Land and free­dom

A farmer’s son, John Con­nell left home as a young man in search of ‘the ur­ban and the civilised’. But it was only when he came back to the land that he dis­cov­ered his true vo­ca­tion, and iden­tity

The Irish Times - Friday - The Ticket - - NEWS - WORDS BY JOHN CON­NELL

John Con­nell tells a story of life on an Ir­ish farm

Irise early each morn­ing to go to work but my work is not that of the of­fice or com­mute, it is one of the an­cients of the sean-nós for I am a farmer. It is win­ter and, while the days are short, my work is long for all our an­i­mals are in­side now birthing, liv­ing, eat­ing and some, though bat­tle as I might, dy­ing.

I was born a farmer’s son and have known th­ese fields and yards all my life. But like many ru­ral peo­ple, I left them years ago in search of the ur­ban and civilised world as I thought it then to be. In cities, those farms of men, I found my call­ing as a jour­nal­ist but it was in re­turn­ing to the soil years later that I found my vo­ca­tion as a writer and farmer.

The city it seems to me now, at this dis­tance, takes from the oc­cu­pier. It is a thief of time, money and youth, it gives op­por­tu­nity and em­ploy­ment and at times food for the head but it is to na­ture that we must come for nour­ishment of the soul.

The cows low as I turn the han­dle on the yard gate to bring the meal and silage. The song birds call from the ditch and fill the air with a mu­si­cal­ity that lets me know I am alive. I pause and think of the bean­nacht of this way of life, to be so sur­rounded by na­ture. I have been home now for three years in my na­tive Long­ford and in that time have brought new life to this world and re­con­nected with that el­e­men­tal force that con­nects us all.

There are three sheds in the yard, each built at dif­fer­ent times as the farm grew. Once our old ac­coun­tant tried to get my par­ents to in­vest in apart­ments in a tourist town but they re­fused. The land is what we know, they said. It sus­tains us, en­riches us, the land is our liv­ing and we know no other way. Birchview is the name of this place. It is my home.

I fill the meal for the cat­tle and sheep and be­gin my chores. The cows crowd by the feed­ing bar­ri­ers and greed­ily eat their ra­tion. Young calves take the op­por­tu­nity to suckle moth­ers and a gen­eral calm be­gins to de­scend on the hun­gry crea­tures. On the frosty morn­ings, I see their breath foam and roll out to the open air.

In the sheep shed now the lambs and their moth­ers call out to me. We keep a ra­dio on with them for my fa­ther once heard that it calms them. As I turn to re­fresh their hay, the mu­sic of the Gloam­ing fills the shed and Martin Hayes’s vi­o­lin re­ver­ber­ates around the metal and wood search­ing as if for the note of na­ture. The lambs buck and play in their fresh straw and it looks as if they too are danc­ing.

It is at times like this that I of­ten thought that ru­ral Ire­land is the well­spring of our cre­ativ­ity as a na­tion for Hayes’s vi­o­lin was not made for some recital hall but the hum­ble homes such as mine. In this same sheep shed of late nights, I have heard too the po­etry of Heaney and the siren-like voice of Edna O’Brien and I have thought that in that small act I am united with them for they were all the sons and daugh­ters of the land. That they too knew the in­ti­mate beauty of this world of which I work in. The world of McGa­h­ern is not so dif­fer­ent to mine. In­deed we used to meet him in the mart years ago and talk not of books but cat­tle. At times I re­gret that I had not the courage to speak openly to him then of my wish to be a writer but I was but a boy and shy.

I feed the wean­ling cat­tle next. They are grow­ing big and strong, they are fine beasts but I can­not grow too close to them for they are our pay­ment to the bank for our land across the road. They are our of­fer­ing to the of­fice men in Dublin and I hope that when the time comes we shall fetch a good price for them. There is one heifer that could be a great cow. If I have the money when the time comes I shall buy her from my par­ents and bring her to the breed­ing stock.

