Tales from Lismore’s Immrama festival

Manchán Magan says he feels at home in America, India and Africa as in Ireland
Manchán Magan says he feels at home in America, India and Africa as in Ireland

War reporter Tim Butcher and Irish nomad Manchán Magan are among those telling their tales at the Immrama festival in Lismore, writes Orlagh Ní Arrachtáin

SOME of the world’s best-known travel writers have attended Immrama, Ireland’s annual festival of their craft. ‘Immrama’ is an early Irish word for a ‘voyage tale’ and the event will take place in Lismore, Co Waterford, from June 12 to 15.

The inaugural festival was held in 2003, and this year will include readings, workshops and a Gregorian Mass across the four days.

Homer’s Odyssey is often referred to as the earliest known example of travel writing. Sir Walter Raleigh, one-time owner of Lismore Castle, penned a travelogue in 1596, The Discoverie of Guiana, describing his expedition to find the legendary land of ‘El Dorado’ in South America.

Lismore Castle was built in the 12th century, around 1185, and was given by Queen Elizabeth to Raleigh in 1589, in reward for his assistance in suppressing a Munster-based uprising against the crown.

Three years later, however, having discovered that Raleigh had clandestinely married one of her maids of honour, Queen Elizabeth had them both imprisoned in the Tower of London.

Upon his release, Raleigh led an expedition that sailed up the Orinoco River, in modern-day Venezuela.

Subsequently, as Raleigh fell out of favour, the Earl of Cork, Richard Boyle, became resident of Lismore Castle in 1602, before the estate came into the possession of the forefather of the current owners, the 4th Duke of Devonshire, in 1753.

Immrama holds true to its broad translation of ‘voyage tale’ by including writers and adventurers such as Tim Butcher.

Butcher, now based in Cape Town, was chief war correspondent for the Daily Telegraph from 1990 to 2009, covering major conflicts across the Balkans, Middle East and Africa.

Described as a writer who blends travel with history, Butcher’s first book, Blood River, was shortlisted for the Samuel Johnson Prize, and charted Butcher’s epic journey retracing the 1874 expedition of fellow Telegraph journalist Henry Morton Stanley. Stanley had been sent to Africa in 1871 to locate a presumed-missing Scottish missionary, David Livingstone, and it is to Stanley that the renowned phrase “Dr Livingstone I presume?” is attributed.

Chasing the Devil, Butcher’s second book, also follows the trail of another adventurer, this time the author Graham Greene.

Greene’s work, Journey Without Maps, printed in 1936, recounts his arduous journey with his cousin through Sierra Leone and Liberia.

Documentary-maker, travel-writer and wayfarer extraordinaire Manchán Magan, has also visited many places that most people would consider resolutely off the beaten track. He has published books in English and Irish, describing his travels through America, India and Africa, and has made television documentaries charting his journeys.

Magan’s documentary series, No Béarla, is based on his travels around Ireland speaking only Irish.

Rarely-visited places are often seen as enigmatic. Geographical isolation or remoteness creates mystery and obscurity, but that perception can work both ways, as Magan says. “I’m over 6ft tall, pasty-faced and wear glasses. I look like an awkward beanpole when you put me in the tropics. Nowadays in Africa I have people shouting ‘Harry Potter’ at me, but before that there was always something else.

“Common catcalls in Africa for white people are ‘mzungu’, ‘ferengi’, ‘baturai’, ‘mundele’ or ‘yovo’. ‘Mzungu’ is probably the best-known. It’s found in most Bantu-speaking countries in east and southern Africa.

“The derivation is thought to be from ‘the people who travel’, or ‘the people who walk in circles’, which some claim stems from the fact that the early colonisers all looked the same to Africans, so they thought it might be the same few albinos going around in circles.”

Conversely, travel writing often engenders contemplation of home, nationality and perceived identity.

Magan discusses how his concept of home has been influenced by his travels.

“I began travelling because I didn’t really fit in at home. I didn’t feel I connected with people here. Maybe it was just immature, adolescent alienation, or maybe something more profound.

“Either way, I was keen to explore the wider inhabitants of this planet I was born on. Each place I settled — Africa, India, South America — I met great people who I felt as much kinship with as those of my own country. The sense of us all being a single, unified human family, connected by things that were far more potent than nationality, was made crystal clear.

