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