Wednesday 17 October 2018

Connecting back with the good life

John Connell's journey from darkness back to light ended up saving a stranger's life. As his memoir hits shelves, he tells Hilary A White about the role played by the family farm

Author John Connell on the family farm in Ballinalee, Co Longford. Photo: Damien Eagers
Author John Connell on the family farm in Ballinalee, Co Longford. Photo: Damien Eagers
The Cow Book
Chasing that sense of peace

One February morning in 2015, somewhere in Ireland, a man was driving his car towards oblivion. His name is not known, nor is his locality. What we do know is that he had set out that morning under the guise of that day being just another regular day as far as his loved ones were concerned.

The reality was that his pockets were loaded with pills and he was intent on ending his severe depression by ending himself as well.

Unusually that day, his radio was tuned to 2FM meaning Ryan Tubridy's morning show was sounding from the speakers. As he drove, he heard a voice. It was that of a young man from Longford called John Connell who was detailing his own battle with the Black Dog and how he came back from the brink.

Writing into the show, the man in the car said: "I was on a mission of self-destruction borne out of the pain of living, yet by chance the radio was on Tubridy and on comes John Connell… that interview saved my life."

Three years later, John Connell sits across from me, still a little amazed by what happened.

"That was a turning point for me," the 31-year-old sighs. "It made me realise that the journey I'd been on, if I hadn't gone through it, this person would be dead. It made sense to me that this was all worthwhile, and it'd allowed me to then help other people and start a chain of good. I had always thought I was this tower of weakness when I was actually very strong and resilient. Others were going through the exact same thing, but I could articulate it in a way they couldn't."

The ability to articulate the world is the reason writers exist. However, while Connell was by that stage forging a career in the written word, with stories published, a literary agent and his debut novel The Ghost Estate about to hit shelves in his adopted home of Australia, going public with his own grapple with "the darkness" was for him merely part of its exorcism.

Connell had returned to Ireland after 10 years abroad, the plan to make it as a writer but also to regroup. Living and working in Australia an d later Canada, he was severely burnt out. Mental health problems began to show themselves and wreak havoc on his personal life. It was when he came home that he hit rock bottom. Only then could the rebuilding begin.

"At the time, it was horrendous," Connell says quietly, "but actually it was the most profound and life-changing thing that happened because it made me make the journey inward. Of all the travelling I've done, that's the most important journey I ever made. It helped me become a fully-fledged adult but also a rounded person who was able to understand other people's issues. I was looking outward for recognition in my career but after that period of darkness I found a sense of peace in myself that allowed me to become comfortable. And it was through that journey that I decided to speak about it publicly".

Another key part of Connell's road to solace has been his family's farming roots back in Longford, a million miles away from his fast-living days as a journalist and award-winning radio documentary maker in Sydney or with his ex-fiancee in Toronto working in television.

"I never really felt at home in Toronto," he recalls. "I felt this uaigneas, this sense of longing to come home all the time. The way the Aboriginal people are connected to the land was the same way that I was. I have lots of Aboriginal friends and when they leave their nation, they feel sad and they have to go back after a while. That was the same for me. It was a renewal of the spirit and everything. I couldn't articulate it so well then. I just said, oh I miss home, but it was more than that."

More than he could anticipate, he ended up reconnecting with life on the farm. And it is this reconnection that has formed the spine of his new memoir, The Cow Book.

"It was my agent that suggested it," he laughs. "I was working on a book on the refugee crisis that came from my background in human rights journalism. While that was happening, I was working on the farm. It was lambing and calving time. My agent said, nature books are really popular right now, why don't you write something about that? I didn't necessarily want to. I was like, what can I say? Are people even going to be interested? But I'd had a spiritual awakening too, and coming back to the land allowed me to really connect in with that Celtic spirituality that John O'Donohue talked about."

While ostensibly a book about rural Ireland, farming and man's ancient and utterly entangled relationship with cattle, Connell says that The Cow Book is at its core about a man falling in love with life again. Someone, he adds, who is able to be vulnerable and silly in an open and mindful way, with the rhyme and rhythm of nature providing a foundation to the day-to-day world view.

"It was a great time. A great time," he smiles. "People seem to like this book because it is the universal human story, from darkness comes light. On and off, it was about four years. My health is great now but I take care of it. I work at it every day. It's about having a relationship with yourself and being able to love yourself. I had to fundamentally change everything about myself, how I viewed the world, which is why I have the long hair, the beard. That's just the outward reflection of the inward journey. I started working out, running, eating really healthily, going to bed early. I stopped drinking which was a big thing. I take care of animals, and the best way to be a good human is to be a good animal. Take care of yourself and put the right stuff in for the head and the heart."

