Friday, October 16, 2015

Reviews of Bás Tongue (2011) & Focal Point (2013)

All about my mother tongue – one man's struggle to keep the Irish language alive.


Manchán Magan grew up in Dublin 4, lived for a while in a cowshed in the Himalayas, became a celebrity on Irish-language tv, and is now writing Irish plays for English-speaking audiences (details of his latest below).
As befits a published travel writer, his life story has been quite a journey. I asked him to explain it. “It all goes back to one moment,” he said, “on the morning of Easter Sunday, 1916.”
Magan’s great grand uncle was The O’Rahilly - a founder of the Irish Volunteers and an ardent Irish language revivalist. That morning, as O’Rahilly kissed his wife goodbye (he would be killed in the Rising), he was watched by his niece, Sighle Humphreys – Magan’s grandmother.
She was left with an extraordinary passion for both the Irish language and the national struggle. During the Civil War, she shot and killed a young Free State soldier during a gun battle at her Ailesbury Road home.
Fifty-odd years later, when Manchán was born, that passion hadn’t abated. Though he grew up in Donnybrook, he spoke no English before the age of four. “Ever word I spoke in Irish was, for her, a bullet in the gut of the English oppressors.”
But in his teenage years, his faith waned. At 19, he fled. He joined an “overland” expedition across Africa. They got stranded in the jungle in Congo, and were then abandoned by the company. They thought they had been left to die - but Manchán had never felt so alive.
He kept travelling, surviving rabies and war in Ecuador, and months living in an Indian cowshed, seeking enlightenment.
Then his brother, Ruán, came out to get him. Teilifís na Gaeilge was being set up and Ruán had brought with him a new-fangled, digital, video camera. He wanted to make a documentary.
It was in part a “mission of mercy,” with Ruán sent by the family to bring the lost son home. But Manchán had himself come to a conclusion: “I was just fleeing.” It was time to go back.
Still, he was half naked, drinking his own urine (an ancient mystical tradition) and prone to speaking in new-age gibberish. His brother turned the camera on him and tried to capture the edginess of Manchán’s cultural experiences (in Irish), while slapping some sense into him whenever Manchán strayed too far into esoteric nonsense.
It made for a successful mix, and they crafted out a niche as makers of pioneering Irish-language travel tv. Then, in 2008, he made a series about travelling around Ireland speaking Irish, No Bearla. In a Dublin pub, he pointed at the beer tap and said, “Ba mhaith liom pionta beoir.” “Fuck off,” said the barman.
Magan started to wonder what entertainment was available in Irish. Of 75 plays staged at the Abbey Theatre in the previous ten years, he found, just four had been in Irish. And then he happened to go to a play at the Project, where the Franco-Irish actress Olwen Fouéré was performing in a French version of Roddy Doyle’s The Woman Who Walked Into Doors. The audience was spellbound.
“Could we try this in Irish?” he thought. “Could I put on a play that would be 70-80% in Irish, but 100% understandable by people who don’t speak Irish?” So he wrote a play, Broken Croí - Heart Briste. He had no money, so he acted in it himself. Despite this, it was a hit.
For his new play, Focal Point, for the educational company Team Theatre, he wanted to explore what it’s like when a language dies. But there’s a paradox there: how do you portray the absence of a language in a medium that’s all about language? So he reached out to physical theatre specialist Mikel Murfi, who is directing.
“I want to create a guttural, visceral feeling of what it’s like when an entire mode of communication is obliterated,” says Magan.
His weapons may be different to those of his ancestors. But the fight to save the language is the same. Who knows: perhaps theatre may prove more effective. After all, it’s about winning hearts and minds. For in this fight, the oppressors are ourselves.
Focal Point is at the Project Arts Centre from February 4 to 8 and is available for tours to schools. See

