Longford Lives: John Connell on farming, faith and his future

Jessica Thompson

Reporter:

Jessica Thompson

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jessica.thompson@longfordleader.ie

Huge crowd turns up to support Killoe author

Tom Connell, Linda Keogh, Vivian Huynh (John's fiancée) and John Connell with a copy of 'The Cow Book', and parents, Margaret and Tom Connell.

Unless you’ve been hiding under a rock for the past number of weeks, you’ll know exactly who John Connell is and, most importantly, why he’s become such a big name in rural Ireland of late.

The young Ballinalee farmer is the bestselling author of ‘The Cow Book’ - a novel, which has become more and more popular since its launch in the Longford Library early last month.

The book tells the familiar story of rural Ireland and, more specifically, the farming families that are the pillars of Ireland’s midlands.

So far, the novel has been hugely successful, selling out almost immediately at the book launch as the crowd of a couple of hundred people in attendance rushed forward to get their signed copies.

Read also: Huge crowd turns up to support Killoe author

Since then, John has been travelling around Ireland for book signings and interviews, writing articles for various major media outlets, and even found himself taking a trip across the pond for an interview with the BBC about farming in rural Ireland.

Throw a three-week stint at number one on the bestseller list and you can understand why John is feeling on top of the world right now.

“It was a very enjoyable book to write,” John told the Longford Leader last week.

“It’s been a really lovely thing to be able to talk about my real passion of farming, because I didn’t think people were really interested in that.

“And now, all of a sudden, the Guardian want to talk to me about farming. That’s been a really lovely thing.

“Farming is really the backbone of our whole culture. I think it’s the wellspring of who we are as a people and the backbone of our economy in many respects.

“Farmers were kind of laughed at in the boom time and then when the recession came, the government turned back to the farmers and said we really need you; we need the farming economy - which generates 12 billion a year - to actually help get rural Ireland back on its feet... which it did,” he added.

“So it’s been a really important story and I suppose the book has just come out at a time when rural Ireland really wanted to see their story. My story in the book is the story of every family farm.”

Despite growing up on the family farm and having some experience in farming, John didn’t always plan on farming as a career.

In fact, he’s spent quite some time abroad, pursuing a different passion - a career in media.

John studied Journalism in DCU before heading off on an exchange programme to Australia.

“I didn’t particularly like DCU but I took the course because of the exchange programme. My name was pulled out of a hat to go to Australia,” John recalled.

“That really changed my whole life. I started working on indigenous affairs and investigative journalism and really got involved in hard news.

“The investigation was a radio documentary and it won a big award in Australia and then I got offered work with the ABC national broadcaster - their version of RTE - pretty much straight away and, before I knew it, I was working for two of the broadcasters and lecturing in the college.

“So it was a really amazing time. And one year turned into five as a result of that.”

But John didn’t completely abandon his love of journalism when he moved home to the farm. In fact, he’s been keeping his toe in the industry for a number of years.

Read also: Ballinalee farmer and author to star on tonight's Late Late Show

Lately, his name has been popping up in a range of national publications and he’s currently working on an investigative feature for the New York Times.

“Journalism is a great career because you get to meet so many interesting people and, when you’re working on a big story, there’s nothing quite like that feeling and the buzz of it,” he said.

In January, John stepped down from the role of Editor at a farming website based in Mayo called ThatsFarming.ie.

The website is aimed at young farmers and covers a range of farming subjects, with a few investigations, lifestyle and farming features thrown in for good measure.

“It was a really enjoyable job,” said John.

“It was nice to be hearing all those positive stories about young farmers from around the country and in the UK as well.

“It makes you feel good about the industry because you so often hear the bad stories.”

John’s story of farming, however, is a very good one. The Cow Book gives readers an insight into the life of a farmer - from the early mornings to the late nights looking after cows and sheep as they give birth, doing the runs around the fields to feed the animals and everything else that comes with the lifestyle.

But perhaps the most enjoyable chapters of the book are the ones about the people that have shaped John’s life over the years.

One of those people is the Killoe parish priest, Fr Seán Casey, who is one of John’s best friends.

“Fr Seán came to our parish when I was 12,” John recalled.

“He got really involved in the parish and he’s kind of the linchpin of the parish of Killoe now. When I went to college and went to Australia, I wrote this short story, which kind of started my writing career, and my mother dropped it over to Fr Sean because she knew he was interested in English and literary things. And our friendship took off from there.”

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Whenever John came home, he would call in to see Fr Seán and the friendship started to blossom. The pair regularly go to the cinema or football matches together.

“I would say we’ve been best friends for the last 10 years,” said John.

“To some people, it might seem a strange friendship - a young man and a priest - but we get along very well. He’s just a great friend and a mentor and spiritual advisor and he has a great sense of humour as well.

“I think age is just a number really. I think it’s important to have friends who are young and old. So I get an older friend and, for Fr Sean, he gets a younger friend. So there’s a generational thing there that benefits both of us. He’s a lovely man and I’m lucky to have him as a friend.”

John, himself, once contemplated becoming a priest -something he mentions within the pages of his book. In fact, for quite some time, he was very close to going down that path.

“Faith is a very important thing to me. I’m a practicing Catholic and I contemplated being a priest. For about a year, I was very close to entering the seminary and in the end I didn’t do it. But faith is a very important thing to me,” he said.

“My mother has great faith and my two grandmothers had great faith in their lives, so I think it was always there in the background. I was always around the religious in many respects and then coming through my own dark times, my faith really helped me through, so it seemed like a logical thing.

