Outstanding in his field: John O'Connell's farming book a highlight of 2018

John Connell’s ruminations on cows and farming have resulted in one of the best Irish books of the year, writes Marjorie Brennan.

John Connell, author of The Cow Book, will read at West Cork Literary Festival.

The hum of farm machinery can be heard in the background as John Connell talks about his life as an author and farmer.

Connell may be rolling his sleeves up now on the family farm in Longford but this wasn’t always the plan. In The Cow Book: A Story of Life on a Family Farm, Connell writes about how, after many years living abroad, he returned home and found himself immersed in the farming life he had fought hard to escape.

The book blends memoir with the story of the cow itself and our relationship with the beast that plays such a central role in our history. The Cow Book has been on the Irish bestseller lists for months, has just been released in Australia and New Zealand, and is due to be published in the US as The Farmer’s Son next year. Connell will discuss the book at the West Cork Literary Festival in Bantry next week.

“It’s hard to believe. I used to fantasise about this kind of success when I was younger. It’s a very particular story to Ireland but it’s also universal, wherever you go there are farmers. And people are interested in the natural world and finding peace, which the book is also about.”

The increasing urbanisation of Ireland means that in a lot of ways, we have lost our closeness to the land but Connell believes the link is still strong and people are seeking out ways to reconnect.

“With Irish people you only have to scratch the surface, even people in an urban environment are probably only a generation away from a farming background. In that respect, the book has captured readers young and old, urban and rural. In the modern world people are disconnected from the earth, and they’re looking for that connection in books and films and other places, to regain what was lost.”

Part of the reason Connell returned home was that he was struggling with depression. Farming helped him recalibrate, he says.

“With farming, there’s a rhythm, a sense of purpose in what you’re doing. And in our lives we all need a sense of purpose, whether you’re a journalist, a priest or an accountant. That’s the most important thing, and finding your purpose is hard.”

One thing Connell didn’t find hard was the actual process of writing the book. He describes writing it as a joy, saying the words ‘flowed’. Being busy on the farm kept him from overthinking and helped him when it came to formulating his ideas, he says.

“I wrote a novel before that [The Ghost Estate] and it took me four years, I was sick of it. But this one flew out of me in four or six weeks, a very short time. It was really fun. In a sense I think about it for a long time and when I go to write it it’s there. Sometimes I’m lucky to have other things to be at, because if you’re writing all the time it’s hard to be creative, you’re constantly putting yourself under pressure, so I’m lucky I have a million other things to be doing.”

The book also explores the father/son dynamic and is a particularly Irish representation of manhood, a refreshing counterpoint to the toxic masculinity that has been a subject of debate in recent years.

“I hate all that toxic masculinity, that bro, jock culture,” says Connell. “What I meant about manhood was trying to find my sense of place, my adulthood, my purpose. I talk about manhood in the book but it could easily have been womanhood, or adulthood, growing up and feeling ‘I’m someone who counts’.

“But I’d totally distance myself from that toxic stuff, that’s what has led to all these problems, in particular Donald Trump and the horrible things he’s done, his views on women.

“I’m not saying I’m a role model, but our young men need good role models in the modern age, in terms of talking about emotions and so on — that’s the important stuff. I would hope in the talks and interviews I’ve done that I’ve given some insight into what it means to be a man in 21st century Ireland.”

This also taps into concerns about men’s mental health in Ireland, and particularly in rural areas.

“Rural men must know it’s okay to talk to someone about their feelings, their doctor or their wife — normalising it. When I spoke about [my mental health] first I was thinking ‘Oh God, I’ll have every Tom, Dick and Harry coming up to me with their life story,’ but actually I’ve had lots of people saying ‘thanks for saying something I wasn’t able to say’. A friend of mine says that good mental is like good dental — you have to brush your teeth every day and you have to work on your mental health every day, too. We are making progress but it’s going to be slow.”

As for the titular animals of Connell’s book, he thinks it is time we acknowledged the importance of cows in our culture. “People call me the cow man now,” he laughs. “But the cow is a fascinating animal, they’re the only animal to change our evolutionary make-up, and we wouldn’t have the civilisation we have without them. I mean that in a global context. They’re part of our DNA, the foundation myth is the cattle raid of Cooley, after all. We’re like the Masai in Kenya, they’re cattle people too. We’re so used to seeing them and having them as part of our lives that we take them for granted and don’t realise how amazing they are, all they’ve done for us.

“It goes back to what we were talking about, the break from nature, and if your only relationship with cows is eating beef or drinking milk then obviously that’s the nature-environment problem again. We need a reminder of where we came from. They don’t ask for much, they want to be fed and watered, but that’s it.”

Connell has just completed the first draft of a follow-up to The Cow Book and is also working on a play for the Abbey Theatre about a farming family. He has also been considering tackling the legendary tale of the Táin Bó Cúailnge.

“I’ve been thinking a lot about the Táin and maybe doing a new translation of it, sharing that with a new generation. It’s been about 20 years since the last translation so it could be time — it might be like my version of what Seamus Heaney did with Beowulf,” he laughs.

John Connell will be at in Bantry Library at 1pm on Friday, Jul 20, as part of the West Cork Literary Festival. www.westcorkmusic.ie/literaryfestival

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