Shortall on the arts Eithne Shortall Published: 20 January 2013
The problem with just about everything as Gaeilge is that it reminds us of the Leaving Cert. For most people, that’s the only time it was necessary to understand the language. The exam was the only situation (apart from as a secret code when abroad) in which speaking Irish ever made sense.
The arts are subject to the same connotations. A book or performance that is undertaken because quotas have to be met, or because funding is available, is about as appetising as sitting the state exam all over again.
Irish-language theatre has generally seemed more concerned with promoting the language than telling a good story. Lately, however, there have been some excellent productions as Gaeilge. Tromluí Phinocchio/Pinocchio — A Nightmare was one of last year’s most enjoyable plays, and Manchán Magan has been making satisfying, topical work in Irish for a couple of years. These were already good productions — interesting premise, clever staging — and they used the language to elevate them to greatness. It made sense that Irish was spoken. In some instances, speaking it seems crucial. Tromluí Phinocchio is darker than the Disney version of the same story. Setting the action in Connemara gave it a romantic eeriness that supported the evocative imagery on stage. Bilingualism reflected the conflict inherent in the story of a puppet who wants to be a boy.
Broken Croí/Heart Briste was Magan’s first theatrical outing, and explored Ireland’s reluctance to learn its first language. His next production, Bás Tongue (Focal Point), featured the national language on life support. When you think back to plays watched at school, you wonder why anyone outside of the Gaeltacht would discuss drugs as Gaeilge. When talking about the country’s mother tongue, however, no other language seems suitable. And this is a discussion worth having.
Great theatre has come from exploring identity, and Irish pertains to our notion of country. When the Abbey staged Paul Mercier’s Sétanta in 2011, it was the first Irish-language play the theatre had produced in over 25 years. It prompted a debate about the dearth of Irish on our main stages. One explanation was that the standard of plays being submitted was not high enough.
Works should be produced in Irish because they want or need to be, not because they have to be. The arts prides itself on challenging political correctness and, as with unchecked political works, good drama can be overshadowed by an agenda.
WB Yeats, a co-founder of the Abbey, argued that we could establish an Irish identity in which the language was not essential. “Can we not build up a national tradition, a national literature, which shall be none the less Irish in spirit for being English in language?” he wrote in 1892. “Can we not keep the continuity of the nation’s life ... by translating or retelling in English, which shall have an indefinable Irish quality of rhythm and style, all that is best of the ancient literature?”
The intervening 120 years suggest we can. Ireland’s literature has a uniqueness that derives from the first official language, but does not require it be employed. From Synge to Friel, the English we use has a blás. Irish can be a stage device that enhances a work and produces great beauty. But just as you don’t produce a gun on stage that will not be used, the language should be wielded with purpose. 

