Longford farmer and ‘The Cow Book’ author to address literary festival

The author of ‘The Cow Book: a story of life on an Irish family farm’, John Connell, will speak at the Oliver Goldsmith Literary Festival next month.

John who farms with his father at Ballinalee, Co. Longford, will address a gathering at the Goldsmith Room in Ballymahon Community Library, on Saturday, June 2. The session will be chaired by AgriLand news editor, Claire Mc Cormack.

Life is good for the Longford man who previously worked as a journalist and an award-winning documentary maker, living in Australia and Canada.

‘The Cow Book’ has been on bestseller lists for the last 12 weeks and he is just returning from his honeymoon in Dingle with his Australian born wife Vivian who works in advertising.

The US edition of ‘The Cow Book’ will be published as ‘The Farmer’s Son’ next May; meanwhile another book, as well as a play, are on the agenda.

However, part of his popularity has been due to his honesty in tackling the difficulties of life.

From a sometimes fractious relationship with his father, to challenges of farming and dealing with bad weather, John’s openness about coping with depression struck a chord with many readers.

‘The Cow Book’ began out of a calving season, when John was working alongside his dad in the wet winter of 2016. He set out to give an account of a life that is both local and universal.

Oliver Goldsmith

Passing through Ballymahon, he reflected on how the novelist, playwright and poet, Oliver Goldsmith – who is revered for his poem ‘The Deserted Village’ – inspired him.

“He was someone who played an influential role in my life,” said John, as he pointed to Goldsmith’s references to decay and moral corruption.

Such images fed into his first book ‘The Ghost Estate’ which was published in Australia in 2015.

It is about the economic boom and bust in Ireland that Goldsmith had talked about 200 years previously.

He read Goldsmith as a teenager. “My parents talked about him and I remember my father coming home with leather bound editions of his work.”

He is heartened by the reaction to ‘The Cow Book.’ “People have said they really enjoyed it. They have said that my story is their story. I wrote the book never imagining any of this,” he said.

Rural writing

He sees a resurgence in rural writing, namechecking ‘The Shepherd’s Life’ by James Rebank; ‘H is for Hawk’ by Helen Macdonald; and ‘The Secret Life of Cows’ by Rosamund Young.

It was his agent that suggested writing the book on his farming life.

“I said: ‘Who would be interested in that? But it turned out that everyone was interested in it. I haven’t had any negative feedback. Everyone has been really wonderful. The whole experience has been one of joy, humour and goodwill,” said John.

Farming is a lovely way of life although you won’t be making a million doing it. The urban population has become so big that a lot of people living in cities don’t know where their food is coming from.

“Farming is often seen as very hard; but when people read their own story, they tend to realise it is a pretty good way of life.

“If you took farming out of rural Ireland, it would be dead,” he said.

“While there is a brain drain in rural Ireland, a lot of young people are coming back. The city isn’t for everyone. As children, we are told to get a good job; but now people are saying that there is nothing wrong in being a farmer.

John says he has noticed substantial growth in the agri-business area which facilitates people with an entrepreneurial streak.

“New opportunities are opening up in rural Ireland. Certainly, I’m seeing more young people who want to stay even though others will tell them they are mad,” he said.

Appreciating the farm

A growing numbers of young people are mirroring his experience and are returning to farm after living abroad, he has found.

There is nothing like being away to appreciate home. Young people want to go and see the world; but farming is part of who they are – for many it’s their culture and background.

He believes a lot of emigrants are returning and celebrating the ordinary way of life.

The “ordinary” for John is living in an area with a “very strong parish life” and where rural isolation isn’t a problem, he contended.

“It has wonderful people and we don’t have that problem; but rural isolation is an issue that has to be tackled.

Intergenerational friendship is important. Our elders can teach us so much; young people can as well.

Depression is another pressing issue, and one of which he has personal experience, which is outlined in his book.

The young author has received many letters from people affected all over the country and from the UK too.

“The good thing is that people are now talking about mental health – whereas 25 years ago, suicide was illegal.

“Now we have so many people taking part in ‘Darkness Into Light.’ This whole area has come on in leaps and bounds. We are allowing people to talk about how they are feeling and providing the services to help them cope,” John said.

Full details of the festival programme are on: http://www.olivergoldsmithfestival.com