From Sydney's beaches to my Longford farm

 John Connell is a returned emigrant, writer and award-winning journalist.

John Connell is a returned emigrant, writer and award-winning journalist.

It’s a cool April morning after what has been one of the worst winters in Ireland in living memory. I am sitting down to my computer after morning jobs on the farm and reflecting back on my years as an emigrant. 

Outside my window the gentle waters of Lough Gowna lap and for a brief moment I am transfixed, transported back to Sydney Harbour and gentle days spent there.

I am a farmer and writer now where once I was a journalist and producer in Sydney. I have left that old life behind me but there is a part of me that will forever be Australian.

I came to Australia as a journalism student aged 20 on an exchange program. That move was to define the rest of my life, for six months soon turned into five years and I found myself an accidental Aussie.

I was not alone in that move. Many Irish – indeed, many friends and neighbours – made that same voyage in the years after the recession and worked in the mines and building sites around and throughout the great southern nation.

Sydney was everything Dublin and Longford were not. It was beautiful, and sunny, multicultural and full of opportunities and employment. 

It was in Sydney that I became a writer and a journalist. Putting pen to paper for the first time as a homesick 20-year-old, I wrote my first short story, The Little Black, about a downer cow. The story was to go on to give me my first book deal at the tender age of 23.   It was here too that I met my mentor, the writer David Malouf, who has had a lasting impact on me and helped me become the writer and man I am.

The Australian mentality of the fair go was something new and different to me. Here people judged you not on who you knew, but what you knew and merit was rewarded in a way that Ireland never has quite managed.

I worked for SBS and the ABC before starting my own production company. These were golden years for me; I made friends in both the Australian and the Irish community, including the wonderful and now departed journalist Seumas Phelan. Employment and opportunities, aside Australia was where I met my wife Vivian and so it is forever a joy-filled place for me, a place of grá.

My time in the southern land came to an end a few years ago after a number of health problems forced me home. Those first months in Ireland were not easy ones but they have laid the foundation for my new life here.

Returning to Ireland has been a huge shift. I have lived here now for the last three years and in that time have begun to understand my nation anew. 

There is a beauty and wonder to this place that I see now in ways that I had missed as a child. I had to leave this land in order to appreciate it.

I began farming once again after years as a journalist and the work, while at first hard, proved rewarding. I swapped an office and computer for fields and a tractor. 

I took a great joy in working with my body again and a whole hidden Ireland began to open up to me once more, a world of neighbours and ceilís, of marts and bachelors, local football matches and village fairs.

There were times I missed a nice flat white and a walk by Rushcutters Bay but there is something about bringing a new calf into this world in the middle of a cold Irish winter’s night that no city can ever replicate. 

One has to be active in rural Ireland to feel a part of the community but I have found the rural people of my youth so welcoming and open, for they too have been emigrants and they too know what it is to return.

Australia is where I spent my formative years but Ireland was always calling me home – and it did, eventually.

I’ll forever be an Aussie Irish man, and I’m the better for it.

John Connell, who now lives and works in rural Longford, is a Walkley-winning journalist, farmer and writer. His memoir, The Cow Book, is published this month in Australia by Allen & Unwin.