Interview with Manchan Magan | Focal Point
By Caomhan Keane,

The Irish language is on life-support, and so too is its greatest scholar in this bilingual play that forces you to imagine a world without sláinte, or any remotely similar word...
A cynical scholar's son who hates the futility of his father's life collecting vanishing words like endangered butterflies gives a lecture in a language that he love-hates, to an audience that hardly understands. What he doesn't expect to encounter is a vibrant young born-again Gaeilgeoir who finds meaning in her life through Irish. Could words hold cures like rare Amazonian orchids? This boy and girl slug it out, trading bilingual insults, revealing transvestite words, exploring the hypocrisies and secret beauty of Irish - and experiencing the liberation that comes from coining new terms for old things.
Léigh anois go cúramach na treoracha agus na ceisteanna dar le Manchan Magan.
You have revised your Fringe show, Bas Tongue, from 2011 and renamed it. Why?
I wasn't happy with what I had written first time round. There is that wonderful sense with theatre where you have an audience locked in a black room under your total control, doing what you want with them. Louise Lowe is the great example of an artist who does that. I wanted to do it with Bas Tongue, to get across to them a sense of what it would be like if a language died. To have that visceral, gut, physical sensation. I failed, ultimately.
I failed to get the drama, the feeling. I liked the ideas in it but it was too analytical. I was bombarding the audience with didactic information and while all the information was good, it was worthy; it was turning out like a debate, a device to try and beat my facts into the audience’s heads. It was, ironically, a bit like Mikel Murfi’s last play, The Great Goat Bubble.
Murfi has taken over from Willy White as director. Why did you choose him and what was involved in finding the show its new legs?
There is a thing now in contemporary theatre where one is constantly throwing out new plays. In every year’s Fringe you must have a new play prepared. I spent two years writing that play - Bas Tongue as it was called at the time, and when it went onstage I still hadn't nailed it.
I thought if I could interest Mikel Murfi, the foremost person in physical theatre in Ireland-non-linguistic, non-intellectual theatre, I might be able to get him to make me rewrite it the way I felt it should have gone. Fortunately he has good Irish, so we sat down and he went through the script with me, pointing out all the parts where I was over egging the pudding and crow barring a whole rake of ideas in where one eloquent one would work.
Why should people who have already seen Bas Tongue come back?
That play was a nice attempt, but failed on so many levels. Those people, who trusted me because of the quirkiness of my first play, were all let down. Thank god there was a lot less of them. Word does get out.
I sold them a pup the first time round. I can’t impinge on their good will to come again. But I would adore it if they would. Everyone who came saw that what I was trying to do was worthy, it was just painfully executed by my writing. But I wouldn't have seen the solutions until I saw it fail. I think I have come closer this time.
There are so many great companies working through Irish at the moment, isn’t there?
There is a sense of reality that you don't get in a lot of hipster, contemporary Dublin theatre. Just put it on and it will be great. All our friends will come.
The companies that are doing it in Irish- Branar, Moonfish, Mouth on Fire, are having to put forward logical, well argued proposals for each bout of funding. And it’s not like you are entering into the vast cavern of the Arts Council where you don't know how the judgment is being made and whose pulling the strings. With Foras na Gaeilge, two people stand in front of you and you will get direct feedback as to whether you are doing it right and whether you are doing it wrong.
They are creating an entirely new audience. The Project Arts Centre has its audience. It doesn't need to stretch itself much. The same people have been coming for ten years. Anyone trying anything in Irish, in particular the new generation, who aren’t presenting work up in Club na Muinteoiri. They are creating a whole new medium, a whole new art form and are having to be super innovative in how they convey a language that mightn't be understood entirely by all the audience
It makes us go back to real theatricality in Ireland that has ignored physicality and expressionism which French and German theatre has had for so long. Embracing it is the only way theatre through the Irish language will succeed.
Somewhere in the Gaeltacht, Coffee is being sprayed all over a computer screen!
I'm not willing to support the final buttresses of that old Irish language. We have a young generation coming out with fluent Irish that they retain for about two or three years. They are the ones I want to start talking to and start engaging with,
so we can create a theatre that is really wide, inclusive and expansive, rather than depending on that tiny gene pool that we’ve had to depend on for so long, that made an inward looking art.
You’ve written a book, presented TV shows, yet theatre seems to be where you’re voice-and argument, seems to have really taken hold. Although that could just seem that way for me because I occupy the same pond?
If you want to develop new ideas amongst the imaginative creative class, theatre is the way to do it. The thinkers and movers and shakers don't watch TV. You could put it on radio, but it is hard to control your message as there are commissioning editors stuck in a 1970s perspective. Theatre is one for the few times that you can put on an idea for zero money and reach the mainstream.
For 2k you can put a show on in a central Dublin theatre, with no experience and reach a good enough audience. You'll get reviewed by the Irish Times, the Indo , you'll be on RTE Radio. The ideas on your shows will be discussed. I don't see any other way that you can get that control.
What is your message?
I saw the language dying. I still see the language dying. And no one is speaking out about it, except organisations that are funded to do so. I can’t go back to my own Gaeltacht as it breaks my heart, I don’t hear Irish anymore. It’s happening now, people are sleepwalking as our language jumps over the last cliff. I need to be out there shouting about this no matter how much of an idiot it makes me.
Focal Point runs in Project Arts Centre from 5th - 8th February 2013 at 8.00pm. Matinees on Thursday and Friday at 11.00am. TICKETS: €10 - 15.


Bás Tongue - Irish Theatre Magazine Review by Ruth Kennedy, 21 September 2011
Ever had a row in a pub about the Irish language? Then you have to see this play. Worried you’ll understand “sweet faic all”? In Bás Tongue at Project Cube, they’ve taken care of it – the Irish parts are surtitled in English.  An old-school gaelgóir (Manchán Magan) goes head to head with a Tesco’s check-out girl turned Irish language zealot (Roxanna Nic Liam). The pair bitch and moan at each other in at least four languages, trading insults and stories about words, music, poetry and the drawbacks of a bilingual sex life.

Writer and linguistic gymnast Manchán Magan covers vast ground in 50 minutes. The show is both reverent and dismissive of Irish language traditions and sacred cows – the voices of O’Riordán and Ní Dhomhnaill are heard alongside the sound of ripping dictionaries and the whack of obscure grammar books hitting the floor.

