Friday, October 19, 2007

Back to Basics - Irish Times profile, August 2007

Back to basics
Saturday, August 25, 2007

Travelling the world has left Manchán Magan with a better idea of how to find contentment, the writer and broadcaster tells Róisín Ingle .

Having a conversation with Manchán Magan is like conversing with several volumes of a disturbingly youthful-looking encyclopedia. A walking Wikipedia, with fewer errors, the man can talk about anything. He can tell you about the DNA of an onion, recount the legend of immortal Indian yogis or banter about the challenge of putting a power shower into his grass-roofed house. He can talk about these things in French, German, Chinese and Irish as well as in English. So it's no surprise, when I broach the subject of happiness, to find that he has already given it considerable thought.
Much of this thinking occurred when he was living a hermit-like existence in a hovel, drinking his urine - it kept his skin clear, among other benefits - and occasionally monitoring a leper station high in the Himalayas, in a small village called Almora. His adventures with his brother Ruán, who in 1996 dragged him out of his cave and on to the screens of the then fledgling Irish-language station TnaG, were to become fodder for his latest book, Manchán's Travels: A Journey through India. He was in India for only six months, but during that time, Magan being Magan, he befriended a gay leper, got lost in the desert and became caught up with the Nepalese secret service.
Apart from these adventures, and honing his skills as a TV presenter, what made Magan happy in India was "being on my own, bathing in the pool of spring water amidst the pine trees and walking in hills". He realised quite quickly that being around other people didn't necessarily bring happiness.
Now a full-time writer, broadcaster and occasional TV presenter - a recent series was the acclaimed No Béarla, which involved getting shouted at a lot while he insisted on speaking Irish to people he met - the 36-year-old still spends plenty of time on his own. These days his refuge is a self-built house beside a self-planted forest in Co Westmeath. A large gate that appears firmly padlocked but actually isn't, warns off casual visitors. He reckons he has been successful as a loner and is more productive and happier that way. "The main lesson I learned in India was that in the long term only I could make myself happy. I wanted to strip my life of all non-necessities and just see if I could find that happiness by myself and in myself," he says. "I thought it would be a great basis for life. I would no longer be pulling parasitically out of other people but instead coming to them when I had something to offer to make them happy. That was the lofty ambition, anyway."
Lofty ambitions have been a motivation for much of Magan's life adventure. As the great-grandnephew of The O'Rahilly, who died in 1916, he grew up in Donnybrook, in south Dublin, intimately acquainted with his family's revolutionary tradition. He was speaking Irish before he could speak English.
"Irish was handed down to me as a weapon against the oppressors," he says. But despite the republican grooming of his mother and his maternal grandmother, he came initially to reject both the language and the country where he grew up.
As a teenager attending Gonzaga College, his original thinking and idealism were positively encouraged. "Being born into Donnybrook, Dublin 4, your mind is full of conditioning. I had 20,000 assumptions that had been handed to me, and I wanted to examine each one and get rid of every one I didn't like," he says. He says he had - perhaps still has - a blind spot when it comes to Ireland. "People look at places like the west of Ireland and see a peaceful idyll. I saw misogyny and abuse and violence and lack of opportunity and alcohol. Perhaps it is an adolescent immaturity in me. I'm like the teenager saying 'I hate my parents' when I say I hate my country," he says.
In what could have been a reaction to his environment and to life in the west generally, there was a period of "almost manic depression" in his late teenage years. "If I hadn't left the country when I did my head would have exploded," he says. "I would have ended up one of those lonely, drugged-up, depressed people."
But he escaped to Africa, where his extraordinary experiences - being left for dead on a roadside in Zaire, for example - will make his next book. "It taught me that life is about simple food, simple choices, about people just surviving day to day," he says.
His previous travel book, Angels and Rabies: A Journey through the Americas, was well received critically, and since his India-based television debut he and his brother have made more than 30 Global Nomad programmes for TG4, including programmes in China, the Middle East and Greenland.
When Ruán called him, he was so out of it in the Himalayas that "I really did believe I was communicating with angels or spirits. I went to incredible places in my imagination."
The carrot dangled in front of the blissed-out drop-out by his brother was television and the chance to proselytise to an Irish audience. To Magan it "seemed like fun", and there was much he wanted to communicate about India.
The brothers went to Varanasi and Rajasthan and Delhi with entertaining results. A thread running through the book is the bizarre story of Tara, the gay leper from Almora who joins up with a hermaphrodite community called the hijras. "We've lost touch," says Magan, who would still like to tell Tara's story through film.
Apart from losing his heart to an unnamed Hollywood B-lister some years ago, Magan has "very rarely" had a partner, because of the limitations a relationship would place on his highly prized freedom. "At some time I do want to set up a wife and kids," he says, and he laughs when I suggest that they could live in a separate house in his Westmeath hermitage, where his 12.30pm coffee-and-homemade-cookies ritual marks his favourite time of the day.
Magan will appear at the Electric Picnic festival next weekend, doing a reading accompanied by a troupe of dancers. On his website he asks visitors: "Book reading and dance, a wise or stupid idea?" You suspect he doesn't really care about the answer. Wise or stupid, he'll do it anyway. And, weirdly, from a snippet I watched on YouTube about the time his brother was stung by a scorpion carrying 12 babies that Magan then had to kill, it just might work.
The key to being happy is to find out how best to express oneself, "then find an avenue to do this", he says. "It was in India that the thought first dawned on me that I adored writing in my diary and loved thinking weird and wonderful thoughts." He tried to write a book in his cave 10 years ago, but it was "truly terrible". With encouragement, he started to make more sense in his writing - with the result that this second book is mad and brilliant and often hilarious. Just like Manchán Magan.
Manchán's Travels: A Journey through India is published by Brandon, €14.99
© 2007 The Irish Times