Irish people much more interested in history now, says author Manchán Magan

Irish people much more interested in history now, says author Manchán Magan

This blog post was written by Paul Murphy.

For a man who is the great-grand nephew of the prominent 1916 figure The O’Rahilly, Manchán Magan had let much of the 2016 centenary of the Rising pass him by.

While it was all right to talk about Padraig Pearse and The O’Rahilly and others, there was much, much more to history – there was the women’s history, the history of poor people, the social history, the history of the land, he said.

Magan, a writer and documentary maker, is the Meath County Council Writer-in-Residence, an initiative funded by the Creative Ireland Programme, and he was delivering a lecture at Navan Library on “The importance of family archives from a family perspective”. He was introduced by the Meath County Archivist Patria Fallon.

The more we went on telling the history of “figureheads” like the 1916 leaders, in the same way as Britain tells the stories of its kings, we were just repeating, and ignoring a good deal of the truth.

In his new book Listen to the Land Speak, he had tried to explore that theme.

“When we look at our personal and family archives we are not looking for someone who was just out in 1916, or someone who knew De Valera. That is a narrow, linear history. There is so much more to it than that.”

We were coming to a very unusual time in our culture, he said. At the time of Covid, and even before it, we as a nation appeared to be getting much more interested in history. There was always a cohort of people who had been interested in culture, interested in the landscape but there were many more people now who wanted to look at TG4 progammes or listen to podcasts or in some way to immerse themselves in the culture of Ireland. Whether that was because we were at a time of new changes, and the demise of some things like Christianity, like an economy that was stable, like even or climate or our landscape – maybe we think we should lie back on our oars of tradition and heritage.

Manchán Magan and Anthony Murphy

He said some of the changes in our attitude to history and culture could be tracked in the pages of national newspapers. He had worked with the Irish Times as a freelancer since the mid-2000s and it seemed to him that the rival newspaper the Irish Independent never wanted to hear from writers like himself talking about trees, the Irish language, landscapes or culture. But that had changed with the influx of some young Irish columnists. And while the Irish Times had its own elitist view and was “up its own little alleyway”, the Independent seemed to be more in tune with what was going on in the nation.

Meath had been a pioneer in this time of realising that now was the time we should root into our culture. The key initiative was the field names project that inspired so many other counties and regions and villages to do the same, to realise that in our most obvious things – place names, minor place names and our field names – we had “a massive amount of lore”.

Each piece of information unearthed was like a little nuggets or a little Japanese cone that can be unpacked to tell us how our ancestors lived, our parents lived, how our grandparents survived on a pretty wild Atlantic Ocean island, continuously here and thriving for 4,500 years. “We are the Bronze Age people, the descendants of the people who arrived here so long ago.”

Manchán Magan signing his book

He said his grandmother more or less devoted her life to the events of 1916 and in the coal hole of her house were all the important papers about that period – “generations-worth of papers from 1850s onwards”.

Eventually, when his grandmother moved to his (Magan’s) own family home, all the boxes of papers were moved to the Magan coal hole. And his relative Aodghan O’Rahilly gave him the job, at 14 and 15 years of age, of going through the family archive and putting them in order – all for €1.25 an hour!

“All this meant that I knew the archive probably better than anyone else. The archive was moved from the coal hole to a coachhouse in the garden and I remember all these people like Tomas O Neill, biographer of De Valera and so on were coming down the garden to view the papers.”

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