Director Willie White has delivered an entertaining and thought-provoking show. Both performances were relaxed and polished. Roxanna Nic Liam interacted gracefully with the audience, with perfectly timed storytelling and the odd blast of Leona Lewis in Irish.  The surtitles can be a bit jerky at times, but the best part is the dull orthodoxy about the Irish language is dying - what replaces it is for the audience to decide. Definitely something new to talk about in the pub. Ruth Kennedy

IRISH EXAMINER  Review by Padraic Killeen,  27 Sept 2011
Bás Tongue – Project Arts Centre  (4 stars out of 5)

A bilingual play by Manchán Magan, Bás Tongue opens with Magan taking position at a lectern before us, the audience. His character, it turns out, is delivering a speech in honour of his father, a fictional titan of Irish language scholarship. The wheels come off, however, when Magan realises that we, his audience, are deeply estranged from our mother tongue. From here, the play soon erupts into a battle of wills between Magan’s grumpy character, (who would abandon us, the great unwashed), and an enthusiastic gaeilgeoir (Roxanna Nic Liam) who – in translating his Irish for us – would try to save us.

Though the play’s contrived formal features are a little stifling in the early stages, Bás Tongue gathers an irresistible momentum as it goes along. Crucially, the melding of spoken Irish and English is fluid and effective. Yet, more importantly still, the play gets the theatrical stuff right. The imagery – whether relayed through dialogue, gesture or action – is imaginative and powerful. When not locating fertile images, Magan highlights the residual beauty of a language that is now rapidly becoming lost to us.

One great meta-theatrical flourish near the end finds himself and Nic Liam handing out a rare Irish word to every audience member to take home and care for like an ‘Irish word tamagotchi’. It’s both hilarious and poignant. By the finale, the play has worked its audience into a profound longing for its own language even if it can’t quite quash a prevailing sense that this longing will never be assuaged. Padraic Killeen

Bás Tongue, IRISH TIMES - REVIEW by Caomhan Keane
Manchán Magan is mad as hell. And he’s not going to take it any more. Rethreading the ground and format covered in Broken Croí/Heart Briste here, what emerges is a comic assault on the hypocrisies of the Gaelgoir set while excavating the grievances of their opponents.
“Should we not prepare for the death of a language?” asks Magan’s unnamed character. “No,” responds Roxanna Nic Liam’s convert with a cult-like appreciation for her mother tongue. So they go at it, exposing a teanga that can be bitter and negative yet also full of grace and beauty.
Anyone who has found themselves on the condescending end of a Gaelgoir’s snout will emphasise with the isolation such snobbishness begets and Magan flips between stark imagery, bitchy dismals and sudden realisations to crystallise both arguments, leaving us to draw our own conclusions. The production struggles to maintain the Oedipal subplot and errant surtitles but it is funny and furious enough for these chinks to be excused. Caomhan Keane

ENTERTAINMENT.IE - REVIEW by Caoileann Appleby. 3 stars.

A lecturer (Manchán Magan) is giving a talk about his father's works, though the funereal flowers suggest a eulogy. Assuming that the audience won't understand him, he relies on his translator (Roxanna Nic Liam) to get his point across: but she isn't inclined to co-operate. The fight is on between the coldly rational Gaelgeoir purist, in favour of the death of Irish and a global oll-theanga; and the younger, newer speaker, whose practical Béarlachas is nevertheless connected to an imagined dreamy Celtic past.
They battle with battered dictionaries, stolen diaries, poetry, and Pepsi, but their polarised positions don't offer the audience much room to see a way forward for them, or for Irish as they have categorised it. We are told that aitheantas is the most important thing, and given an Irish word to take care of, but little mention is made of the only way in which a language can survive: if children learn it. Nevertheless, Magan's writing is powerful in parts, and Bás Tongue is a stimulating, intellectually demanding show that asks a lot of its audience, and it gets it: even while assuming that we won't.

Posted by Zara  Sep 26 2011 - Review of Bás Tongue (Manchán Magan) directed by Willie White

