"It was healing and restorative": How an Irish journalist fought depression through cattle farming
John Connell has tackled a few enormous subjects, from mental health to human rights abuses, but right now, he would like to talk about cows.
"I came back from Australia saying to myself, 'I'm gonna try make it as a writer'. It was a huge undertaking and in the process I became a farmer. I didn't think the two could live together, but it worked out really well in the end," John Connell laughs, while talking about his memoir, The Cow Book.
"It's a great set of complementing jobs, really: writing and farming. One is working physically with your body and the other is working with your head."
Originally from Longford, Connell spent ten years between Canada and Australia, working as an investigative reporter and documentary filmmaker with his own production company, in 2016 he returned to Ireland.
"I came back and started working the farm. That was a huge [undertaking], because it was a huge part of my family who were generations at it. I always loved farming, though I never thought it's where I would end up. I've always loved being close to nature, but when I first came back, it really fazed me.
"It was a very wet and tough year, which I was trying to get through. It was me and my dad trying to come to terms with each other, having been away so long. That's what the book is about, two grown men trying to understand one another."
It's about way more than that, though he doesn't say this outright, because one of the immediate traits that comes across in John is that he can understate things often.
"Yeah, it's about a calving season, which is a busy time, but it's also about mental health, farming, cows, family, our whole life in Longford and I've interspersed that with the history of cows. That goes back 10,000 years to when the first pyramids in Egypt were being built to cows, not pharaohs, and we go right up to when we are cloning meat.
"Really, it's about falling in love with life again. This very simple way of life, with these great people and a lot of cows in there too."
Part of the inspiration came after he wrote his 2015 debut novel, The Ghost Estate, which was described as a modern day tragedy set during the rise and fall of the Celtic Tiger. Invited to speak on the Ryan Tubridy Show about his battles with depression, he recalled how "there was a chap on his way to taking his own life."
"He heard me speaking and he didn't do it. This was the turning point for me.
"Next thing, I'm on a farm. I've started farming again and then I've written the book about coming back to the farm again," he says in an extremely matter of fact way. "Yeah, it just kinda went crazy and exploded."
Farming as a physical activity, he said enabled him to maintain a positive headspace. "It's like triathlons, but everyday and that's a real benefit. I just love doing things, going out and getting stuck in.
"We've just come out of lambing season. There are just two ewes left, and it's been really intense. I noticed too that I had the pedometer on and it was saying I'm doing 10 kilometers a day, before going to the gym. It's this very lovely life now."
Contrary to the idea of loneliness in rural Ireland, he says local communities were as integral to helping him back on his feet. "They were the one's who embraced me, so it was never a case of rural isolation. The community was strong, close-knit and really great in helping me get through it all. It was small things, somebody taking me for a run or cycle. For me, it was healing and restorative."
Speaking to me on the eve that he is about to head over to promote The Cow Book in England, while it is also due to be released in America and Australia, he laughs saying the past two weeks have been overwhelming. "I mean, I went from nobody knowing me a few days ago to having people actually stopping me on the streets now. That's crazy."
In between promotions, one of his main objectives at home is to have an Irish book go to number one in the list of Irish bestsellers. "Really it's important to get an Irish book up there, so we want to outdo The Fire And The Fury and take it's place in the number one slot. We want to trump Trump," he concludes.
"I like that one. The local librarian came up with it."