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