I’ve always been interested in languages, of almost any kind, but my self-discipline lacks the force of my enthusiasms, so I’m fluent in almost none of them. Sign Language, mathematics, !337$|)34\< (leetspeak), musical notation… all have known the ephemeral caress of my interest, but I can never seem to stick with anything. If you’re reading this, you probably have the same fascination. The arts are all about communication, about manipulating different forms of language to express an idea. If you care about the arts, you care about language. If you’ve ever come across some esoteric little nugget of text-speak or internet jargon – “ymmv” or “afaik” – and gathered it eagerly like a pearl, or if you’ve ever laughed with someone over bizarre local slang – like “tome” or “sips” or “bushing”* – then you know how magical language can be.
I really do not know why or how the magic got sucked out of the Irish language for most of us, but it happened. I don’t know what it is about our school system or the culture at large that is so hostile to it, but this play goes some way to undoing it.
Bás Tongue is written by Manchán Magan and directed by Willie White (until recently, Project Arts Centre’s artistic director, and now director & CEO of Ulster Bank Dublin Theatre Festival).
A jaded scholar (Magan) attempts to deliver a lecture on Irish poetry, but he’s losing patience. The language he uses and describes seems dead in the water, its demise has long been foretold and few in the audience seems to understand a word he’s saying. He gets into a long, wide-ranging debate with a surtitle-operator (Roxanna Nic Liam) bubbling with a newfound love of the language, who rejects his pessimism and snobbery and insists that the language can and must be saved. As they argue back and forth, the most interesting dynamic that emerges is his ambivalence: he clearly loves the language, harbours a reverential awe of its history and idiosyncrasies, but he is protective of it to a fault, resisting those changes which offer its only hope for survival. He considers neologisms and Anglicisms as polluting toxins and the mangled Gaenglish occasionally used by young people as a weak substitute, an embarrassing desecration of the Mother tongue.
There’s a part of him that wants to let go of the language, give it a sort of Viking funeral and let it drift away, instead of allowing it to suffer what he regards as an undignified diminishing at the hands and clumsy tongues of young Anglophones like this girl, who has nothing like his fluency despite all her ardour. He questions her motives, sneers at her naïveté and mocks her idealism. She does rather have the wide-eyed, breathless enthusiasm of an 8-year-old who has found an injured rabbit on the side of the road and imagines she can nurse it back to health. When she talks about the bewildering richness of the Irish language, its monstrous vocabulary that has never yet come close to being fully recorded, the effect might perhaps be more depressing than inspiring: what hope is there that it can be saved? There’s simply too much. And so much has been lost already.
The play is written with wit and eloquence and has moments of profound sadness, particularly when it deals with the feeling of isolation that comes from linguistic barriers: from having not enough words, or the wrong ones. The writing pulls you in all directions, making persuasive arguments on both sides about the stakes and the challenges involved in reviving the Irish language.
Personally, I’ve come to the realisation that all we need to reclaim and re-energise the language is ourselves. We still have a collective identity as Irish people and we’ve stamped it all over the English language. No one speaks English the way the Irish do.
Take our innate sense of drama. Something is not merely “very”, it’s “fierce.” I’m fierce happy about this. Something is not merely bad, it’s “brutal.” If it’s good, it’s “deadly”, or it might even be “savage”. If it’s excellent, it’s “savage cabbage”. My little brother and I express this in Irish as “sabháiste cabáiste”, but unfortunately “sabháiste” is not a real Irish word – at least, not according to his school fóclóir. We tried translating it directly but the best we could do was “cabáiste bhrúidiúil” – brutal cabbage – which of course is not the same thing at all.
The point is, as long as we retain our sense of ourselves, the connection we have with our ancestors who spoke our strange bockety national tongue remains unbroken, despite the fact that we’re soaked in Béarla up to the eyeballs. At the moment we’re still predominantly using someone else’s language – which the play likens to wearing someone else’s knickers. But we still have our own voice.
This isn’t a proper review. I don’t think I could write one. I loved the show. I saw it twice. The second time, I brought my mother, a schoolteacher, in the hope of thereby infecting a classroom of kids with a newfound appreciation for the teanga. At the end of each performance, each member of the audience for Bás Tongue was handed an Irish word on a card, to keep and to treasure and to nurse as you would a seedling, to keep it alive and help it grow by sharing it with others. I went twice so I got two words. I gave one to my little brother. I hope he finds a way to connect with his national language. And I hope you do too.
* “tome” means “cool”, “sips” means “ugh, I am not in favour of this” and “bushing” means drinking outside, generally illegally, and possibly in a field or a graveyard somewhere.

