Manchán Magan: ‘In the 1970s, we ate pigeon for dinner the night my parents told me times were tough’
Manchán Magan is a writer and a documentary-maker. He has written books about his travels in Africa, India and South America, and his latest book, Listen to the Land Speak, was one of the best-selling books of 2022. Magan presents the RTÉ podcast Almanac of Ireland, reports on travel for radio programmes, and has presented dozens of documentaries for TG4, RTÉ and the Travel Channel. Magan, who lives in a grass-roofed house near Lough Lene in Co Westmeath, will be appearing at the Cúirt International Festival of Literature in Galway from April 18-23 . He’ll be discussing the ways in which memoir and nature intertwine.
What did you learn about money when you were growing up?
In the 70s, money was tight and taxes were high. At one point, my parents told me we were going to have to tighten the purse strings, and that night we had pigeon for dinner. I realised then there’d be harder times and easy times, and it’s important to cut your cloth to the situation.
What has your wide experience of other cultures taught you about Irish attitudes towards money?
We tend to hoard in Ireland – possibly a legacy of all the turmoil and trauma of our past. While living in Africa, India and South America, I witnessed people trusting in what each day brought, like how birds and animals to do it, taking only what is needed for the day. Of course, often it wasn’t out of choice, but it did bring a certain freedom.
What’s the most expensive place you’ve ever visited?
Greenland is harrowingly expensive and worth every penny of it. I was there 20 years ago. The sight of the glaciers there stay with you forever. I wonder how much they’ve retreated by now.
What’s the most expensive thing you’ve ever bought?
I bought land on which to plant a native woodland.
Would you buy Irish property now?
I’d buy land. Ireland has an incredibly mild climate, so we can grow food and trees all year round. We can then graze animals in our small vegetable-growing woodland and create spaces for wildlife too. My first house was built out of bales of straw from neighbouring fields. My current house has a grass roof. If we need to, we can build shelter on the land from stones, mud, timber, even tyres and line with tin cans.
Do you still carry cash?
I do, but it’s more to give as tips or gifts rather than for purchases in shops.
Do you use any of the digital banks?
I use Revolut and PayPal.
Have you made any adaptations to your lifestyle because of the cost-of-living crisis?
I have 12 solar panels and a heat pump, and I’m a lot more cautious about when and how I use my electricity now. I’ve been heating the house with timber from my woodland this winter, but will return to using the heat pump once electricity prices drop.
What was your worst ever job?
I was a contract cleaner for the Pan Am building in Frankfurt in the late 80s, I was a cleaner for a student accommodation block, and I worked in many German supermarkets. But I loved my time in all of these ‘worst jobs’.
Have you ever seen anyone spend money in a way that shocked you?
Temple Bar any weekend night. People slowly poisoning themselves on overpriced, chemically-laden drinks that will make them feel terrible the next day. What have we done to ourselves?
What three things would you not be able to do without if you had to tighten your belt?
Nuts, the internet and books.