Servant of the herd

John Connell

Photo: John Connell

Irish farmer John Connell has a great deal to say about agriculture, farming, and particularly, cows. He recently documented these experiences in The Cow Book, which explores his year–long baptism of fire into the family farm. It’s a world away from where he was over eight years ago; a journalist at the ABC with a story so potent that the federal government had him in its sights.

“It was a very stressful time,” recalls Connell. “I received threatening phone calls from government officials telling us not to bring the story to air.”

“Returning to the family farm after many years, I began to see it all with new eyes. I was looking at a cultural practice that was 10,000 years old.”
– John Connell

The program in question was Whatever happened to OV78? — a 46–minute documentary on Radio National that investigated the fate of 78 Australia bound Tamil refugees who were picked up by the Australian customs vessel, Oceanic Viking, in October 2009. The issue quietly went away within two months as the refugees were reported to have been resettled in Canada, Norway, and New Zealand. However, Connell discovered that 17 of them were left to sit in political limbo in a Romanian transit centre for six months, despite written assurances that they would be resettled in Australia.

The program went to air on 14 August 2010, two months after Julia Gillard ousted Kevin Rudd from leadership, and a mere week before she called the federal election.

“The Gillard government was very worried about the details of our investigation, as it was going to air just before a general election,” says Connell. But it was all worth it: the 17 remaining Tamils were resettled in Australia a short time later, “and I saw first–hand the real power of journalism.”

The story, which he worked on with UTS student Paul Farrell, earned him the Walkley Young Australian Journalist of the Year Award — but it wasn’t his first brush with the Walkleys. During the final year of his journalism degree at UTS, Connell reported on the Northern Territory intervention under the guidance of Professor Wendy Bacon, earning him the Student Journalist of the Year Walkley in 2008.

“It was some of the happiest times in my life,” says Connell. “Wendy Bacon was a hugely influential professor and friend. The hands–on approach of UTS allowed for me to gain practical experience in journalism, and Australia is a country full of stories.”

The Cow Book represents the latest step in a much broader journey home to Longford, Ireland. By the time he’d decided to write it, Connell had been living abroad for 10 years — something that happened purely by chance after his name was pulled from a hat to go to Australia on exchange. It had taken its toll.

“I had a number of mental health issues, so my life took a total turn for a few years,” Connell explains. “I decided to return home to the family farm to rebuild myself.”

“Farming and writing allowed me to understand the world in a new way,” he continues. “Returning to the family farm after many years, I began to see it all with new eyes. I was looking at a cultural practice that was 10,000 years old.”

An international bestseller, The Cow Book is deeply personal. In it, Connell describes in vivid detail his experience of birthing a calf on his own — a rite of passage for a farmer. To him, cows “are animals, not mere steak–holders. They may carry flesh, but they carry personality, too — memories and feelings.”

It sounds almost romantic, but Connell feels there is an important message to be shared. “I would call my attitude optimistic. I talk about the ritual of farming but also about the dangers of corporate agriculture and the damage it’s doing to the environment,” he says. “Food is about to become very political, so it’s important to educate people on this.”

Connell continues to write in Ireland, as both a journalist and an author. Asked what kind of advice he’d give today’s journalism students, Connell says: “Journalism has changed a lot in the 10 years I’ve been in the business. However, good training is still essential. I’ve met and had some junior reporters work under me who didn’t understand the basics such as libel and defamation. Young entrants need to understand these things and know that the hours are long. Master the basics before you attempt to become an investigative journalist. It’s worth the effort as it’s a great career.”

Story by Kevin Cheung