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The Cow Book: Best-seller allows Irish farmer to highlight mental health within rural community

Going home to farm was never John Connell’s intention, but through learning the family trade, he’s written a best-selling book and been able to effectively manage his mental health. Emily Ashworth finds out more.

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Best-selling book highlights mental health within farming

Having had his name pulled out of a hat as a student, John Connell found himself the proud winner of an investigative journalism scholarship that would see him work in both Canada and Australia.


It wasn’t until he suffered with depression however that John returned to the 250-acre family farm in County Longford, Ireland, in a bid to replenish his wellness, finding some much-needed solace in his surroundings and more importantly, his family.


Farming opened up new opportunities, maybe even saved him in some ways.


And it was through his homecoming he was able to write his number one, best-selling story, The Cow Book, a raw and unfiltered look at the journey back to his roots.


“I have always loved farming”, says John.


“Coming home to my family was the best decision I’ve made, although I didn’t see it at the time.


"The rural community are great at rallying around people. It took a whole village to get me healthy again. You need your neighbours when you’re in farming.”


Relishing in the place he was born he writes, “I walk its fields and know I am alive”.


Via life on the farm, you are met with the sense that John has come full circle, finding himself through learning how to live alongside the rhythm of the land.


“It’s funny because I came home to write, and ended up being a farmer.”




John’s account is reflective of what he encounters, of his moods, feelings.


When his agent proposed the idea of writing about his life on the farm, John wasn’t convinced.


He wondered, would anyone be interested in the daily routines of a farmer?


But as soon as he’d constructed the first chapter – an uncensored description of the first time he’d calved alone, telling of “the blood on my arms and face, but it is a pleasing blood, the blood of life” – he felt compelled by it.


“There was a bit of magic in that first chapter. I then started looking at the history of cows and learnt things I didn’t even know – the place of the cow in the family of man.”


Each section of the book is named according to current situations: Life, Horns and Inspection for example.


It’s then split into months enabling Connell to tell his story throughout the year, coherent with his farming life and, says John, written in a series of mini-events as they happen on-farm.


The story is also indicative of most father and son relationships when it comes to a family business.


Eager to prove himself, John feels this is a universal tale of farming families around the world and writes, “Manhood is an important thing in this land. Farming gives us our sense of it, our understanding of ourselves.


“Despite it all, despite our fractious relationship, he has taught me everything I know, everything that I need to be a farmer.”


Some of the most enlightening feedback however has come from rural Irish families themselves, contacting John with the response, “This is my family, too!”




The Cow Book offers a transparent and honest insight in to the industry.


It could help to alleviate some of the misleading information circulating and although not his main objective, John feels his work highlights how much farmers feel for their animals.


“If we didn’t care so much, we would be getting up at 3am every morning to look after them, would we?


“We are custodians of the land and here’s the thing: We haven’t been farming for hundreds of years, we’ve been farming for thousands.


“I wanted to show those from non-farming backgrounds what we do.


“It isn’t all happiness and smiling. Sometimes there are hard decisions to make and I’m presenting the counter argument – it does affect us. I wanted to tell it as it is.”


Mental health


It is a subject which is always at the forefront of John’s mind and close to his heart.


Although John’s renewed fervour for this lifestyle often springs from the pages, his journey has been arduous, himself admitting that he came back to this industry from a dark place.


But, as many farmers out there will know, the great outdoors can be also a great healer.


“I tell everybody: You have to get back to nature and as farmers, we have to live in harmony with it.


“I now go to different schools to talk about it – I tell them good mental is like good dental.


“Rural communities have a way of banding together and I think our generation’s challenge is to speak about mental health. We can and will get through it all together.


"By speaking out, I saved a person's life who was suffering with their mental health and if we can all listen, countless lives can be saved.”



The popularity of the book has come as a great surprise to John and as he posts pictures of it topping the Ireland’s paperback non-fiction best book lists, he says it is ‘a bounty for rural Ireland at a time when we hear only negative stories about our future. The book proves we won’t give up on rural places and the people that make them.’


Having sold 15,000 copies in the UK, it is firm affirmation that farming is of great interest to those inside it and out.


John’s genuine descriptions have allowed all who read it to see that innate drive that all farmers have.


In the book he states: “They say farming has changed, that it has become industrial and mechanized, but still if the farmer has not the nature to care for his beasts when they are sick, they will die.


“I have known the hardest of men to be soft and gentle with their animals in a way they never are with their own families.”

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