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.
Bás Tongue runs in Project Cube, September 19 - 24
Irish Examiner - Pádraic Killeen
20 Meán Fómhair 2011