At mid­day, I hear the An­gelus bells ring out from the par­ish church, tolling across the fields. I stop most days and take a mo­ment to re­flect. Faith is some­thing that has come back into my life but it is of an older kind – it is Chris­tian Celtic spir­i­tu­al­ity. In it, I see the face or hand of God in the nat­u­ral world around me.

I know that re­li­gion is not a pop­u­lar thing in this mod­ern world and yet along with farm­ing it is the thing that brought me back to the joy of the world.

Per­haps Birchview is my Walden, I some­times think. I have felt this in the last three years for I feel now that I have fi­nally be­gun to live. The thought came to me quite un­ex­pect­edly when I was swim­ming in the lo­cal lake. I was a kilo­me­tre or more in and breach­ing for air, and I knew in that mo­ment that I was com­fort­able in my own skin. That af­ter all my years as an im­mi­grant in Aus­tralia and Canada that the jour­ney in­ward was the most im­por­tant of all.

I feared then that this no­tion would be a fleet­ing state and yet, since then, that know­ing has only in­creased, the pelt of peace has only thick­ened. I feel it best as I run through the for­est or cy­cle down coun­try roads, as I bring a calf or lamb into this world in the mid­dle of the night. It is at th­ese times that I feel I am ex­pe­ri­enc­ing the sub­lime, the sa­cred, the mar­row. Per­haps I feel that I only be­gan to live three years ago for then I feared I was to die. For I have known the dark night of the soul and it was not the doc­tor nor medicine that cured the uaigneas that plagued me but the com­fort of this tír, this place.

As a younger man I worked with the Abo­rig­i­nal peo­ple of Aus­tralia and it was with them that I came to un­der­stand the power of the land of birth. That it was this place that was my na­tion and this place that cured me.

Af­ter the feed­ing, the byres must be cleaned and bed­ded. I grape and pull the soiled straw and place it on the trac­tor’s bucket. It shall bring new grass in the spring that comes.


I am a man of rit­ual and rou­tine but I am not alone in this act for there are thou­sands, tens of thou­sands of fam­ily farms such as ours spread through­out this is­land. There are gen­er­a­tions work­ing to­gether car­ry­ing on the old prac­tices and feed­ing the world, each a mini-repub­lic in it­self.

With­out our neigh­bours we are fin­ished, with­out our farms we are but oar­less souls. We call on each other to hear what joys and sor­rows have oc­curred in this calv­ing sea­son. We unite at times of tragedy and at times of joy. As I pull the fresh straw from the loft I think of the man that made it and how he is no longer here. The last deeds of our neigh­bour Richard bring com­fort to my newly calved cows and a smile on my face.

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. It is what has made me a writer and made me cel­e­brate the bounty of the or­di­nary.

I am both a farmer and a writer. Many years ago I thought they could not co-ex­ist but I see now that this work has in­formed me, pre­pared me for the life of the pen. I write be­tween the births and hay­mak­ing. Ideas come to me now on the trac­tor or out fix­ing fenc­ing posts. They are pas­sages that feel to me more real than any other I have ever penned be­fore for they are the story of my, of our life in this place.

I feel lucky that I can do both th­ese jobs, the phys­i­cal and the men­tal and see how they feed into each other. A calf grows like a book, day by day, line by line. Some thrive and oth­ers fade.

And af­ter the dog days and the re­dis­cov­ery of my nat­u­ral in­her­i­tance, I am no longer con­tent merely to be alive – no, not when there is liv­ing to be had and it is all of it in this place, my Walden of the fields, the place of my baile agus beatha.

John Con­nell is the au­thor of TheCowBook: AS­to­ry­ofLifeo­nanIr­ishFam­i­lyFarm(Granta)

I am a man of rit­ual and rou­tine but I am not alone in this act for there are thou­sands, tens of thou­sands of fam­ily farms such as ours spread through­out this is­land. There are gen­er­a­tions work­ing to­gether car­ry­ing on the old prac­tices and feed­ing the world, each a mini-repub­lic in it­self

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