Bás Tongue - September 20th, 2011 by simondsj 
Bás Tongue is a play about how the Irish language is dying, and of course, we don’t speak Irish. Nor do most people in Ireland. The surtitles were something of a necessity, and one would think that they’d have practice syncing them up. Maybe it’s because of my background as a techie, but it can’t possibly have been that hard. Not only was the timing off, but more often than not, surtitles would be projected for a fraction of a second—hardly enough time to read them. I’ll back off that, though, because to the actors’ credit, I did get a pretty good idea of the story line.
Manchán Magan, a Béarlóir (anglophone), is attempting to give a lecture in his father’s memory. He’s clearly disappointed that nobody in the audience knows Irish, but continues anyway. Shortly thereafter, surtitles appear, along with the subtitle operator (Roxanna Nic Liam). Magan is an Irish purist, and despises the surtitle operator’s so-called “pidgin Irish.” Which is odd, because you’d think that some Irish is better than no Irish at all, right?
In 2007, Manchán produced a television series entitled No Béarla, in which he attempted to get by in Ireland speaking strictly Irish. He doesn’t get very far. In Hegemony of Language, an article by Shahid Siddiqui, three options are offered as “responses” to English—in other words, what people like Manchán are to do when two languages collide. He says we can either accept English, reject English and speak our ‘Bás Tongue’ instead, or we can learn English without rejecting one’s own language. While clinging to one’s mother tongue sounds like the right thing to do, realistically, his third solution is the most viable. The fact that languages can travel is a marvelous thing. Suggesting someone give up the language they grew up speaking would be blasphemous. But we live in an international world. People travel, and people must communicate as they do so. People need a common language, and English is pretty well suited for the occasion. I don’t agree with Gramsci’s views that society can be ruled by one social class, or think that it should. I do think, however, that we need some linguistic common ground, and in Ireland, at least, English does a near-perfect job. Magan, for some reason, disagrees.
To prove his point, Magan insists upon a “Pepsi Challenge” of Irish. He pours a cup, explaining that this cup of Pepsi represents his pure Irish. He proceeds to spit in another cup, labeling it “diluted, polluted, pidgin Irish.” This scene’s been put on YouTube, for your viewing pleasure. The surtitles work in this one.
If I’m honest, I don’t share the same attachment to English as Magan does, and he deserves some credit for that. I like English; I’d go as far as to say I have a passion for it. Stephen Fry summed up my thoughts pretty well. All that having been said, I think other languages are pretty, and I put some effort into learning them. Je m’appelle un petit pen d’français, par example, and in middle school, yo hablar español. Not very well anymore, though, as you can tell. But I have no comprehension of what it’d be like were my language to die, and that’s basically what’s happening to Irish. I can’t imagine clinging to my language, but that’s because I’ve never had to, and likely never will. I count myself lucky for that.
The play, though satirical, was moving. I respect his love for the Irish language, because it is a beautiful language, and what’s happening to it is tragic. At the end of the play, the actors passed out cards bearing Irish language words. They asked that we keep these words alive, that we use them to pepper our conversations. My card read
tyall-era |
I’ll be honest, it isn’t like, watching yet another Real Housewives with my girlfriend, I’m going to proclaim, “These women are such spoiled teallaires. I mean, really.” (I can’t really think of another instance I’d use ‘brat’ in conversation, let alone its Irish translation.) But I do appreciate the sentiment, and as my contribution to the Irish language, by the time I go home for the holidays, I’m going to serenade my family with the Irish national anthem. That’s the plan, anyway. You’re welcome, Manchán.

Globe trotter speaking up for our mother tongue, Irish Examiner 2011
In his TV show No Béarla and in his plays, travel writer Manchán Magan aims to preserve our ‘precious’ Irish, says Pádraic Killeen

FOLLOWING the success of his debut play, Broken Croí/Heart Briste, in 2009, Manchán Magan returns to this year’s Absolut Fringe in Dublin with his second effort, Bás Tongue. Like the earlier play, Bás Tongue is bilingual, playing on the frisson between English and Irish. It examines the strange relationship we Irish have with our beleaguered ‘teanga náisiúnta’. Magan is known for his globe-trotting cultural programmes for TG4 and RTÉ, but he is also a travel writer, novelist, and a provocative commentator on the state of the Irish language. His 2007 TV show, No Béarla, pulled no punches in revealing the frailty of the mother tongue.  It was an honest account of how diminished Irish is among the populace. It earned the mercurial Munster-man some “cold shoulders and hostile looks” from many in the gaeilgeoir community. “I was just trying to highlight some of the issues around the language,” he says. The criticism from within the Irish-speaking community both hurt and vexed him. Magan is, after all, a descendant of the famous O’Rahilly clan that was so central in promoting Irish language and culture in the wake of the Gaelic Revival.

