Wednesday, July 20, 2005

Irish Times, 24 August 2002

Taking the road less traveled
Irish Timess, 24 August 2002

The programmes Manchán and Ruán Magan produce for TG4 are definitely not 'holiday shows'. They tell Olivia Kelly about their brotherly approach to life and their love of other cultures

There's something very comforting and quite nest-like about being inside Manchán Magan's little straw house on the edge of Lough Lene in Co Westmeath. The busy provincial town of Mullingar, Co Westmeath, is no more than 15 miles away, but it may as well be a million miles or a lifetime for all the influence it has on this rural retreat.
Manchán built his straw house himself with the help of his older brother Ruán and a few friends. It's been standing for almost five years now and, unlike the abode of the first little pig, it looks sturdy enough to last at least another five.
The walls are made from 120 bales, stacked together "just like lego" and sandwiched between a thin concrete foundation and a timber roof. It took just two days to put the bale bricks together and another four to five months to persuade the lime and sand plaster to stick to the straw. It's basic, but it has most of the necessary home comforts; running water, a stove, even electricity. Regrettably, there is no bathroom or toilet. "Storms kept blowing it away in the winter, so in the end I just let it go," Manchán says.
Manchán is incredibly self-sufficient. He installed his own plumbing and electricity, learning as he went from a library book. He bakes bread, gets his vegetables from an organic farmer up the road and, every so often, ventures as far as the local shop to buy milk. He admits to being "a bit of a hermit", only going to Mullingar once every 10 days or so - and rarely any further. He seems entirely content in his own peaceful world. He doesn't get lonely, he simply doesn't have it in him.
It's hard to imagine this man tearing across the deserts of the Middle East in a black BMW with the top down, sitting in on a pow-wow with a Native American tribe in Idaho or providing a running commentary on the graphic, bloody slaughter of a goat in Bedouin territories. But that's the sort of thing he likes to do. Manchán and his brother Ruán make travel documentaries, filmed in the most remote corners of the earth, seeking out cultures and people, "who live beyond our own daily experience" and bringing them "as Gaeilge" to TG4 viewers.
The Magan brothers have travelled a total of 28,000 miles across India, the Middle East, South America, North America and Europe to make their Global Nomad series of documentaries. Next month they set off for China to make their next batch of programmes, which are due to be aired on TG4 in January 2003.
Their association with the station dates back to 1996, but the origins of their epic journeys began some years earlier. Manchán, now 32 caught the travelling bug at 19. He had just completed his first year of an Irish and history degree at UCD and found himself disillusioned, both with college and life in the Western world. "Nothing of the Western world attracted me, so I worked in a supermarket for six months to make some money, then I headed off to Africa on the back of a truck," Manchán says.
He spent six months travelling through Morocco and the Sahara to Tanzania and Nairobi before returning to finish his degree. He didn't hang around more than a few months before heading off again, this time to South America to spend another six months in Ecuador, Peru and Colombia.
"I ended up managing this organic health farm on the border of Ecuador and Peru," he says. "They were building stunning houses out of bamboo and that was the first place I heard about straw-bale housing," he explains.
Manchán continued his nomadic existence for the next couple of years, eventually ending up in India, where he took a house in the Himalayas.
Meanwhile, back in Ireland, Ruán had also decided to take a less than conventional path in life. The older brother by two years, Ruán had left college in his first year to start training as an assistant director in the film industry. He worked his way up through the grades of the industry, eventually becoming location manager for Neil Jordan's 1996 film Michael Collins. He then made the transition from film to television and decided it was time to track down his brother.
"TG4 had just started up and it crossed my mind that we could do some kind of video diary on the life Manchán was living in India - and Manchán very kindly let me into his life," says Ruán. "I wrote this wonderfully naive letter to TG4, who were still a couple of months from their first broadcast and they gave us €14,000 to make two half-hour programmes."
The two-man crew, Manchán presenting and Ruán operating the digital camera, headed across northern India for a month. The results were better than expected and the video diaries were repackaged as travel documentaries.
The brothers had never before discussed working with each other, but Ruán says, he knew they shared broadly the same perspectives on life. "I'm definitely more commercial and mainstream and Manchán is more left of field, but we both share this idea that in the Western world we seem to have blinkered ourselves to the value of life and what it really means to be alive."
The programmes, Ruán stresses, are "definitely not holiday shows". As if to prove the point, the Magans were arrested 14 times during the making of the series. Manchán says he has been arrested "hundreds of times" over the course of his travels. The brothers seem to see brushes with the law as no more than an occupational hazard. "It's not all like Midnight Express," Magan says. "Usually they just want you to sit and talk with them. They're very bored and a Westerner is fascinating."
The Magans are preparing to embark on their Chinese adventure. This three-month trip, covering 6,000 miles, will be "their most epic journey yet," they say, encompassing everything from the Shanghai stock markets to the sterilisation clinics of the Gobi desert. "I want to find out what daily life is like for the Chinese," Manchán says.
The search for a greater understanding of life is the principal tenet behind all their travel shows. "It's us learning about the world and we just happened to bring a video with us and document it," Ruán says. "It's about discovering the world with a non-Western attitude," Manchán continues, "an attempt to see things through fresh eyes."
Manchán claims to have no antipathy towards the developed world, in fact he considers it "wonderful". His ideal is to combine the best of East and West. Back in his Ecuadorian-style straw house with its printed Indian sheets layering the ceiling, there are touches of the modern world. A PC, with Internet connection, sits in the darkest end of the house, painted a discreet blue to fit in with the woodwork.
Sturdy and homely as Manchán's little house is, it's not long for this world. The brothers plan to set it alight, the week before their new series goes on air. Again they have managed to draw East and West together by likening their bale-burning to a Tibetan sky burial - a ritual in which, Ruán explains, the body of a deceased loved one is "hacked into small bird-sized pieces" and left for the vultures to take skywards. A fitting end, Manchán thinks.
"I'm really fond of this house; the burning will be a wonderful ceremony."
© The Irish Times

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