Sunday, February 11, 2007

Around the World for Lazarus, Irish Times, 25th Oct 2006

Around the world for Lazarus
by Manchán Magan,
The Irish Times, 25th October 2006

TG4 celebrates its 10th birthday next week. Manchán Magan recalls his first attempts at filming in Irish, at a time when he thought they might all be flogging a dead horse.

I had been living on my own in the Himalayas for months, hiding out in a remote hovel, lost in the realms of angelic voices that were trumpeting through my head, when Khim Singh screamed down the mountain at me, saying I had a phone call. I hurried up to the chai shop and grabbed the receiver to hear my brother, Ruán, asking me had I heard of TnaG - a new television channel which within nine months would be broadcasting eight hours of programmes in Irish a day. He said he was going to make the first Irish travel series and I was going to present it.
I should have warned him off there and then; admitted to the bouts of euphoria; the early stirrings of a Messianic complex, but the whole thing was so farcical that it seemed oddly appropriate. Fated almost. The superannuated carcass of the Irish language, which I had carried as a dead weight all my life, was reaching its arm around the world to rescue me. The least I could do was play along with it.
I had presumed, like most people, that the language was long past resuscitation. I had studied it in college - watched it breathing its last gasps, and then when I had my degree I turned away to allow it the dignity of coughing its death rattle in private. Ireland was strutting intrepidly forth into the future and we didn't need it any more; we didn't want to be reminded of this last vestige of our peasant past.
Yet, according to my brother, everything had now changed. The government, the Soldiers of Destiny, descendants of the Republican martyrs who had been snipered, hung, guillotined for the Cause, didn't have the heart to watch it flatline, and they had come up with a plan to assuage their guilt. They had paid out £12 million for a brand new TV station. TnaG (now called TG4) was to be a sort of Mayo Clinic for the language. it would stem the galloping cancer; somehow making our barbaric tongue suitable for the 21st century.
Two weeks later my brother arrived in Delhi with a digital camera - a revolutionary new device which had not until then been used for television. I still don't know how he had convinced TnaG to let him come, although his assurances that they didn't have to pay us unless they liked the programmes must have helped.
At the back of their minds would have been the knowledge that we were great-grandnephews of the O'Rahilly - founder of the Irish Volunteers, who exactly 90 years before had spearheaded the resurrection of the Irish language, had written a new alphabet for it and convinced banks, businesses and even the Royal Mail to accept it as an official language. TnaG must have hoped that his passion had been passed down the line to us.
At the hotel my brother began unpacking the gear - aluminium boxes full of chrome lead connectors, chain-mail microphones, a titanium-tipped tripod; the surgical equipment with which we would go to work on the language. Another bag was full of bottles of whiskey which he explained were for bribing officials, as he hadn't had time to arrange film permits. He had brought me brand new copies of Ó Dónaill and de Bhaldraithe's dictionaries, as well as a dog-eared copy of the Christian Brothers' Grammar. Unfortunately, he had forgotten to pack the clothes I had asked for, and I would have to present the programmes in my old T-shirts and tracksuit.
It didn't really matter. I couldn't imagine anyone would be watching anyway. It was reckoned that only 5 per cent of the population spoke Irish with sufficient fluency and of those, how many had the slightest interest in India? These were fishermen, farmers, grant administrators and such like, they had better things to be doing with their evenings than watching me and my deluded wanderings.
And of the tiny minority of them who might possibly give a damn, how many of them spoke my dialect? The slurpy, slurried tones of Munster Irish, which for me were soulful and sweet, to them would sound remedial, as though I were suffering from a verbal impediment or wasn't entirely sober.