“Whenever I would return, I found it very difficult to have particular interest in the concept of Ireland as an entity, different from anywhere else. The insularity of our national media, and much of our daily conversation, is bewildering,” Magan says.

Discussions on contemporary travel writing, and its place in the literary world, are oft-concerned with the pervasiveness of communication technology, its affects on interaction, and its potential to contribute to a more homogenised world.

Magan sees these as propitious advances. “Our development as human beings can be measured by how far we have gone to reach out to the other humans who share the planet with us. Only a few centuries ago, we were all trapped inside our own tiny hamlets and parishes. Communications technology has led to a quantum leap in our interaction with outsiders. This is a cause of enormous joy to me.

“The fact that Israeli and Palestinian children are on Facebook together bodes so well for increased engagement and understanding between opposing sides of the young generation. The ancient blood feuds that ripped societies in two, like in Northern Ireland, over centuries will become ever harder to sustain.

“I hear people claim that technology is making us interact less, but I don’t agree. Humans need and want to connect, to engage and interact.

“It’s hardwired into us and, although the changes can seem disconcerting as we adapt to new ways of doing this, I firmly believe that we will continue to wish to interact in as any varied and intimate ways as we always have.”

The 2014 Immrama festival opens at Lismore Courthouse Theatre on June 12. Festival programme and information from www.lismoreimmrama.com

Cold tales of the unexpected

The programme for Immrama 2014 appears to meander through tales from some of the world’s coldest regions, from the farthest reaches of eastern Siberia to the Canadian Arctic. Opening the 2014 festival on Thursday, June 12, with a book launch are authors Diana Gleadhill, Alan Murphy, Michael McMonagle and Paul Clements.

Gleadhill has had the honour of being appointed a fellow the Royal Geographic Society as an expert on Kamchatka, the remote area of Russia known as ‘the land of fire and ice’.

This peninsula in the most eastern part of Siberia lies between the Sea of Okhotsk and the North Pacific Ocean and is one of the most active volcanic regions in the world.

In keeping with the theme of this year’s festival ‘Travels, Past and Present’ many of the contributors have retraced journeys recorded in writing by others in the past.

Michael McMonagle’s Footprints Across America revisits the route taken by Micí Mac Gabhann, an Irish-speaking immigrant from Donegal who returned to Ireland in 1902 having made his fortune in what has become known as the last great gold rush. Mac Gabhann headed for Klondike in North-Western Canada during the late 1880s and recorded his story in Irish in Rotha Mór an tSaoil, translated into English as The Hard Road to Klondike by Valentin Iremonger. McMonagle wanders through contemporary North America following the trail of Mac Gabhann and his cohorts.

Paul Clements is a regular contributor to Immrama and has written a number of travel books on Ireland. However, his most recent work Romancing Ireland: Richard Hayward, 1892-1964 is a biography of travel writer Richard Hayward. Hayward wrote 12 travel books about Ireland and his life and work will serve as stimulus for a talk and panel discussion about the enduring legacies of travel writers.

Charlie Bird will be taking to the stage on Saturday, June 14. In 2011 ex-RTÉ reporter Bird spent two months travelling across Antarctica completing the journey which was left unfinished by the legendary Kerry man Tom Crean.

Earlier this year, Bird spent a month amongst the Inuit people of the Canadian Arctic reporting on the living conditions and quality of life for those who live quite literally on the top of the world.

In his reporting, Bird addressed the sobering topics of mental health issues, the havoc played on food supplies by climate change and the question of ownership of the North Pole.

The theme of ‘Travels, Past and Present’ is concreted by Mícheál de Barra’s An Bóthar go Santiago, described as ‘an Irish pilgrim’s perspective on an ancient journey’.

Santiago de Compostela was one of the three great Christian pilgrimages of the Middle Ages, the other two being Jerusalem in the East and Rome in the South.

There are said to be records surviving demonstrating that Irishmen and women completed this perilous journey as far back as the 13th century with James Rice, Mayor of Waterford, making the pilgrimage twice, initially in 1473 and again in 1483.

De Barra’s book follows his 900 km walk along this ancient route.

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