Connell grew up with his brother and two sisters in the village of Soran, near Ballinalee, Co Longford. Before purchasing the farm and going full-time, his father was a carpenter and businessman while his mother runs her own Montessori school. He was a shy child, he says, chuckling at how talkative he has since become. He was also prone to taking life "a little bit seriously", and while studious, he claims to have not wholly enjoyed the school environment. It was his headmaster in primary school and a teacher in secondary school who fostered an interest in the written word via introductions to Kavanagh, Heaney, McGahern and O'Brien.

"They really made me realise that you could be a rural Irish person and have something to say," he says, "because growing up, I suppose I always thought you had to be in a city to make it and be a hotshot academic and all that. The truth is that we all have a rural past in this country".

Connell took this misconception about stories needing cities to third- level studies. He expressed an interest in writing and film-making but his mother suggested journalism would be something that could position him close to those vocations but also provide him with an income. He transferred from his course in DCU to Australia as part of an exchange programme before getting a scholarship to study in Sydney. There, Connell met a professor who once again provided a lightning rod of inspiration.

"He changed my life," he says. "I got into making documentaries, proper investigations. When I was 21, I spent a couple of months in the Northern Territories working on Aboriginal human rights, and did a big radio documentary on that. It won a Walkley Award in Australia and then all these doors started to open and I started to realise that this was a really exciting career."

In tandem with the investigative journalism, Connell began writing prose. His first short story had a livestock theme and came out of a bout of homesickness he experienced. After being published in a college anthology, it was singled out for special applause by a literary critic in an Australian newspaper. A fortnight later, aged 22, he had a book deal.

It was several years later in 2015, that debut The Ghost Estate, a recession novel in the vein of Donal Ryan, would be released by his publishers Down Under. More importantly, it was during a six-month spell back in Sydney to promote the book that his path crossed that of Vivian, his first love. It had been a few years but another of Connell's reconnections ended up taking place.

"We were together for four years when we were young, and then we broke up due to my health issues. When we met again, I was still a bit shaky but able to stand on my own two feet again. I didn't need her in that obsessive loving way. She came to the book launch and we've been going out since, long distance, flying here and there to meet each other. Vivian is the woman who reads everything I write but also the woman who gives me strength and support."

Now engaged, Connell feels like his fiancee was put back in his path for a reason. "What's meant for you won't pass you by," he says. "I do believe in the hand of God, and I had to go through the dark night of the soul and earn a bit of grit. She and I had grown as people. The relationship is you, your partner and the relationship - there's three things in it. The first time around we were in love with life, whereas now we're in love with each other. I'm lucky to have her."

In the spaces between its passages of intimate pastoral meditation, The Cow Book's historical examination of our deep relationship with our bovine friends reads like a history of conflict, both with and over these important creatures. Farming life has become a cipher through which Connell has come to better understand friends, neighbours and family. Looming over the lot, it can sometimes feel, is his father with whom the book tells of more than one clash. He agrees.

"The big thing is that my father and I are of the same personality," he says. "I remember an old woman said to me, you're like two bulls in a field - there can only be one.

"He's a great storyteller, and probably everything that I am as a writer is from listening to him growing up. We had a tough time over those few years but we came to understand each other, and it was through him and Mam supporting me when I was ill that allowed me to get better. They helped me stand on my feet again.

"The other thing is that anyone who's a farmer who reads the book will know there are rows on a farm - it's a very normal thing! Sometimes they're over nothing and sometimes they're over something important. Fathers and sons on farms around the world regularly have different ideas about things."

A very exciting chapter in Connell's rebirth is now set to commence with The Cow Book hitting the shelves. By the time you read this, a North American distribution deal will have been signed while another memoir is on the cards, this time exploring the post-colonial experience via his love of running. And there are other projects in the works, including writing for stage and screen. The difference now, however, is that unlike all those years ago in the frantic milieu of Australian city life, he's taking it one day at a time.

"Coming through the darkness has allowed me to embrace all this exciting stuff with the book and say, yes, it's great but it's not the end of the world if it doesn't work out either. People come to me sometimes and ask me how did I find this peace or how did I get so wise. It was hard-won - I always say that I only got wise by making mistakes. It comes across as wisdom but it's just living."

The Cow Book: A Story of Life on an Irish Farm by John Connell is published by Granta, priced €14.99

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