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listen to the land speak

Manchán Magan: 'For a long time, we had this sense that we were just going to exploit the land'

Magan explains why he turned to the myths and lore of Ireland for his new book.

RIVERS AS GODDESSES. Trees that tell stories. Caves that hold the promise of spiritual awakening: all concepts and stories that you’ll find in Manchán Magan’s new book, Listen to the Land Speak.

It’s a journey, as its subtitle goes, “into the wisdom of what lies beneath us”. It’s Magan’s attempt to go even further than his previous book (Thirty-Two Words For Field: Lost Words of the Irish Landscape), and dig – literally, metaphorically – into the myths and lore of Ireland about the land around us.

Magan is an interesting mix of being rooted in the tangible and the intangible. You’ll no doubt be familiar with him as a figure on TV since the early 2000s, a presenter and writer who spent many years travelling around the world trying to seek the wisdom that other cultures could teach him. In recent years, in his writing he has turned back to the land underneath his feet in the country in which he was born. Not quite the land in the county he was born: a Blackrock native who’s the grand-nephew of The O’Rahilly, he lives these days in a house with a grass roof near Lough Lene in Co Westmeath. 

He’s a gaelgóir who writes in Irish and English. He’s a spiritual seeker, a myth-reader, someone who writes in this latest book about things like thresholds and otherworlds, but who also readily admits that his ideas might not be for everyone. 

Listen to the Land Speak, Magan tells The Journal, stems from the first 10 years of adulthood where he travelled places like India, South America and Africa. He looked chiefly at minority cultures, he says, realising that such cultures which are “still rooted to the land in an indigenous, sustainable way” have a particular mindset about their culture, language and connection to their landscape. It took years, but eventually he realised: “Oh my god, we have all of that in Ireland.”

Before we had language, says Magan, we had a connection with landscape. We lived on it, fed from it, thought and dreamed about it. “We’ve encoded some of our memories in our landscape,” he says.

Culture and land

He doesn’t see himself as an educator, but a communicator. In this latest book, he had to balance existing knowledge people might have had about Ireland’s myths and lore, and an absence of knowledge. He was conscious, too, of the roots of that lack of knowledge:

There’s so many things that we just don’t know about our own culture, because of the education system, but [also] the way that when we had our independence, the founders created this myth of Ireland with regard to Finn McCool and Cúchulainn, so that was taught in school – so the little we do know is about that, and it’s always so controlled, because it was definitely being overseen by the church.

He wants to strip away any external control over these narratives, and explain, for example, the pagan history behind things like holy wells. “There’s also the danger the only people who have been spouting on about this in the past is New Age hippies,” says Magan.

“You’re trying to take some of the things they were right about, and steer clear of the more ‘out there’ stuff, and to try and blend it with what the archaeologists and historians are saying, and yet not be limited by the purely academic.” 

Listen to the Land Speak-HIGH RES COVER JPEG

That means we get 42 short chapters that are centred around one thing per chapter – such as Lough Gur legends, Hy Brasil, sacred trees, hazel – interwoven with myths and lore. It’s a journey around Ireland with Magan as guide, sharing anecdotes about his own life and experiences (like his frankly bonkers decision to go into a cave with no protective gear in order to have a spiritual experience), as well as his knowledge about the narratives pertaining to these places or ideas, and what they can tell us about the land and Ireland.

It’s not a traditional book, and some of the concepts were a little tough for this writer to get her head around. But Magan isn’t expecting everyone to ‘get it’. “It’s really up to [the readers to use] their own intuition, see which chime with them and which just seem too outlandish for them,” he says of the stories within.

Turning back

Magan never expected his previous book about the Irish language to be a success, but its sales proved to him that “people are slowly turning back to these things – they seem to be wanting to know a deeper sense; they realise that simplistic element that was told to them by the church, or government, or financial institutions, or the farming lobby about the land wasn’t entirely accurate. And so there’s a hunger to go for more.”

