Manchán Magan is in the midst of a new radio series that taps into the weird and wonderful aspects of Ireland’s natural heritage, writes Jonathan deBurca Butler.
IRELAND’s annual Heritage Week is upon us. This year’s theme, ‘It’s in Your Nature’, is all about discovering and reconnecting with our natural heritage and exploring how the natural world around us has shaped our culture.
To mark the occasion, RTÉ Radio 1 commissioned a five-part series with writer, documentary maker and travel expert Manchán Magan.
Already underway on RTÉ 1, Manchán’s A to Z of Ireland is made up of five one-hour documentaries which see Magan and producer Colette Kinsella head off on an unusual road trip around Ireland unveiling the A to Z of the country’s most offbeat, intriguing, and even revelatory natural wonders.
People who are familiar with Magan and his work will not be surprised to find out that the making of this documentary was a labour of love.
“I chose the idea of the A to Z of Heritage just so I could explore anything at all that intrigued me or excited me,” says the writer. “We spent about five weeks going around the country picking up stories. We started right at the beginning with the Age of Ice up in Malin Head, which is still rising by two or three millimetres a year. It’s absolutely fascinating stuff and the beauty of radio is you can just turn up somewhere with a microphone and recorder, so it’s nothing like near as time consuming or difficult as filming.”
That said, Magan and the documentary producers Red Hare Productions, would spend over two-and-a-half months in the studio, editing and shaping the sounds they had gathered on their journeys.
“We wanted to get this rich sound world and we wanted to get it just right,” says Magan. “We went up mountains, but we also wanted to get inside them and see if we could capture every element and replicate the atmosphere of these places. So, for example, going down to Mayo and getting the atmosphere of kayaking under caves was marvellous. We wanted to create a programme that was luscious and alluring and that takes weeks in the edit suite, layering these voices upon voices and soundscapes.”
The result is an intriguing aural journey that asks the listener to look at a familiar country in an altogether new light. That their guide never tires of investigation and discovery helps enormously.
“I wanted to learn to speak to birds,” recalls Magan. “I was always jealous of these guys, like artist Gordon D’arcy, who knows birdsong. I realised I was deaf to the whole thing, so I went down to the Burren to understand the dawn chorus and to find out what each bird was doing and saying at different times of the day. Suddenly, you get open to entire realms that you hadn’t been aware of before. It was almost transcendental.”
Other treasure hunts include the discovery of the last few remaining cousins of the periwinkle, the landwinkle, in a field in Clare, a massive composting heap filled with millions of busy worms slap bang in the middle of Dublin city centre, and there’s even time for Burren flavoured ice-cream.
For Magan, delving into the archives of the Museum of Country Life in Mayo was a rewarding treat.
“It was my first time down there and it is a wonder world,” he says. “You go down into these archives and see these baskets, and boxes, and bowls and hen’s nests all made out of oaten and barley straw, which was like plastic to the ancient Irish. There were even certain types of reeds or straw that they used to put down as a kind of red carpet if an important guest was coming and these were things that I had never thought about before.
“These people, our ancestors, relied on the land for everything and if you’re interested in ecology and sustainability and you go into a museum like this, you realise we had it sussed a long time ago.”
For Magan, the theme of this year’s Heritage Week is a timely boost for a people who, he believes, are keen to reconnect with their land. As he points out, there will be thousands of volunteers giving up their time to make sure the expected half-a-million people attending the two-thousand free events across the country will get the most out of them.
“We were ashamed of our past,” says Magan. “It was a past of penury and hardship and, as a result, we were ashamed of our language, our landscape, and of all our primitive traditions. Now, everything has changed, there seems to be a reconnection.”
“The Hill of Uisneach in Westmeath was another place I visited,” he continues, “It’s like the centre of everything for the ancient Irish, the axis mundi or umbilical cord of Ireland. For centuries that was forgotten about and now in the last five or six years, people are coming back to it every year on May 1st and they’re lighting fires to warm the soil to welcome in a new harvest. Years ago, it was just hippies who did it and now it’s the local people, local people who want to reconnect with the land around them.”
Is it a part of a wider search for something or an inherent Irish quest for some sort of spirituality?
“We have really reached peak exploitation and people are beginning to question that, particularly in rural Ireland. They’re going back slowly to trying to find meaning in anything, in themselves and in the natural world,” says Magan. “We are only really finding our way back and something like Heritage Week, with half a million people immersed in their own land and culture for that week, shows us how interested people are and, the thing is, these events are not being forced on people, they are not being sold. There’s something inside us that’s leading us back to these elements.”
And in Magan they have a very capable Cicero.
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