The elongated vowels and idiosyncratic stress patterns would grate on their ears like static until they were forced to switch it off. And unfortunately these non-Munster Irish speakers were in the majority; they were the Connaught and Donegal speakers and the Dublin crowd who spoke that officially-sanctioned, castrated mutant, An Caighdeán. Eunuch Irish.
The first few days were torturous: every time I caught sight of my fish-eyed face glaring back at me from the petroleum orb of the camera lens I froze like a badger in headlights. I literally couldn't think of anything cogent to say. The idea of using this language in so foreign a setting seemed farcical - like a bad comedy sketch. But my brother was patient with me, allowing me to do take after take until I got it right.
Over time I began to get used to the whole thing and to actually enjoy it - dragging this Lazarus language into new and unexpected places. I felt I was giving it a whole new incarnation. I imagined how proud my grandmother would be. It was she who had taught us Irish - bribing us with sweets and money to learn a new word or phrase each day. The more Irish we spoke the more we earned. It was a currency, plain and simple. And if TnaG liked our programmes, it would become so again.
I made sure to focus on the maharajas in the series, thinking that the audience would identify with another once-great culture now breathing its last. I sought out the remnants of the maharajas - their last tiger hunts, last purdahed women and fading princes. While filming their ostentatious architecture, I was struck by how they had sought immortality through their architecture, their essence captured in bricks and mortar. I wondered was that what TnaG was about, too. Trapping our bardic tongue on tape so that when it did finally splutter and die they would be able to root out the tapes again and show people how this awkward old matrix of sounds and syntax had once been used to communicate - to actually talk and joke and sing in; and not only that, but at the point of its extinction it had been used for the quixotic purpose of making a series of television programmes in faraway places. The language would seem as exotic then as witchcraft or Sufi dancing.
The more I thought about it the more I realised that in truth my role was as a sort of last surviving dodo. I was to be the personification of the myth that the language was still a viable organism, still in use in odd corners of the world.
The experience of filming the maharajahs made a big impression on me. I realised we were witnessing the leave-taking of an evolutionary dead end. Not all species or cultures require a comet or a global catastrophe to become extinct; some are wiped out simply because their time has come. The golden era of the maharajas had much in common with other pivotal periods of excess - the Italian Renaissance, early Christianity, the Pythagorean period in Croton, 1960s California - all involved a temporary resurgence of Orphic ideals where people abandoned themselves to a mutant expression of their true feelings; to Chaos, to Eros, to the delights of the Garden of Eden. They were all short-lived.
The same could be said for the Celtic Revival that had brought back Irish in the early 20th century. It, and the uprising that accompanied it, might have been just a temporary bout of hysteria, that we were now recovering from. Like the maharajahs willing to ride out into battle in the face of certain death for the sake of honour, we had become drunk for a few decades on the concept of blood sacrifice and the need to speak our own language.
It was what had inspired the O'Rahilly to polish his boots, wax his moustache and kiss his pregnant wife goodbye before riding out to certain death in the Easter Rising. All that was left now of that delirium was the language and we were at a loss as to what to do with it.
I wanted to know what it wanted. Was it crying out for intervention - a radium treatment beamed out across the airwaves, or would it sign a Do Not Resuscitate form if it could? I worried that our programmes were just prolonging its pain. Was TnaG like an inexperienced paramedic sucking the face off a flat-lined corpse? Were we like relatives refusing to unplug the support machine? I still don't know, but I'm still making programmes, still windmill-jousting for TG4.
Manchán Magan has made more than 30 documentaries for TG4, many of which have been sold in over 25 different territories worldwide. His latest book is a South American travelogue, Angels and Rabies, published by Brandon
© The Irish Times

