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Twelve Sheep by John Connell: the magic of life over 12 beautiful chapters

Author of The Cow Book threads personal essay with observations of the natural world

Twelve Sheep: Life Lessons from a Lambing Season
Twelve Sheep: Life Lessons from a Lambing Season
Author: John Connell
ISBN-13: 978-1805461906
Publisher: Allen & Unwin
Guideline Price: £12.99

After John Connell wrote his last book, The Stream of Everything – a reflective memoir published two years ago, sprung from Covid lockdown – the farmer/writer/film-makers from Co Longford fell into a melancholy. In Twelve Sheep: Life Lessons from a Lambing Season, Connell describes this slump as a “soul weariness”.

Sleep did not bring him rest. While he differentiates the sad, tired chasm that he found himself in from the sustained depression he discussed so honestly in his previous books, he writes at the start of Twelve Sheep that in a way the sadness was harder; for it created an alienated loneliness and, most distressing for a writer, dried up his previously overflowing well of creativity.

In Twelve Sheep Connell brings us on the journey that leads him back to vitality and purpose, with the characteristic depth of a writer making his mark in the genre of spiritual nature writing. Connell carries forward the lamp of the late great Irish poet-philosopher, John O’Donoghue, and keeps alive the flame of the bardic tradition in Irish literature.

Salvation comes to Connell through the 12 sheep he buys from the family farm, which he described in his best-selling The Cow Book. In 2018, aged 29, after 10 years adventuring across several continents, he returned to put down roots in the Longford ground he grew up on. While Connell had helped tend to his parents’ commercial sheep flock since his return to the home farm, the 12 ewes he buys from his family present a different prospect. The lives of their lambs rest in his hands alone.


“There’ll be 12 stories to be told before the season is done,” observes Connell’s father. What follows is an unfolding of those stories across 12 brief, beautifully written chapters, each one alchemising a universal life lesson.

Within this solid structure, Connell artfully weaves a tapestry that traversestime and space. He combines threads of personal essay, accidental philosophy and observation of nature and the seasons, with thoughts on literature and art, uplifting comments from Connell’s favourite authors, his own contemporary social and cultural analyses and, of course, his care of the 12 ewes and the birthing and rearing of their lambs.

Through it all, Connell finds meaning.

As with much great spiritual literature, there is a resonance in Twelve Sheep between content and form. The sound, rhythm and pacing of the language has a deeply relaxing and meditative effect, experientially creating within the reader that present moment awareness – the appreciation of what is, right now – which the subject matter of the text is simultaneously invoking. It’s a joy to read a writer who swims against our materialist dogma to confidently express the magic of life.

Connell’s veneration of nature takes practical shape in the chapter We Must Love our Home, about him and his father planting trees on the farm, converted in recent years to organic. The tree-planting is Connell’s attempt to offset the hundreds of thousands of air miles he clocked up during his 10 years as a traveller.

Connell clearly has an ecological perspective. However, I do sense an elephant – or large sheep – in the room. While the author describes in detail the catastrophic environmental destruction wrought by sheep in Australia and Patagonia, I feel he only glances at the ruination of grasslands and woodlands – and the devastating loss of uplands topsoil – that sheep (once 8.9 million, now 3.5 million) continue to cause in our own country.

“Is farming part of the problem?” Connell asks. He provides no satisfactory answer. The underlying unease that this conflict creates is mitigated by Connell’s astute observations on the problem of excessive antibiotic use in animal herds, and our urgent need to enable rural families and communities to find sustainable livelihoods on the land of Ireland. It is hope-inducing to read his reports of the return of young people to the Irish countryside, and of the thriving new businesses that migrants to Ireland are bringing to towns.

The final chapter and lesson in Twelve Sheep – Love is All You Need – is the book’s epiphany. Here Connell quotes German-Swiss author Herman Hesse: “The more we are capable of love and dedication, the more our lives will be rich with meaning.” Connell writes to transmute his own and his readers’ suffering. In his paean to the power of love, he achieves that for himself, and for this reader.