Wednesday, August 23, 2006

Westmeath Examiner, Saturday June 24th 2006

Globetrotter . . .
Westmeath Examiner Saturday June 24th 2006
Documentary-maker Manchán Magan has travelled the world. But the place he calls 'home' is Castlepollard. With his brother, Ruán, who lives in Coole, he made the 'Global Nomad' travel series, and is currently busy answering questions about the book 'Angles and Rabies' which details his South American and Canadian travels, which has just been published. Deputy editor Eilís Ryan reports.
Manchán Magan doesn’t like television.
And that’s a bit strange considering that he, together with his brother Ruán, is behind the hugely-acclaimed “Global Nomad” travel series, which has been shown in 25 different countries.
But then again, having no television, while holed up in a straw-bale house in Castlepollard, did leave Manchán with plenty of time to study Chinese, something which came in extremely useful - as one might imagine - when China became the focus of the “global nomads”. He also learned Arabic, sitting at home in Castlepollard.
It also gave him plenty of time to make some sense of the experiences he had on one of his earliest travel adventures, in South America and Canada, and the result of this musing is a book, “Angels and Rabies”, which has just been published by Brandon Press.
Manchán is not from Castlepollard originally, but he’s been living there for some time now, while close by, in Coole, lives his brother, Ruán, who is co-producer and cameraman on the Global Nomad series.
“I was brought up in Dublin, but my father’s family came from Killashee,” he says.
As a result, he has oodles of relations around: his cousin, Julie, is proprietor of the restaurant and delicatessen businesses, “Ilia” in Mullingar; another cousin, Catherine, was manager of Belvedere House for a time; and Mike Magan is chairman of Lakeland Dairies.
The other side of Manchán’s family tree springs from Kerry, and his great grandfather was The O’Rahilly, who died in 1916.
Through that O’Rahilly heritage came the great love which he and his siblings have for the Irish language.
“It was an Irish-speaking household, and I only got English when I was about four or five,” he says.
“So I was brought up in a very Republican, and revolutionary atmosphere, and it’s only recently that I have been connecting with the Longford side,” he says.
It’s about 15 years ago now since Manchán began travelling. Not long after leaving school, he went off, on the back of a truck, to Africa.
“I did a year in college first, and then I just thought I couldn’t face this any more.”
He joined twenty other travellers heading off to cross Africa by truck, but things did not go at all smoothly.
“I experienced things that no young man should,” he says. “I faced some life-and-death things, things that marked me for life.”
In African, the group of twenty headed off themselves one day, having arranged to meet up later with the truck; but in a robbery, half of them lost their money and passports; and those who hadn’t lost their money more or less abandoned those who had.
Manchán as it happens, hadn’t lost his money, but the group failed to find the truck, and they wound up stranded. “I went without any water for three days, and without food for five and a half days. It became a really severe situation.”
Arising out of it, Manchán contracted bilharzia, and was facing death. There had up until then been no real cure, but something had just come on the market, though it was still very expensive. Happily, Manchán was saved.
“The Irish Government paid for me to have the new treatment.”
That whole African trip was life-changing.
“”I realised life was completely different from what I’d understood from that sheltered Donnybrook society. It was about survival, and I wanted to live as freely as I could.”
When Manchán returned home, he went back to college, but hated the “claustrophobia” of what he terms “that concrete wasteland” that is UCD.
Straight afterwards, he headed to Wicklow, to work on an organic farm, where he remained for as long as it took him to earn the money he needed to get away to South America.
It is that trip, and a subsequent move upwards to Canada, that gave him the material he has now turned into his new book “Angels and Rabies”.
“It does take you that long almost to digest things,” says Manchán, who is himself quite amazed now at some of the experiences he had.
“It was only when I thought back that it was interesting: I’d never put myself in any of those situations now. But I had wanted to test life to the absolute fullest,” he says.
His travels took him firstly to a commune run by the Screamers, who had set up in Colombia after fleeing Donegal when the powers-that-be began taking an interest in their activities, and the welfare of the children living in the commune.
At another point he ended up getting bitten by a rabid dog, and there was a nightmarish bid to secure the vaccine he needed to counter the effects.
But along the way, too, he fell in love.
“I was looking for love,” he says at an early stage in the book.
And since the book has been published, the question everyone has asked him is, “Who’s that girl?”
In the book, the Hollywood actress with whom he fell deeply in love, is called Eve, although that is not her real name, and he is not going to name her.
Ultimately, the relationship did not last, but they are still in contact.
“Eve likes the book. If she told me it would be OK to say who it was, then I would. But it would be cashing in on someone famous,” he says.
In the initial draft, there were some hints that could have enabled the diligent to work out who she was.
