young Irish speakers with broadcasting aspirations.
As he surveyed the squalor of his primitive hovel, where he had lived for months without electricity or sanitation, Magan decided he could develop a mutually beneficial relationship with the nascent channel. All he’d have to do was overcome two slight impediments: his aversion to Ireland and contempt for its native tongue.
In time, Magan’s highly idiosyncratic travel programmes would become one of the mainstays of the TG4 schedules, his starry eyed reverence the perfect complement to the winking mischievousness of the station’s more famous globetrotter. Hector O hEochagain.
Despite their over earnestness, Magan’s shows have done almost as much to redefine Irish travel television as O hEochagain’s, offering yet another alternative to the staid conventions of tourist industry puffs such as RTE’s No Frontiers. Magan is more pilgrim than holidaymaker. A self-styled dropout from western society, he sees himself as a student of foreign civilisations, the older and more remote the better.
His passion for other cultures was inspired by disdain for the one into which he was born. Now 32, Magan was a son of Erin, so indoctrinated with fatherland piety that he grew to despise the old sod. A scion of what he laughingly refers to as republican aristocracy, he was raised in the salubrious tranquillity of Dublin 4, yet his formative years were saturated with tales of patriotic gore.
Magan’s maternal great-grandfather was Michael Joseph O’Rahilly aka The O’Rahilly, the revered 1916 rebel whose death at the hands of the British was eulogised in verse by William Butler Yeats. His maternal grandmother was Sighle Humphreys, a one-time leader of Cumann na mBan.
Though Magan’s father, a Longford farmer, wasn’t especially political, his mother inherited much of her ancestral zeal and fervent republicanism was the dominant ideology of his childhood home, one which, even into the 1970s, saw language as a means of combat as much as communication.
“We were taught Irish as a weapon against the British,” recalls Magan. “Every word I spoke was supposed to be a bullet into the imperialist’s heart.”
As a teenager he became increasingly uncomfortable with this world view. “You’re born with this mythology and it seems perfectly normal because it’s all you know. Only gradually do you find out what it means. You discover your grandmother, who taught you Irish and tucked you up, had the blood of a poor innocent Scottish soldier on her hands.
“By 15 or 16 I was desperate to look beyond Ireland, so I was turning to British newspapers and the BBC, I learned about my world from the British. I owed them a massive debt of gratitude, so it was difficult to pretend I felt animosity towards Britain.”
After a fleeting and unhappy stint at university, Magan could take no more. “I wanted nothing to do with Ireland,” he says. “It was just a hole. Everything about the place dismayed me. That’s why I fled. I started travelling and realised I immediately identified with any culture I was in. I wanted to live there rather than in my own.”
With hindsight, Magan sees his alienation as classic adolescent angst. As his disenchantment with Ireland grew into disgust with the West in general, he became an itinerant hippie, financing worldwide travels with intensive bouts of work in German hypermarkets. His first odyssey was a six-month trip across Africa with 19 Britons crammed into an old army truck. After a dispute, Magan and three others were effectively left to die by the roadside in Zaire.
“We were without water for three days and food for 12,” he says. “It was the worst of several near-death experiences. But when I survived that I realised I could survive anything. You lose the fear.”
Unlike most of his backpacking peers who travelled primarily in search of a good time, Magan was on a quest for nothing less than eternal truth. Easily impressed but even more easily bored, he lived for varying periods with new age communes in Europe, the United States and Canada, and in peasant villages in Africa, India and the Middle East.
“I have a habit of becoming overexcited when I find something new,” he says. “But, after a year of living in Africa or with American Indians, you realise there’s problems there as well. I started to see that the place where I was born is where the solutions are, more or less.”
Magan reached this conclusion just as his brother Ruan tracked him down in India with news of the imminent birth of Telefis na Gaeilge. Ruan, a trainee film director, was convinced that together they could sell a travel series proposal to the fledgling station.
“I was verging on insanity in that little hut,” says Magan. “Working with Ruan was exactly what I needed because he’s far more rational and knows how to deal with my airy fairy tendencies. If it wasn’t for him, I’d still be up a tree somewhere hugging myself.”
The Magan brothers have since made 33 travel shows for TG4 — covering India, North and South America and the Middle East. While the quality of the programmes has steadily improved, they’ve been marked by the host’s breathless enthusiasm and commitment to what he calls “a non-western-centric perspective”.
Ironically, the makers of O hEochagain’s more populist shows initially pitched them to TG4 as an antidote to the Magan style. The latter insists, however, that he feels no resentment towards his more celebrated colleague.
“I think he’s the best thing to happen to TG4,” he says. “I’d just love it if he had better producers and directors. He needs more investment behind him. I’d love it if the series looked as good as he is in it.”
As his repertoire of languages grew (he now speaks seven), Magan shed much of his antipathy towards his mother tongue. “Irish is a beautifully earthy language,” he says. “I love looking at other cultures through Irish. It’s also toned down my tendency to over-celebrate things. There are almost no words about being happy or enthusiastic.”
Magan’s latest television offering is a six-part exploration of China recorded over 12 weeks last autumn. Undoubtedly the slickest yet of the Magan productions, the series offers a timely and intriguing glimpse of a still largely unknown continent at a hinge moment in its delicate transition from communism to capitalism.
Between journeys, Magan has been living in Ireland as he has attempted to condense what he has learned on his travels into a coherent philosophy. He plans to write books but is unsure what he wants to say. Thus far his only conviction is a determination to avoid what he sees as the life-sapping burdens of a mortgage and a regular job.
Five years ago he purchased 11 acres of woodland in Westmeath and built a house on the property. The house was constructed from bales of straw, with Magan installing his own plumbing and wiring. While he insists the house was habitable, he has recently been forced to knock it down; it didn’t have any planning permission. In its place he’s building a dwelling from blocks, mud and straw. Already, though, he’s itching to hit the road again. When his current bank loan is paid, he plans to resume his travels, starting with a trip to the American west coast.
“It’s about availing myself of the planet and everything it has to offer,” he says. “Maybe we are here for a series of lives — I reckon we are. But, even if this is my only life, I want to have tasted and learned everything I possibly can. When it’s finished, I want my life to be a work of art.”
© Sunday Times 2003