Partly as a response to the gaeilgeoirí, then, Magan was inspired to try his hand at producing an Irish language play and - with the assistance of director Tom Creed - brought Broken Croí/Heart Briste to the stage in 2009. The show was a big hit, showered with positive reviews, nominations and awards. Within days of its opening, Magan was approached by the Abbey theatre and BBC Ulster with queries about future work. He is working on a commission for the Abbey. “Broken Croí did ridiculously well - a lot better than I thought it deserved to do,” says Magan. “But it was new. It was someone doing something new with the language. The concept was that it would be 60% in Irish, but 80% understandable to English speakers. “It’s linguistic engineering. You use certain words that the audience will need to understand the play. Everyone has, maybe, 1,500 or 2,000 words that we’ve just picked up from school. So there are things you can do with that.” Whatever the engineering behind it, the show worked. And so Magan now returns with a new effort employing a similar approach.

Again, it’s a two-hander and again Magan performs onstage (despite being, on his own account, “a shite actor”). Bás Tongue takes the form of a comical and fevered debate between a committed scholar of the language and a member of a new generation of young Irish lovers - the graduates of the gaelscoileanna - who now constitute a subculture on the island, complete with their own hipster-gaelic lexicon. “The guy’s an absolute snob about Irish and he loathes this new street-Irish being spoken in Dublin and Cork,” says Magan. “So that’s where the dramatic conflict comes from.” There are gags about “transvestite,” words like ‘talún’, references to the impression that listening to poet Seán Ó Riordáin’s made on traditional Irish speakers (in the words of Máire Mhac an tSaoi: “like chewing sand through your teeth”), and metaphors about how donning another language is like “putting on someone else’s knickers.” Ultimately, however, Magan’s agenda remains an earnest one. “What I want in this play is to give people a visceral sense of what it is to lose a language - to lose something that we’ve had for over four thousand years. There is something vast and precious being lost here,” he says.

Though he can occasionally sound pessimistic or melancholy about the state of the Irish language, Magan’s conversation is chiefly marked by a concrete optimism that insists the future lies in “playing” with the language, and he points to the success of the Welsh rock band Super Furry Animals in engaging with their own native tongue. Magan’s co-star, Roxanna Nic Liam, describes Magan as a “realist.” Nic Liam is a graduate of the gaelscoileanna, and she knows all too well that being realistic about the language inevitably triggers sorrow. “There are some words in Irish that describe things or feelings for which there are no words for in English,” she says. “They only exist in Irish. So there will be some things that will be completely lost. You won’t even have a sense of it. That’s what I find quite sad. The future for spoken Irish, she says, is in forming a “symbiotic” relation with English on the island. One wonders if the theatre of Manchán Magan is not already kick-starting that process. Irish Examiner - Pádraic Killeen, 20 Meán Fómhair 2011

Bás Tongue
Bhí Catherine Foley i láthair sa Project Arts i mBÁC (ionas go mbeadh an BEO in ann trácht ar an mBás) nuair a léiríodh an dráma ‘Bás Tongue’ le Manchán Magan.

Tá dráma cliste, spleodrach, álainn scríofa ag Manchán Magan. Cuireann sé argóintí na teanga Gaeilge os ár gcomhair agus cé go dtuigimid go léir na constaicí agus na buanna ar fad a bhaineann le labhairt na Gaeilge sa tír seo, pé sa Ghaeltacht nó sa Ghalltacht atáimid, agus cé go bhfuil cainteoirí Gaeilge ag snámh in aghaidh an easa don mhórchuid, cé go bhfuil sé sin ar fad ar eolas againn, tá rud éigin úrnua agus scléipeach, liriciúil, spreagúil, teann agus drámatúil cruthaithe ag Magan. Tá mothú, teannas agus fuinneamh ag baint leis na hargóintí a chíorann sé ina dhráma, Bás Tongue. Tá filíocht, greann agus áilleacht ag baint lena línte.
Tá beirt sa dráma – fear imníoch, tirim atá sáite sa seanashaol agus é ag iarraidh léacht i gcuimhne ar a athair a thabhairt agus tá an pháirt seo ag Manchán Magan é féin. Ansan, tá cailín cathrach, atá tar éis Gaeilge a fhoghlaim, í díograiseach, dáiríre agus i ngrá leis an dteanga. Tá an pháirt seo ag Roxanna Nic Liam. Tá sí ina rúnaí ar Chumann na nGaeilgeoirí. Labhrann sí faoi thábhacht agus faoi anam na teanga agus ar sí: “Domsa ’sí an Ghaeilge an rud is luachmhaire atá agam”.