No Béarla Reviews - Sunday Times, Business Post, Tribune

NO BÉARLA REVIEWS – Sunday Times, Business Post, Tribune.

January 21 2007

Don’t make him angry; you really wouldn’t like him when he’s angry. Like Dr David Banner, the scientist who turns into the Incredible Hulk when provoked, the normally mild-mannered Manchán Magan has a grotesque alter ego: a fanatical Gaelgoir.
Magan’s inner green monster is given free rein in No Béarla (TG4, Sun), a simultaneously light-hearted and serious travel series in which he attempts to traverse Ireland using, as the programme title suggests, no English. Not surprisingly, he soon finds himself lost in translation.
Just as the sight of the rampaging Hulk cause mass consternation, the spectacle of an Irish-language zealot in full flight terrifies most ordinary citizens, encouraging many to run for their lives. Most of the shop assistants and hospitality staff that Magan approaches with is queries as Gaeilge back away and shake their heads, in disbelief as much as incomprehension.
This isn’t the way it’s supposed to be, if one believes the lip service paid to our mother tongue by government mouthpieces. Gaelic is Ireland’s first official language and after much political lobbying, has been formally recognised as such by the European Union. In the lsat census, a quarter of the population claimed to speak Irish regularly. As Magan quickly discovered, however, it’s difficult to find anyone who can speak the language even irregularly on the country’s streets.
In some quarters, in fact, a phrase of Irish is liable to be greeted with an expression of hostility. Magan began his odyssey in city-centre Dublin, where he stopped passers-by to ask, in Irish, for directions. With the refreshing directness for which the capital is famous, most Dubliners informed him that his best bet would be to drop dead.
It was the makers of No Bearla who drew parallels between Magan’s predicament and the plight of Dr Banner, a forlorn outcast forced to wander endlessly in a world that doesn’t understand him.
When Magan’s antique Jaguar seized up, he sought a mechanic through directory enquiries, in Irish of couse. Having listened carefully to every word, the operator burst out laughing, apparently convinced it was a crank call.
As Magan set off on foot in search of help, the musical accompaniment was Joseph Harnell’s The Lonely Man – the poignant piano piece used in the closing moments of the Incredible Hulk. Magan, it seems, had been rendered friendless through contamination by the linguistic equivalent of gamma radiation.
The hint of self-mockery is the saving grace of No Bearla. The show could easily have been a smug TG4 invoke, a snear at the expense of the east-coast West Brits who don’t know their Erse from their bellows. Despite the programme’s paltry budget, however, its producers have grander ambitions.
No Bearla works primarily because of Magan, a human Ardnacrusha of energy cleverly disguised as a wistful hippie. A multilingual globetrotter, who has presented several TG4 travel series, he seems more bemused that angered by the death of his native language, and is eager to assign reasons rather than blame for its demise.
Spouting Irish at non-speakers until they snap would be a flimsy premise for what is a four-part series, not least because anyone who uses language as a battering ram rather than a form of communication deserves to be barked at. Fortunately, Magan is interested in eliciting a wider and more subtle range of responses.
The visit to Dundalk was particularly illuminating. Many of the inhabitants of this so-called republican stronghold were dumbfounded by Magan’s use of Irish and a few even demanded that he speak the invader tongue. By contrast, he was treated more civilly by some loyalists on Belfast’s Shankill Road, who lamented their unfamiliarity with the island’s only indigenous language.
For all its eye-opening merits, however, No Bearla has one glaring weakness. The programme’s English subtitles are littered with misspellings. Its producers clearly need to brush up on their Béarla.
©Sunday Times

Sunday Tribute. 14 January 2007 Gavin Corbett
No Béarla had a very good joke right at the start. It’s a travel show with a twist – presenter Manchán Magan (who seems to be everywhere suddenly, which is his job, I suppose) tries to get around Ireland, speaking only Irish to people. Anyway, the joke was that a caption came up at the start saying, in English, ‘We apologise for the loss of subtitles.’ Great – if you’re like me, you’d have been totally lost from that point, grappling to understand Magan as he quizzed tourist-industry workers and public officials as gaeilge. Still, nice programme- Dublin looked fantastic, on whatever gloriously sunny day they managed to catch it on. Next week, Magan’s off to Belfast, although it could easily be Sligo for all I understood.
© Sunday Tribune

