In John Connell's bungalow in Longford, he and his wife Vivian show me the route of the Camlin river on a large, framed ordinance survey map. The Camlin is the river he canoed with his friend and sometime collaborator, the journalist Peter Geoghegan, before documenting that journey in his new book The Stream of Everything. He laughs a little bashfully. "It's not very big," he says. "But it's a big river here."
Connell came to critical attention in 2018 when he wrote The Cow Book, a memoir of his return to his family's farm after many years and some turbulent times in Australia and then Canada. Then he wrote The Running Book about running around his home county. Now he has written The Stream of Everything, set on one of its waterways. "I remember watching a documentary with Brian Friel and he said he did an accidental quartet on love," says Connell. "Well, I did an accidental trilogy on Longford...I suppose in a way those three books are about me trying to understand myself and understand everything that happened in the last 10 years. And I think, in respects, it's a book that finishes that story...It took three books to unpack all this stuff."
Connell talks to me while cooking delicious lamb chops in his kitchen and my recording of the conversation is frequently broken up by Connell saying sentences like: "Is that too pink for you?" and "Try the tabouli" and me saying "yum". The Longford-centric books for which Connell is best known belie the international realities of his life so far. He wrote The Cow Book in a DJ's house in Ibiza (he'd met the DJ when making a dance music documentary in Canada). He wrote The Running Book in LA. Just before Covid hit, he was in the US documenting migrant farm workers and was planning to go to Brazil to research beef farming and deforestation.
That project was shelved due to Covid and instead he found himself on a canoe in Longford with Geoghegan, his mind wandering from things like the St Brendan on the Atlantic to Kenneth Graham's boating animals, to colonial explorer Daniel Houghton's sailing the Gambia river, to his own personal history. He also recalls nearly drowning while boating in Sydney Harbour. This could be seen as metaphorical. His time in Australia then Canada was choppy. He eventually returned to Longford after the implosion of a media business, an engagement that didn't work out, two serious periods of depression and the relative failure of his first book, the Australian-published The Ghost Estate.
At that time did he feel like he had failed? He puts down his fork and laughs. “Trust The Irish Times to ask that question. There were certainly aspects of that. Things had not worked out. I had had two mental health episodes in four years. My life had imploded twice. But going [back] to Australia in 2015 was great because I was kind of able to put Canada behind me. I’d met Vivian again.” (They had been in a relationship four years previously). “So I was in love. I came home with a real strong desire to be a writer which I hadn’t really had before.”
That relationship to the land, even though Ireland's all about that stuff, I would have become aware of it in Australia and then came back and started reading around it
Prior to The Cow Book, Connell rarely wrote about himself. In Australia and Canada he worked as an award-winning investigative journalist and documentarian. After the Ghost Estate he wrote two unpublished novels, one about a Syrian refugee, another about Jackie Onassis. "I hadn't really ever thought that I had anything to say. But it was very freeing in a way...With The Cow Book I was very determined that it would work...Financially it was a really difficult time but I'd said to myself, 'Well, if this is my last book, then at least this is my most honest and true book'."
When he started his trip down the Camlin he didn’t know for sure that he’d write about the journey but he did know that it was ritualistically significant. “I was going to leave this part of my life behind me, the big things that haunted me for a long time. I realized one day that I’d been thinking about this same stuff for years...I said, ‘It doesn’t serve you anymore, thinking about this stuff from so long ago. It’s just holding you back from being in the present moment’.” He laughs. “I was talking to a friend who quit smoking and I said, ‘What was your grand gesture?’ He said, ‘I smashed every ashtray in the house’. Sometimes we have to do grand gestures.”
As we chat, he references writers such as John Moriarty, John O'Donohue and Tim Robinson who have a "geosophical" view of the world, whose sense of psychological and philosophical reality is linked to their experience of place. "For me, a lot of that would have come from Aboriginal people in Australia because I lived with them and worked with them...That relationship to the land, even though Ireland's all about that stuff, I would have become aware of it in Australia and then came back and started reading around it."
What was he like before returning to Longford? “Work was my drug. I would have three or four projects on the go at once and the nature of that is that none of them are any good...In Australia it all imploded. I started going to the pub most nights...I just engaged in self destructive behaviour. I tore up a life that I’d spent six years building and it was good life...And then in Canada, again I was working really hard and hadn’t really dealt with any of the problems that had crept up two years before that. I’d just bandaged myself together.”
He puts his newfound contentedness down to his marriage, a healthier lifestyle and routine. At one point, after he refers to the writer Dr George Sheehan as "a philosopher of running" I ask him what he'd be considered a philosopher of. He laughs and says he'd be a philosopher of "around here".
I remember the Wall Street Journal did a story on The Cow Book and I was like, 'Wow, the world came here'
He’s wary of sounding too guru-like. “I do a lot of public speaking and motivational talks...I just keep getting asked to do them. Sometimes people say to me ‘You’re quite wise’ but I only talk about the experiences I’ve had...I’m still a f***ing idiot like everyone else, trying to figure it out.”
The river trip was largely idyllic but it wasn’t all fun. Towards the end of their journey the Camlin was deep, the weather was bad and, worryingly, we’re told that Geoghegan wasn’t a strong swimmer (spoiler alert: he survives). At an earlier point, the river was filled with plastic that a farmer had dumped there. “I was really upset about that,” says Connell. He’s increasingly interested in ecology. The family farm is now organic and he’s trying to farm “more in unison with the land.”
Farming grounds him. "I've spent the last few weeks lambing the mothers. It took up all my time...Friday, I wanted to do a bit of reading but the sheep were breaking out in a field, so I spent the day fencing." He laughs. "I've been reading Wendell Berry. He's a farmer from Kentucky and a very famous writer in America, kind of in the vein of Thoreau...[He] published his first book. And everyone said, 'You've got to stay in New York now, because you're a writer'. He ended up going back to Kentucky and taking up the farm. He said that the farm world seemed more real than the literary world. I got what he meant. There's an immediacy there." He's also aware that people are rarely completely isolated anymore. "I remember the Wall Street Journal did a story on The Cow Book and I was like, 'Wow, the world came here'."
Though it touches on the difficulties in Connell’s previous life, The Stream of Everything is an enjoyably calming, reflective and joyful book. We talk a little about the merits of “joy” in literature. “There’s so much bad stuff out there,” he says. “It’s nice to read something that makes you feel good.”
Before I head back to Dublin, Connell takes me to a bend in the river where he and his siblings would go rafting as children. He points at a section which is good for trout fishing and towards another where swans are nesting. Later that day he will go for a run and move sheep from one place to another. He already has several new writing projects in train. But they won’t be memoirs. “I’ve shared now and the door is closing,” he says, looking at the Camlin. “Maybe in 10 years I’ll write a memoir but as far as I’m concerned, the chapter of my life that I was trying to understand is finished. It took 10 years to analyse two breakdowns, a [relationship] breakdown and a marriage to your beloved. It took a while to do it.”
The Stream of Everything is published by Gill