The Cow Book: A Story of Life on a Irish Family Farm – John Connell
Prominent admirers of The Cow Book include Colm Tóibín, Roddy Doyle and Sara Baume so it is clear, just by reading the back cover, that there’s something literary about it. The epigraphs, by Patrick Kavanagh and Henry David Thoreau, gentle the reader into a mood of anticipatory mellowness.
The first few pages, on the other hand, depict the writer, John Connell, struggling to deliver a calf on his own. Connell must use a jack and a mechanical wrench. Stomach-churningly reminiscent of the Irish horror film, Isolation, ‘the cow bellows low in a noise I don’t recognize, a noise of pain and strangeness’.
It is disturbing to discover that when a cow is calving her head is restrained in a galvanised headlock so that she cannot move. Meanwhile the farmer utilises the wrenching ropes. Connell explains that an older cow becomes so loose that two arms can be sunk up to the shoulder inside her birth passage – necessary, of course, to turn the calf for a safe birth.
After that the calf’s breathing is assisted with a vacuum pump and it is fed through a tube from a stomach bag. Interwoven with all this intervention is ‘the milk squirting into my jug, singing in the age-old sound of milk pouring onto itself’. This is lyrical writing: Connell says he learnt his skill with language from listening to his father’s storytelling. He and his da, incidentally, find it hard to resist fighting: two bulls in one field. All farmers know that is one bull too many.
The family have experienced upheaval as Connell himself became part of the diaspora after the Celtic Tiger boom and recession. Educated at DCU he travelled to Sydney and worked in film production making an award-winning documentary about Tamil refugees. Away for a decade in Australia and subsequently Canada he suffered mental illness and so returned to the sanctuary of home to farm and work out.
The past contains his relationships with alcohol, cigarettes and, the great modern sin, smart phones. Facebook still connects him with his girlfriend in Australia but Zuckerberg’s platform is guilty in Connell’s eyes of belittling a friend’s suicide by reducing his life and death to a few short sentences.
It is a truism that a simple life can be beneficial and Connell suggests that returning to an animal state of mere survival is healing. Nomads work with flocks and herds for mutual advantage. But these Irish animals rarely get that sort of peace. They are constantly being shaved, drenched, drugged and force-fed. Vinny the dog nearly lost his life because Connell chose to feed him sheep placentas thus encouraging him to attack a newly born lamb, hardly out of its caul and still smelling of the uterus, and try to eat it.
Whatever attempts Connell makes at mindfulness and reflection he finds himself in the middle of a vortex of opposing ideals and practices. Imperialism, capitalism and globalisation face up against the rural idyll of shepherds, haymaking and fashioning St Brigid crosses of rushes.
And yet… and yet… there is something charming in his cadences and melodies, in the speech patterns that he learnt near Ballinalee, Longford, which sweeten the incompatibilities and allow opposites to coexist.
Although he knows that the farm is a business venture and that, as his uncle puts it ‘there’s money being made there’, Connell is a man who wants to be kindly to the beasts. He takes care to explain to the calves, as they have their horns burnt off, that they will thank him for it in the end.
But the age-old struggle, that between father and son, still has to be resolved and that turns out to be a bloody business.
Connell, J. The Cow Book: A Story of Life on a Irish Family Farm. 2018. Granta. Print.
Isolation. 2005. Directed by Billy O’Brien. Film Four and Lionsgate. Film.
A version of this review was first published on page 37 of the Weekend section of the Irish Examiner on 15th July 2018. It is reproduced here by permission of the Editor.