A shot to the heart for cupla focail 14 January 2007 By Emmanuel Kehoe I’ve heard Japanese people speak Irish. Americans too. German, French and Italian scholars during the Gaelic revival launched themselves at its literature and philology.I’ve heard Japanese people speak Irish. Americans too.German, French and Italian scholars during the Gaelic revival launched themselves at its literature and philology.
Now, as Ireland’s population shifts, the dilemma that is the Irish language could find an anthem in that old Cole Porter song: ‘‘Lithuanians and Letts do it . . .’’ Learn Irish, that is.But whatever about the ability and willingness of the children of new arrivals to learn Irish in our schools, the language seems to have stuck in our own craw. Gaelscoileanna, TG4 and the new position of Irish as a working language of the EU aside, the stupefying and unavoidable fact is that we spend ten to 12 years learning a language in school and most people can barely utter a sentence in Irish, much less read or write one.
Are we the thickies of Europe, of the world? Or is the Irish language a sort of embarrassing hand-me-down that we are slightly ashamed to wear?A St Patrick’s Day badge to be worn by children but not by adults?I quite liked Manchan Magan’s explanation as a sort of linguistic torpor: ‘‘Irish is this ancient language.“It’s served us for thousands of years. I just think it’s got tired. I don’t think it’s got a place in the modern world.”Well of course it’s nonsense, but I like the fanciful notion of a language that has just become worn out. Something, anything, has to explain our miserable inability to speak it.In the first episode of No Bearla (TG4), a four-part series in which Magan tries to make his way about the country speaking no English, he found an almost unbelievable unwillingness and inability among Dubliners to engage with him in Irish.On the most basic level, you might expect ten-year veterans of Irish classrooms to know the meaning of ‘beo’ and ‘marbh’. But the question ‘‘An bhfuil an Gaeiluinn beo no marbh?” elicited at best a mumbled response, mostly of incomprehension.A piece written by Magan in the Guardian earlier this month suggested rather more hostility towards his efforts than was apparent in the programme. Being suddenly confronted by Magan’s wide eyed figure on a city street attempting to engage them in Irish may simply render people speechless.Are they likely to treat him as just another forager from the city’s standing army of charity chancers and cadgers?Very. An age ago, as a schoolboy in short pants, I was sent out from school selling flags for Coiste na Teangan on the streets. We never seemed to do particularly well in that city of tenements and tough times and the collection box usually was filled by relatives sent by God for the purpose of preserving small boys from zealous teachers.Magan found Irish in Kilmainham Gaol where he was shown the cell in which his grandmother Sighle Humphreys (‘‘society belle and crack-shot Irish rebel’’, Magan called her in a dramatised documentary some years ago) was locked up.Magan’s credentials in the nationalist aristocracy are top notch: he is also related to The O’Rahilly. But he was unable to get an Irish language bus tour of Dublin or, seasoned traveller that he is, to buy decent maps and guidebooks in Irish.In Temple Bar he appealed to the crowds, offering money to anyone who would have a conversation with him in the first national language.This was an utter and quite unbelievable failure. Clearly there wasn’t a single old-style Christian Brothers’ boy playing the flaneur that day, or a single product of a gaelscoil within earshot.Everyone who chooses to live the Life Gaelic is faced with compromise.Every government agency parades itself under an Irish title, but trying to do business with them in Irish is almost impossible. Even in Gaeltacht areas, attempts to buy a newspaper or groceries through Irish often requires the visitor to force the issue. Conversations in Irish in pubs die the moment one is joined by a non-Irish speaker, out of pure politeness.‘‘We were taught Irish as a weapon against the British,’’ Magan has said elsewhere. ‘‘Every word I spoke was supposed to be a bullet into the imperialist’s heart.”The lingering infection that has troubled the wider adoption of Irish may owe something to this historic, proscriptive attitude. We speak Irish because it’s not English, even if all most of us can manage, it seems, is ‘‘slainte’’ or ‘‘pog mo thon’’.It may be dogged by dialect variations that can impede comprehension, bedevilled by language fascists and cranks, tinkered with by reformers, mangled and abused by cynical politicians, but surely there is more Irish out there than the first episode of Magan’s series suggests. Maybe the poor tired language of his description needs his series as a sort of linguistic defibrillator, a shot to the heart.


Smaointe Mhancháin faoin dteanga

Manchán's thoughts on Irish for Lá Newspaper:

Cén fáth Gaeilge?
17ú Eanáir 2007

Cad iad mo thuairimí faoin nGaeilge? Osclaíonn mo bhéal agus tá an oiread sin smaointe réidh le stealladh amach gur deacair ceann amháin a roghnú. Táim i ngrá léi, táim bréan di, tá amhras orm fúithi, tá trua agam di, tá dóchas lag agam aisti. Is dócha gurb í an phríomhthuairim a ritheann liom ná go bhfuilim réidh anois, ar deireadh thiar thall, glacadh lena cinniúint, cuma maith nó olc í. Glacfaidh mé léi go toilteanach stuama más deireadh ré féin atá in ann di. (Ní chreidim go bhfuil a mhalairt de rogha agam ach glacadh leis.) Ach cinnte, ní hé sin atá uaim. Chaith mo mháthair chríonna, Síghle Humphreys, a saol ag troid ar son na teanga, agus nfheadar ar deireadh an ndearna sí aon pioc difríochta. Braithim go gcaithfear cloí le toil an phobail i gcásanna den sórt. Ar chúis amháin nó cúis eile, tá an pobal ag casadh a ndroim ar an dteanga. Is amhlaidh go bhfuil gné shíceolaíoch éigin go smior ionainn a chuireann brú orainn an teanga a dhiúltú ar scoil. Cuirtear an milleán ar an gcóras oideachais go minic, ach ní fheicim conas a d'fhéadfadh sé a bheith ciontach ar fad. Gach seans go bhfuil modhanna beagán níos fearr le í a mhúineadh ach conas a bheadh na modhanna a úsáidtear anois chomh holc sin go dteipeann ar formhór daoine teacht ar aon sórt líofachta in aon chor tar éis deich mbliana ag staidéar?Sílim gurb í an phríomhchúis go dteipeann orainn í a fhoghlaim ná nach dteastaíonn uainn. Rud síceolaíoch atá i gceist. Rud éigin bain-teach le cuimhneamh fo-chomhfhiosach na tíre, bfhéidir. Tá an Ghaeilge bainteach le gnéithe diúltacha cruatan, anró, éagóir, achrann. Ní haon ionadh nach bhfáiscimid chuig ár gcroíthe í.An bhfuil aon dul as seo? Sílim nach raibh go dtí le gairid. Chomh fada is a bhí an clú ar Éirinn gur tír bhocht í, ní raibh mórán a mheallfadh duine ar ais chuig an dteanga. Bhí an dúil ionainn gluaiseacht chun cinn róláidir le haird a thabhairt ar nithe gan tábhacht. Bhí cuimhneamh na milliúin duine a chailleamar sa Ghorta róchumhachtach ionainn chun ligean dúinn ár n-aird a chasadh ar aon rud nach raibh bainteach go smior leis an sracadh chun maireachtála. Seasamh na dtréan a bhí i gceist agus ba é an Béarla a bhí uachtarach. Mar sin, ní go dtí deich mbliana ó shin a bhí aon seans ar bith go dtosódh an athbheochan.An rud eile a bhí ag cur sriain ar an bpróiseas, i mo thuairim, ná an bhaint a nascadh idir an teanga agus achrann sa Tuaisceart. Tugadh le fios go raibh ceangal idir caint na Gaeilge lasmuigh den nGaeltacht agus feachtas an IRA, nó ar a laghad, polaitíocht Shinn Féin. Thruailligh sé an teanga i súile áirithe. Lasmuigh den Tuaisceart, bhí leisce ar daoine í a fhoghlaim ar eagla go mbeadh míthuiscint faoi na cúiseanna a bhí leis. Agus mar sin, chomh fada is a lean an troid, ba bheag seans go n athnuafaí an teanga. Ní fhaca mé go raibh aon dul as ach glacadh lena bás. Chruaigh mé mo chroí chuici mar chosaint ón imní.Anois, den chéad uair le fada, tá seans go n-athróidh rudaí. B’fhéidir go bhfuilimid ag tógaint na gcéad chéimeanna i dtreo na hathbheochana. Má tá, caithfidh mé athbhreithniú a dhéanamh ar mo thuairimí go léir.Ní hé go raibh mé riamh ina coinne ach tháinig amhras orm fúithi agus stop mé á labhairt, toisc, leis an fhírinne a insint, nach raibh éinne ann ar theastaigh uaim í a labhairt leis. Níor chas mé mo dhroim riamh ar an dteanga go hiomlán - cé gur stop mé ag labhairt Gaeilge lasmuigh den Ghaeltacht, níor stop mé riamh ag scríobh. Tá dhá leabhar taistil de mo chuid foilsithe ag Coiscéim agus beidh leabhar eile á scríobh i mbliana agam úrscéal. Ach ba dheacair dom míniú do éinne cén fáth a ndéanaim é. Chomh fada agus is eol dom, níor léigh ach timpeall deichniúr an chéad dá leabhar. Bhuail mé le ceathrar acusan bean an fhoilsitheora agus a mac beirt acu. I slí amháin, is díomhaointeas atá i gceist a bheith ag scríobh as Gaeilge, ach fós ní féidir liom é a stop. Tá dúil agam ann. Bfhéidir gur feachtas cogaidh pearsanta de mo chuid féin atá i gceist - go bhfuilim ag leanúint troid mo sheanmháthar. Os rud é go raibh sí sásta trí bliana dá saol a chur ar ceal i bpríosún ar son na cúise, ní fheicim go bhfuil de rogha agam ach cúpla mí a chaitheamh gach bliain ag scríobh leabhair nach léifear. Braithim go mb’fhéidir gur sórt cothú anama don teanga atá ann i slí éigin.Ach an cheist is mó a bhíonn de shíor do mo chiapadh ná an dteastaíonn an teanga maireachtáil in aon chor? B’fhéidir go bhfuil sí tagtha go deireadh a saoil, agus gur cheart dúinne glacadh leis seo go cróga. Tá sí tar éis feidhmiú leis na mílte bliain i bhfad níos faide ná formhór teangacha bfhéidir go bhfuil sí spíonta, traochta anois, ag teacht go nádúrtha go deireadh a saoil. Níl uaithi ach go scaoilfear saor í. Cruthaíodh agus múnlaíodh í do shochaí iomlán difriúil sochaí atá imithe anois, buíochas leis na déithe. Tá ré iontach, oscailte, nua romhainn anois, lán dfhéidearthachtaí nár samhlaíodh riamh cheana. Tá turas úr romhainn, agus ní féidir linn ár gcuid giuirléidí seanchaite go léir a thabhairt linn. Tá teanga freacnarcach, aclaí, acmhainneach, óg againn sa Bhéarla, agus ní féidir liomsa a bheith cinnte nach bhfuil sé in am dúinn ár ndílseacht a chasadh ina threo.
© Lá