The Cow Book is the story of my life as a farmer in rural Ireland. It is also the story of my family, community and the animals I live with: our cows.
As a farmer and writer Longford is my home. It is the place from which I draw the wellspring of my creativity. My books, my writings, my thoughts are of this place. I have known it all my life and it is the thing which enriches me.
The inspiration for the book came from a suggestion as so many things often do. I had returned to rural Ireland to work on a novel about the migration crisis and in my living at home again began to work on the family farm. I had always loved farming but life had taken me in different directions firstly as an emigrant to Australia and then whilst there as a filmmaker, producer and investigative journalist but in 2015 I found myself back at the root of it all; our farm.
My agent, Simon, suggested that perhaps writing a book about our farm might be a good idea. This was something which I resisted for a long time. Why? I suppose it was because I did not feel our life here on the farm was worthy of examination and the glaring question who would be interested in a book about a beef farm in Longford.
Simon, to whom I am eternally grateful, gently urged me over many weeks until finally I acquiesced and wrote the first chapter of the book.
It was in that very first chapter, concerning the birth of a calf, that I knew I had tapped into something bigger than myself, something real and authentic that had eluded me in my other works. I was at last writing what I know and what I knew was farming. In a sense, the first chapter was not only concerning the birth of a calf but the birth of a book and a writer who had finally come home to himself.
When I sat down to write the entire manuscript many months later in Spain I realised I was writing the story of my life. It is, I will admit unusual to write a memoir at 29 years of age and yet my life has not been a normal one. An emigrant, a farmer, a journalist I have seen and lived through many things.
The writing of the book was a joy from start to finish and the words flowed out of me. In a sense, I think perhaps they had been waiting all my life to come. Waiting until I was ready or had lived enough or had become mature enough to look back on those years with proper reflection.
In its writing, I thought of the great farmer writers that had gone before, Seamus Heaney, John McGahern and Edna O Brien and how the land had inspired them too.
It was the honest account of a life that was both local and universal. The story of fathers and sons, rural communities pulling together in hard times and ultimately the story of a man falling in love with life again after dark times.
The book too was an elegy to what Colm Tóibín has described as a ‘new hidden Ireland’ the Ireland of the farming people. They are the network which connects me to this great country and further afield for there are farmers on every continent.
Interspersed throughout the book is also the history of the cow itself from worship in Ancient Egypt to its cloning in China. These chapters tell the story of the animal and in a way, the story of our entire human race for the cow is the hidden member of the family of man.
My farming life works in rhythm with the seasons, we have come through another winter and there is a collective sigh of relief that we have made it through once more.
A book is like a calf. With work and attention, it can grow day by day. In becoming a farmer I learned to be a real writer with all the joys and sorrows that contains.
To me, this is the good life and while I have been late in returning to it I can see that it will provide me with all I need.
Coming home has been the decision of a lifetime, working with these animals has been a life choice which I do not regret. It is hard work but it is an honest living.
The Cow Book is a story of a private world but also the story of modern rural Ireland and the wonderful people who inhabit it.
(c) John Connell
John Connell was published in Granta’s New Irish Writing issue, and has also had a story published on Granta.com. He lives on his family farm, Birchview, in County Longford, and this is his first book.
About The Cow Book:
Farming has been in John Connell’s family for generations, but he never intended to follow in his father’s footsteps. Until, one winter, he finds himself back on the farm and begins to learn the ways of the farmer and the way of the cows.
Connell records the hypnotic rhythm of the farming day – cleaning the outhouses, milking the herd, tending to sickly lambs, helping the cows give birth. But alongside the routine events, there are the unforeseen moments when things go wrong: when a calf fails to thrive, when a sheep goes missing, when illness breaks out, when depression takes hold, when an argument erupts and things are said that cannot be unsaid.
The Cow Book is the story of a calving season. It is also the story of the cow itself, from its domestication and worship as a God by the Ancient Egyptians to the modern practice of mechanized herds, via the figure of the cowboy, the destruction of the American buffalo, the demise of the aboriginal jackaroos and the consequences of BSE. And, above all, it is the story of Connell’s life as a farmer, of his relationship with his birthplace of County Longford, with the community around the family farm, with the animals he tends, and with his father.
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