‘It’s all over … It’s all about to begin ....’
Two of the iconic lines in Brian Friel’s play ‘Philadelphia Here I Come’. Little did Longford writer John Connell realise that the storyline from his favourite play would be so prophetic for his own life.
Writing on a laptop in a portacabin, located the in the middle of an empty field behind his homeplace in Ballinalee, John spent the best part of 12 months hammering out his own lines for ‘The Ghost Estate’, the book that he will launch later this year in Sydney, where he now lives.
The quote from the play appears in the book, with personal permission from Friel himself.
“I spoke to him a few times; it was pretty amazing to speak to one of your heroes,” said John.
“RTE had it (Philadelphia Here I Come) online for his 80th birthday and I listened to it several times over in Sydney. I just identified so much with Gar,” recalled John, who managed to leave Ballinalee several years ago, before returning to pen the book.
“In a way I had never really left Longford; it was always hanging over me. I always thought it was my job to come back and take care of the farm. When I came back here, I really had to come back so I could leave properly and realise that the farm wasn’t my dream. It was my folks’ dream that they wanted me to come back and take over.
“After a while of looking at cows every day, I realised that I really don’t want this. So I just identified with Gar more and more. It was all over, it was all about to begin for me.”
Starting out as a short story that was to be part of a collection, John says The Ghost Estate – based somewhat on he Celtic Tiger - grew into something more substantial.
“Initially it was going to be a book of short stories and The Ghost Estate was going to be like a novella piece, like James Joyce’s The Dead. The story, a bit like JK Rowling, just popped into my head fully formed. I was in Sydney and the IMF were about to come into Ireland. I was so far away, but I was really angry, and this idea popped into my head.
“The last line of the book came into my head. That was a year before I started writing it and just refused to go away and I said I’ll have to write it.
“The Ghost Estate is a modern tragedy and it’s also a social novel. It’s about the death of the Irish dream – the boom and the bust. The Celtic Tiger really was the gestation of generations of dreams. It’s about the protagonist Gerard McQuaid growing up and his isolation, but also him making his start as a man in his own business.
“One day, when they’re in the old English estate that they’re developing into a housing estate, he finds an old painting of a previous owner. Paddy Reilly, a plumber, starts telling him the story about Baron Henry Lefoyle, which is set in the 1800s, which tells a story at the time of the fall of the protestant aristocracy and the rise of the Catholics and Daniel O’Connell.
“The two stories mirror each other – the rise and fall of the Anglo-Irish and the rise and fall of the Anglo Irish Bank class.
“McQuaid is the poster boy for what went wrong in Ireland and the dream that we were all believing in and the dream that died,” said John, son of Tom and Margaret Connell, from Soran, Ballinalee.
The influence of Friel’s Public and Private Gar characters in Philadelphia also resonate strongly in his protagonist.
“McQuaid has ongoing dialogues with his brain. He’s a very intelligent character but he has grown up in Longford and can’t express his intelligence and so the only analysis that he gets to give, to speak freely, is with himself.
“It’s all set in the one estate. As McQuaid is working on restoring this estate, Lefoyle is fighting to keep the estate. It’s about how history repeats itself and always does.”
The book deal came through a short story that John wrote called the Little Black, which spawned offers from “a load of different publishers”.
“I went with Picador because they had all these writers that I had grown up in awe of,” said John.
Little Black is still there, and he plans to include it in the next book, which will be his own short story collection. “I wrote that when I was 21 when I first went to Australia and was really homesick and it’s all set in Longford. I owe everything as I am as a writer to that story.”
The book will feature a cover by John Byrne, Scottish painter and playwright who has designed record covers for The Beatles and Gerry Raferty. He agreed to design the cover based on his Longford connection.
An email sent received a reply with 20 minutes with details of how it was a coincidence that his friend had just moved from Sydney to Longford – to work with Fidget Feet Dance company.
Now back in Sydney since last October, John has been busy. He started work on a short story collection called ‘Anatomy of a Heartbreak’ which will be coming out after the novel.
He has also been working with the Chalk Horse gallery and recently opening his first exhibition - a video art piece he worked on with Australian artist Oliver Watts. The next exhibition, entitled ‘Sketches of Bacon’, opens this Thursday (February 28), which features Australian artists, architects and designers responding visually to the work of Francis Bacon. Irish consulate general Catriona Ingoldsby, who is originally from Sligo, will launch the exhibition.
Other projects in the pipeline are a TV show called Mr. Crocodile and writing songs for an up and coming pop band, all of which will lead up to the launch of the book in November by the Irish Ambassador in Sydney.
Far from over for John Connell, it’s all about to begin with a busy year ahead.
More details on the exhibition on: www.chalkhorse.com.au