“There were more clues, and Brandon Books said: ‘There are far too many’, and I had to remove a few of them,” he says. All he will says is that she was what might be termed a B-movie star, and he chose the pseudonym Eve for her almost as it represented the “prototype” of a woman.
In British Colombia, Manchán found himself employed as a childminder. Llael was the niece of Hugo, who was dealing in organic cannabis.
Manchán insists his role was purely childminding, and his involvement in the drugs business that kept many in the alternative community around there going, was “purely incidental”.
While living in Canada, Manchán gained his first experience at straw-bale house-building. About 1996/1997, he bought a plot of land in Castlepollard, and decided he would build a straw-bale house on it.
“Westmeath County Council gave full planning permission for a straw house, which was very enlightened of them,” he says.
“But while they were deciding this, I said I would throw up a little straw house. It was just 10 feet by 20 feet - the size of a garage - with my bed in the loft. I lived in it for five years, but the walls would shake. The Council turned a blind eye, but then after five years, I decided I was going to build a proper house, but I chickened out of using straw, and put concrete block in the core. But then I put a grass roof on it.”
On his land, he grows trees. He has something of a love affair going on with trees, and in “Angels and Rabies”, in a brief paragraph describing the loneliness of his childhood, he recounts how he came to prefer being alone: “I started sensing things - trees mainly - hearing and feeling them, and I preferred their company”, he says.
“Aithníonn ciaróg ciaróg eile,” the Irish proverb says, and in Canada, Manchán found himself in the company of tree campaigners, opposing the logging going on in that area.
“The reason I bought the land in Westmeath was to plant trees. The first thing I did was plant an acre of trees,” he says.
“I can have the lousiest week ever, and I know if I plant a tree I will feel much better.”
Another priority in Castlepollard was to get broadband internet access, so while he doesn’t have a television, he has at least access to all the information he wants.
And as a documentary-maker, Manchán needs to be able to do serious amounts of research. The travel programmes he makes with his brother are not about where the best hotel is, or where the nicest local pottery markets are located. These are works which go into a country, and explore its heart, soul and history.
The series has principally been seen on TG4 in this country, with English subtitling. But while filming, Manchán and Ruán double up, by retaking all the clips in English. This has enabled them to sell the documentaries on. However, it hasn’t made them rich: making documentaries as independents, is a costly process.
He is currently making a documentary, almost a “reality-TV” show, which is to go out on RTÉ in the autumn.
Some of the major series he’s done before have been about China and the Middle East.
“The story of China had to be told, and the story of the Middle East has to be told,” he says.
He hasn’t done a travel documentary for two years, but his ambition is to “do” Africa.
“I started making the TV programmes in 1996, so I had been travelling for about six years before that. I have been trying to get various documentaries done for the last few years, but I desperately want to do a big series on Africa.”
He wants to look beyond the stories that always come out of Africa, about AIDS and poverty.
“There are new companies set up, there’s a new middle class. We tend to be slightly more positive than others, and we try and look beyond, and look at the potential of the country.
“My favourite thing is looking at where the traditional culture is meeting the modern world.”
He is not a purist. He does not believe in preserving traditional cultures at all costs, and says, in an Irish context, that if, as we evolve, we were to lose our native language, he could live with that. He believes that things must evolve, and the changes that happen should happen. “A part of me regrets all that, but I can see it as part of a bigger plan,” he says.
Manchán reckons that countries like China and India and Africa need to progress; that people need to have a range of options on a par to those which the west enjoys.
“Everyone in the world needs to be able to have the choice to buy a bottle of Coca Cola,” he summarises.
He is not sure that what is traditional is always good.
“I hate the misogyny, and the lack of opportunity, and the small-mindedness of rural communities either in Ireland or abroad, and what most excites me is that people now have an opportunity to grow and to learn and see beyond their village. They have to have the right to choose.”
Manchán enjoys travelling with his brother, although, he admits they do fight. The Global Nomad team is completed by music composer Ronan Coleman, who has composed all Global Nomad music, and who is the chief sound recordist on the documentaries.
Among his responsibilities is interceding when the Magans have a stand-off!
While “Angels and Rabies” is Manchán’s first English-language book, he has another ready, about India.
And no, he hasn’t yet found anyone to replace Eve in his heart.
© Westmeath Examiner

Sunday Independent, 13th August 2006

Incredible journey of a soul survivor
Sunday Independent, 13th August 2006 by John Masterson
MANCHAN Magan is a delightful one-off. A shy man who is a great conversationalist. Almost a hermit, by choice."I burnt down my straw house and now I live in a concrete house with a grass roof in Westmeath. I even have central heating and a power shower!"
Magan is also a TV personality through his Global Nomad programmes on TG4, by accident. Now in his mid-30s, he is still seeking and searching, never having compromised when almost everyone else did. He is the real deal.
