Wednesday, August 23, 2006

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