“And then, obviously, I met Vivian, and said ‘well you can’t be married and be a priest’, so that put an end to it,” he laughed.

“But yeah, faith is a really important thing. So often nowadays people think it’s a laughable thing but I think it’s really important. It helps a lot of people every day.

“I think there will always be people attracted to priesthood and I think times are changing. Pope Francis is a very new and different pope, so you wouldn’t know what’ll happen in the future.

“But I think there’s always going to be people who are drawn to the life of the cloth, whether it’s to be a nun or a priest.
“It was a big part of my life. It took about a year for me to weigh it up.”

Read also: Longford farmer reaches #1 on the Irish book charts

Another lovable character in the book was that of John's grandmother, who had such an influence on his life and his writing.

There are some really beautiful chapters about her and, as she has since passed away, these are all the more meaningful to John now.

“Granny was my godmother and one of my best friends and just a great woman who stayed young at heart her whole life.

“There was a couple of thousand people at her funeral and people came from all different corners of the country to pay their respects to her. So she had an impact in a very quiet, simple way,” John fondly recalled.

“She never really travelled anywhere or anything like that but she was just known as a lovely person and she was the centre of our family for many years. She was the matriarch.

“It’s been sad in a sense that she isn’t alive to see all of the success with the book, but in another way, I know that she’s been helping me out from up above, making the manoeuvres to get the book to number one and I know that she is happy.

“Even though she’s gone, she’s still with us in many respects and we talk about her all the time still.”

There is certainly something very touching about John’s relationship with his grandmother, who lived a long and happy life and was in her 90s when she passed away. And one thing is for sure: she’d be extremely proud of what her grandson has achieved.

“She would be so proud and it’s a nice thing that, while she’s not here, she’s alive in the pages of the book.

“She’s never really going to be dead as long as people are reading the book.”

And, while the stories of John’s relationship with his granny are heartwarming to read, there’s no arguing that the book has an even stronger focus on his relationship with his father.

There is often a strain on the relationship between father and son - something which comes through in the book.

But, while the pair’s relationship has been of great interest to readers and media alike, John has nothing but love, respect and friendship for his father.

“The media made much of the rows in the book, but really that’s typical farming stuff,” he explained.

“Me and dad are very similar people and everything I am as a writer is from him as a storyteller. He’s one of the best story-tellers I know and he’s just delighted that the book has had this impact on people.

“He’s enjoying it as much as I am. We’re the best of mates.”

Near the end of the book, John recalls a huge argument with his father, but the whole thing is resolved in a beautiful way - there are no ‘I love yous’ or ‘I’m sorrys’, but rather the simple familiarity and comfort of shared interests and a respect for one another.

“That’s how it is in rural Ireland. You just get on with things and that’s it. It’s never going to be like the movies. People say to me they love the ending and I suppose it was a lovely thing,” John mused.

“We’ve come to understand each other very well and I think, since the book has come out, our friendship has only deepened and grown as two men. It’s been a lovely experience.”

The past month or so has been extremely busy for John, as the book continues to capture the love of the masses. So life is going well for John at the moment.

But one of the most important relationships in his life - and one which wasn’t focused on quite so much in the book - is with his fiancée, Vivian Huynh.

The couple are newly engaged and, as Vivian has made the big move from Australia to rural Ballinalee, they’re looking forward to a life of farming in Longford from now on.

“We met when Vivian was working in a newsagency in Sydney,” John recalled fondly, pointing out that his partner was sitting beside him as he spoke on the phone to the Longford Leader last week.

“I liked her but I was a bit too nervous to talk to her. And it took a while to build up the courage to say hello. And eventually I did and we’ve known each other for nearly ten years now.

“She’s probably the most important person in my life and she’s moved to Ireland so we can be together after having a long distance relationship for three years. She’s an amazing person and I’m very lucky to have her in my life.”

The couple intend to continue with the family farm.

Rural Ireland and farming is the future John sees for them both, and Vivian is currently looking for work in advertising, now that she’s moved to Ireland.

“Things are very good,” said John happily, adding that the couple would be “jumping the broom” in May and taking a couple of weeks out for themselves.

“It’s been a whirlwind the last few weeks. I’m sure people have seen me going here and there the last few weeks on Facebook, but it’s been pretty full on, so we’re slowly starting to decompress and get back into normal life.

“It’s been great to have somebody around to share it with. It would’ve been a lonely time to have been on my own for, so it’s been really lovely to have her here.”

Read also: ‘The city can feed the body, but the countryside feeds the soul’

Since launching his book, John has been seen at a number of big events across the country and he’s enjoyed every minute of his time in the spotlight.

More importantly, he is filled with a humble gratitude to the people who have made all of this possible for him.

“I am so thankful to the people of Longford - the whole county and the border regions - who have come out in droves to support the book, because none of this would be possible without them and I’ve just been blown away by the kindness of people and their support and it’s been so lovely,” he reflected.

“A lot of people have said to me there’s been so few positive stories from Longford, so this has been a positive story and it’s changed my life for the better.

“But I feel like it’s a win for the whole community in a sense. It’s felt really humbling. And that’s probably the thing that’s come through the most for me - we actually have a very strong sense of community in the county and it’s been a really lovely time.

“So I’m really proud to be a Longford person.”

‘The Cow Book’ by John Connell is available now in all good bookstores as well as all the usual outlets online.

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