Serious, yet full of whimsy, he is sitting in front of me, the living example of what the human race might be like after a few hundred more years of ethical evolution. Or as he sees himself . . . : "An isolated loser being forced out of his own culture and trying to find somewhere where he fits in."
He grew up in Donnybrook, Dublin. His family has a strong political tradition; his grandmother was an active republican, and something of a hero.
"I spoke Irish and only learned English when I was three. But this book is dedicated to the other side: my father's brother, a Longford Fine Gael farmer. My father was a radiologist, a strong Redmondite and a very peaceful man who loved walking and always wore sandals. He was a unique man, very eccentric, and lived in his own world . . . the kind of person I wouldn't mind emulating."
He speaks fondly of his local education in Gonzaga where, despite "my oddball ways - I had a herb garden when I was five - I was never teased or bullied or even had a nickname. The Jesuits definitely recognised that I did have a sense of idealism,"
His father died at the time of his Leaving Cert, and by then Manchan was ready to let loose without a parachute. He describes it as a time of almost manic depression, partly brought on by the disillusionment common in adolescents when they realise they are about to get stuck into the system. Manchan went to Africa, where a combination of stupidity, idealism and naivety almost killed him on more than one occasion.
"I was straight out of school with 20 people going overland on a flatbed truck. I thought I would find enlightened people, but everyone was running away from the world. Many were damaged, harmed people, individuals with no hope in their lives."
In the end, the group split and, abandoned by their driver, he settled downto die with a few peo-ple in a remote village."We lived on crocodile and banana and eventually got a canoe. We drank the river water and all got a combination of bilharzia, amoebic dysentery and malaria. I realised I didn't fear death."
After that it is not surprising that UCD seemed a bit tame. And Magan had no interest in sex, drugs and the rock and roll road to enlightenment. He smoked some dope but realised that "it wasn't opening any doors. The Jesuits make you think. UCD Arts was a total waste of time . . . such a disillusioning place . . . I thought it was going to be like Harvard, or Educating Rita . I thought I would find open minds. It was so dull and dreary".
And so with nothing but two shopping bags of possessions he was on the road again, this time to the Americas, where the answers might lie in the sweetness of Rica and the soul of Ame.
Why there? Well it started with the Late Late Show, as so many things did. As a young child, he had been enraptured by the Screamers, a group of quasi-Jungian idealists who were pushing their psyches to the limits in Donegal. And they had moved to Colombia. He went to see them.
"You can see why they happened in a culture that was completely staid. And I was always looking for alternative stuff. These people would have the answers. I had to check them out. I didn't know that if you continue that line of thought for 10 or 15 years it ends up rotting you to the core. But in that post-adolescent thing you want to set yourself extremes. I was about 23. I wanted to test myself.
"They attacked me, and if you are someone who is not completely macho they are going to find your weakness. Now, I wouldn't endure it for an hour. I don't need that any more. I am out the door. That is the beauty about youth. You are so open."
He found himself being offered sex from underage and overage alike. It was of no interest to him.
"I suppose it came initially from fear. Every Irish thought about sex is ingrained with fear. Any connection with humans I find hard, but the connection of sex is so close. There needs to be love before there is sex."
It is this trip that forms the subject matter of this engaging book. It documents a young man searching for the truth, while discarding most of the safety nets provided by family and education. Though he does concede, happily, that there was some kind of common sense protecting him.
He falls in love with a young Hollywood mover and shaker having no idea who she is, finds himself running a small hostel ("I connected with people and they liked me and that was important"), meets drug smugglers and mescal drinkers and oddballs of every description, including those who can tell by your odour whether or not you have had your colon irrigated - and of course gets rabies, as you do.
"I saw the dog frothing, his eyes were big, there was no other reason why he would bite me and disappear."
His wanderlust continued and Manchan ended up "living in a hermitage in the Himalayas drinking my own piss. It was insanity, way beyond the borders of reason. I had an incredible time but it was dangerous stuff."
His brother Ruan, who had been location manager on the film Far and Away , arrived with a camera and they began making programmes for TG4.
"He lured me back to some sort of reality. I was a messed-up, bedraggled wast- er and Ruan is extremely pragmatic. He took me in hand and said, 'There is something you have to say if you can clean yourself up and try and find the right words,' and so we were a wonderful balance in Global Nomad ."
Today Manchan has cut down on the travelling.
"I don't run away. I need very little money. I am very flush when I have done a TV programme but I haven't done one for about two years. I like the thought of me and a computer. By writing you can get the message across with much more subtlety."
'Angels and Rabies: a Journey through the Americas' by Manchan Magan is published by Brandon, €15.99
© John Masterson