Inked along John Connell’s inner forearm is a series of lines and dashes that I have been trying to decipher ever since we shook hands in the yard of the family sheep and suckler farm in Co Longford.
Ogham, alas, is not my strong suit. An hour later, I can no longer contain my curiosity.
“Look for peace within; do not look for it without,” the 29-year-old writer and farmer translates the tattoo that he got last year, as we sit in a quiet room off the kitchen, presided over by a statue of St Francis of Assisi – “the patron saint in this house”– who is brought to the shed every time a cow is calving. In the last few months, St Francis – like John – has done a fair bit of overtime in Ballinalee.
Being a writer and being a farmer, you're the anomaly, even though you think this is the way it has always been
On the table, there’s an apple tart, a china plate with two fig rolls and two iced buns and a copy of Granta 135: New Irish Writing, where John’s short story, The Birds Of June, shares the sheets with Colm Toíbín, Emma Donoghue, Donal Ryan, Roddy Doyle and fellow Longford-onian, Belinda McKeown.
The authors featured have been photographed in their natural environments – in John’s case, feeding two ewes.
“Being a writer and being a farmer, you’re the anomaly even though you think this is the way it has always been,” he reflects.
“Kavanagh and McGahern and Heaney have all come from rural places, but a lot of new writers don’t – they come from towns and cities. But this is where I’m from and this has informed everything I write and the way I approach things. So, like John McGahern said: ‘The local is the universal.’ Everything is here.”
And maybe the same can be said for John’s own story.
One of four children, his admiration for his parents, Tom and Margaret, shines clearly.
“They started here in a mobile home and they built up a farm and two businesses,” he says, explaining how his mother runs her own Montessori school, while his father built up a construction company. Growing up, John was always involved in the farm. But while studying journalism, he went to Sydney for his semester abroad and ended up staying five years, winning awards for his investigative reports with national broadcaster, ABC. He also began lecturing, set up a production company and – having written a short story about losing a newborn calf – was offered a book deal with Picador ANZ.
“Slowly, it just got too much for me,” says John, who – for no reason he could fathom – found himself breaking up with his girlfriend, Vivian, burning bridges and returning to Ireland.
“I came home and started working on my first novel as a pretext,” he says, “but just one day I woke up and was crying; and that was the start of my four years, I suppose, of mental health problems.”
So when you’re falling apart, it feels like everything is actually coming together. That’s the irony of it all
Writing his first novel, The Ghost Estate, however, gave John a sense of purpose and with the support of his family and medication, he seemed to push through that period, returning to Australia, falling in love again and relocating to Canada.
Feeling “on top of the world”, he stopped taking his medication as he began working in TV, setting up another business and even establishing a charity for mental health, turning a blind eye to the build up of stress in his own life.
Returning home for a family wedding, however, “everything fell apart”.
“There is a room down at the end of the house here and I didn’t leave it for about four or five months,” says John, paraphrasing something that a friend once said to him about depression. “He said when you’re dealing with mental health problems and you’re going into the hole, you’re in the unreal world of certainty, but the real world is uncertain. So when you’re falling apart, it feels like everything is actually coming together. That’s the irony of it all.”
With sleep seemingly the only escape from the negative loop of thoughts, John says he did consider taking his own life. But one day, logging on to Facebook and seeing that an old friend had died by suicide, he was struck by how his life was reduced to a few short sentences on social media.
“I remember seeing that post and I said: ‘Jesus, I don’t want this to happen to me,’” he recalls.
“I said: ‘You know, I’ve got so much more to do,’ even though I couldn’t really see it at the time.”
Another turning point was watching a video of GAA star Conor Cusack talk about his own battle with depression, and how he found a power within himself that he never knew existed.
“I remember hearing that the first time and thinking: ‘I don’t know how to get access to this power. I don’t even know if I have it,’” says John.
However, with the support of his family, John sought help and was diagnosed with bipolar disorder, which was crucial in helping him get the correct medication for his condition. He also began therapy and overhauled his lifestyle, giving up alcohol and smoking and taking up running, swimming and cycling.
“It was a very tough time and if it wasn’t for my family, I don’t think I would have got through it,” acknowledges John.
“But when you go to that very brink, when you go to that point, that’s when I truly knew what Conor meant and I found that strength in myself. And every day from then on, I got stronger and stronger and stronger.”
Indeed, after writing a piece about his experience, called The Prison, last year, John was invited to speak with Ryan Tubridy on 2FM. A listener later emailed to say that he had been on the brink of taking his own life that morning but that John’s story had given him hope that there was help and saved his life.
Light at the end of the tunnel
John acknowledges that, sadly, not everybody survives, with 10 suicides a week in Ireland; eight of whom are men. For those struggling, however, his message is that, as hard as it can be to see it, there is always a light at the end of the tunnel.
“And that is the most important thing to know,” he says. “For me, things seemed so bad, life just fell apart completely. Yet, when it started to turn around, it started to turn around within a few weeks, and I suppose that’s the thing for people to know – that life does get better and life does go on.”
Looking back, he feels almost grateful for the experience as he has “never been more at peace in his life”.
He tells a story about being in the pool one day – he routinely swims 80 laps – and realising that for the first time in a long time, he felt “comfortable in his own skin”.
“I was maybe 50 laps in and I just came up and I touched the wall and I said: ‘Do you know, I’m really comfortable with who I am.’ It was a lovely feeling of contentment and it was something that I’d been looking for for so long,” he recalls.
“As a young fella in Australia, all that success was all in an effort to get approval from other people. So I won all these awards and was making money and all that because I wanted people to like me, because I didn’t really like myself.
“And while I’m not winning awards left, right and centre now, I’m actually a happier person.”
Not that he has been resting on his laurels. Following the release of The Ghost Estate and having signed with an agent last summer, he has since completed two short novels and is almost finished a non-fiction book that follows a year in the life of a family farm.
“It’s funny, I never thought I’d write about that,” he admits.
“But what you realise is that the things that you take for granted yourself as normal – for a lot of people in the world it’s totally exotic. They have no clue what calving a cow (is like) or the heartache of coming out and finding a dead lamb, or you minding a cow for ages and then she gets sick, or bringing them on, and the trials and tribulations of it.”
Having reunited with his girlfriend Vivian, who lives in Australia, John plans to spend more time there in the medium term, but his ultimate goal is to return to live in Longford to write and farm.
“As John McGahern said – the books pay for the cows; or is it the cows pay for the books?” he laughs.
And he is looking forward to writing his next chapter.
“There was a couple of bad years,” he says simply, “but the alternative is that I could be in Ballinalee graveyard.
“So, it’s a good auld story really. It’s a happy story.”
Granta 135: New Irish Writing is available in good bookshops now. Follow John at http://connelj2.tumblr.com