Gan amhras, déanann an fear magadh dá pearsa agus dá cuid mothúchán, mar ghlacann sé leis an dtaobh eile den díospóirecht. “Move on, a chroí,” a deir sé léi. Ach, ní mhaolaíonn an cailín ar chor ar bith. Éiríonn a guth níos láidre de réir mar a théann an dráma ar aghaidh, agus glacann sí chuici féin tacaíocht an lucht féachana. “Ceist ionannais í seo, ceist chroí, ceist talún,” a mhaíonn sí agus tá an lucht féachana ar a taobh. Má tá tú faoi dhraíocht ag an teanga agus ag guthanna na n-údair a chloisimid i rith an dráma – mar shampla Peig Sayers, Seán Ó Ríordáin, Nuala Ní Dhomhnaill, beidh tú, i nganfhios duit féin, ag iarraidh í a spreagadh ar aghaidh.
Ag an am chéanna, glac leis go bhfuil pointí sa dráma ina chasann an taoide agus go mbíonn an lucht féachana idir dhá chomhairle, meallta ag fear na spéaclaí, fear an tsearbhais, fear na fíricí tirime, mar tá cás láidir le déanamh aige. Cé go dtuigfimid ón tús gur duine righin, tirim, imníoch atá fréamhaithe sa stair é agus é ag iarraidh léacht a thabhairt i gcuimhne ar a athair iomráiteach, mórthaibhseach, GB Ó Ceallaigh, laoch sa seanmhódh agus údar mór Gaeilge, tá ‘an fear’ ina abhcóide láidir, feidhmiúil in ann a phléadáil go paiseanta i nguth ioróineach, searbhasach faoi chúrsaí agus faoi staid na Gaeilge mar atá sí inniu. “But, let’s not pretend go bhfuil gach rud sa gairdín rosy (gach rud togh agus rogh). An bhfuil éinne anseo sásta glacadh leis nach dtuigeann formhór agaibh céard atá á rá agam . . ..?” a fhiafraíonn sé den lucht féachana. Meabhraíonn sé dúinn agus don chailín gur scríobh Séan Ó Ríordáin go raibh “teanga ár sinsear, fuar marbh go deo.’ Deir sé nach dtuigeann aoinne cad tá á rá aige nuair a thosaíonn sé ag tabhairt a léachta. Caithfimid glacadh leis go bhfuil an teanga imithe, a deir sé.

Chomh Marbh le hArt

Is “polemic” é an drama, atá faoi stiúir Willie White, ach ní dóigh liom go n-éiríonn sé leadránach nó tuirsiúil ag aon phointe mar tá ceol, filíocht agus guthanna na Gaeilge fuáilte isteach tríd síos. “Éist le Peig,” a deir an cailín agus tá draíocht faoi leith sa ráiteas san. Leanann an fear air ag iarraidh a chur ina luí orainn go bhfuil an Ghaeilge marbh agus nach bhfuil in ann do chainteoirí Ghaeilge anois ach í a úsáid “go mortasach in amharclann poiblí... ar nós Chríostaithe sa Collisieum surrounded by lions”. Ach, ag an deireadh tá sé nach mór ciúnaithe ag an gcailín. “Huh!” a deir sé.
B’fhéidir go bhféadfadh rithim agus luas na cainte a mhoilliú i rith an léiriú, ach go háirithe sa dara chuid. B’fhéidir go bhféadfadh an léiriú deis a thabhairt don lucht féachana na focail agus na hargóintí atá faoi chaibidil a bhlaiseadh i gceart. Éist leis an bhfocal ‘cloch’ ar sí. “Mura gcoimeádfaimid an tsnaidhm idir sinne agus ár dtimpeallacht, strainséirí a bheidh ionainn inár dtír féín”.
“Is í seo mo theanga, mo bhealach teagmhála sa domhan deacair gránna seo.” Tá sé ana-chumhachtach an tslí ina iarrann sí ar bhean na soilse na soilse a ísliú. Íslítear an solas. “Níos mó anois,” a deir sí, agus ar sí leis an lucht féachana: an dtuigeann sibh an bhrí atá le clapsholas anois. Is nóimid fíordhrámatúil é. B’fhéidir go mbeadh sé go deas cleas nó dhó eile mar seo a fhuáil isteach sa léiriú agus tacú leis na bhfocail mar seo.