I venture that the climate change crisis must have been on his mind while writing it, as I could feel the spectre of climate collapse hovering over his descriptions of bucolic landscapes, but it turns out it wasn’t one of the main reasons behind the book. What’s more present is his interest in indigenous people talking and writing about their connection with the landscape – though he acknowledges that in part is these days due to climate change too. 

What would he say to those who might be sceptical or cynical about a book like this – all this talk about the land having memory and feelings? Magan says this is a book that couldn’t have been published until now, because there has been a changing attitude towards myth, because people are going back to previous beliefs around the stories about Ireland.

“15 years ago, most of us just thought this is blarney, it’s shamrockery,” he says. 

“And we can laugh at that and say, yes, it’s part of our past and it has nothing to do with ourselves – that’s a rational, logical decision for anyone to make. And so anyone who makes that decision should be entitled to dismiss my book just as baloney and rubbish. I wouldn’t ever try and convince them of the opposite.”

I just think it is interesting that for thousands of years on this island, we have believed that the land had power, that the trees have this spiritual element. And we can see that from the poems; we can see it from the mythology, we can see it from the history, we’ve seen the archaeology.

“So we are entirely entitled to turn our back and say: That’s all in the dark ages, it’s past, I want to live in the modern world. And if that feeds someone and if that nourishes the person – the sort of godless, emptiness of the modern world – that’s good.”

But that’s not how he approaches things. “I think things are changing – I think things are more open to it.” He uses his own career to illustrate this change. In 1996, when he made his first TV show, Manchán San India, while atop of the Himalayas he talked to camera about the aliveness of the world, the communication between the elements of nature; he was an “idealistic 26-year-old with the glazed eyes of the seeker”, with his mop-top and glasses.

The reviews weren’t always kind. Liam Fay in the Sunday Times criticised his next series, Manchán I Meiriceá Theas (1997) precisely because of his idealism: “He was saying, ‘who wants this sort of over-educated idealistic dreamer pontificating?’ I thought, maybe he’s right, what am I doing?” recalls Magan.

“I know that this information and this way of communicating is right for me. But it didn’t chime with the energy in the country at the time. So I thought, if I’m trying to be a communicator, I need to start to hide all that bullshit, to find a way of communicating the flowery talk in a more realistic way.” 

It’s only now he believes that the time is right to go back a bit to that spiritual-leaning, airy-yet-rooted enthusiasm of old. Magan says that he knows he will be criticised. (It might not reach the heights of when he was regularly top of a ‘who’s the greatest knobjockey’ list online). In some ways, the harshest critics were doing him a service, says Magan. And the fact he is a critic himself meant he could see his own work from both sides. 

The land speaks

When you read a book like this that treats the land as alive and imbued with stories, you start to wonder how it might ‘feel’, if it had feelings, about how humans treat it. “I think for a long time, we had this ultimate sense that we were just going to exploit the land,” says Magan. “I think human beings have had that since the beginning of time.”

He describes how, for example, industrialisation from the 1920s onwards gave us machines that could do great work, but cause great damage too. “I think in the 21st century, there is a significant amount of people who are open to questioning that and thinking: wait, just because we can do things  – just because we can change the direction of the Yangtze River or we can bring a quarter of the Shannon River over to Dublin – is it right?”

Are we exploiters of the landscape or are we custodians of it? There was always this tiny minority of ecologists and eco-nuts who were into it, but now it’s more mainstream thought – 65% or maybe more [of the population] who think the land has more rights than our wish to profit and exploit and from it.

Even though there are many reasons to feel low about the world right now, Magan counters that with excitement about these changing attitudes.

And he counts himself lucky to live where he does: “We’re so lucky in Ireland. Despite being an entirely modern country with Facebook here and Intel, and all the big conglomerates, we have these places, these sanctuary sites in the landscape that are unchanged, that are still rooted to, connected to these rituals and the stories and these myths and activities and adventures that happened…

“And we can go easily visit them today. It’s like we’ve done a lot of damage to it, and yet so much of the landscape has been preserved.”

Listen to the Land Speak is published by Gill Books and is out now. Manchán Magan is an ambassador for Irish Book Week, which runs until 22 October.

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