Born in County Longford, where his debut novel is set, John Connell like many Irish before him emigrated to Australia. The success of his short story The Little Black brought him to the attention of Picador Australia publisher of The Ghost Estate. Set during the Celtic Tiger, the novel explores the psychological and emotional “boom and bust” of those reckless times:
“Gerard McQuaid has been waiting for his start in life: his house, his girl, his land. And with rural Ireland being swept up by the Celtic Tiger and villages becoming towns, the electrician’s moment has finally arrived. With the chance to run a big job, McQuaid finds himself on Birchview Manor, a decrepit estate where the dreams of modern Ireland crash up against the weight of history. As McQuaid gets further into the restoration, he falls deeper into the story of the estate’s previous owner, Lord Henry Lefoyle, whose fate begins to loom ghost-like over McQuaid’s own.”
Gerard Beirne (GB): John, your debut novel, Ghost Estate, somewhat unusually for an Irish writer is being published in Australia (Picador). How did that come about? Are their plans for it to be published in Ireland or England?
John Connell (JC): Yes it is quite unusual. I was an Irish emigrant living and studying in Australia and wrote a short story which was included in two short story anthologies in the country and happily for me it received quite a bit of attention and a few different publishers approached me with book offers. I decided to go with Picador as they said I could write about whatever I wanted so that was a really great gift. I have just engaged an agent at the moment who is looking to see about publishing the book in UK/Irl and other regions. So hopefully 2015 will see the Ghost Estate get an Irish release.
GB: Tens of thousands of Irish have move to Australia in the last decade with many staying on to become permanent residents or citizens? Why did you move there and do you intend on staying?
JC: I went to Australia as an exchange student studying journalism, I was then offered to finish my degree there and did my final degree project on the aboriginal communities in remote Australia and produced an investigative radio documentary, That piece won a journalism award and secured me work with ABC the national broadcaster. I had only ever intended on being in Australia for 6 months which later turned into four and a half years before moving to Canada.
GB: Many of those who have emigrated have done so because of Australia’s “booming” economy – having written a novel about the boom and bust in Ireland, do you see any similarities there, any concerns, warning signs?
JC: Ah yes of course, Australia is in a boom and the refugees of the Tiger are driving that boom in so many sectors. In my few years in Australia I saw the price of living increase, the price of houses, the proliferation of money and its wasting, all the hallmarks of a country running away with itself. Australia unlike Ireland has mineral wealth that won’t run out any time soon, but it is dependent on its trade relationship with China, its number one trade partner. In my opinion, Australia won’t crash like Ireland, but it will slow down (and it has started to slow down- I have Irish friends who work on rigs and mines that have been let go with that same slow down). The greed is fairly pronounced there at the moment sadly.
GB: Where was the book written? If Australia, did this make a difference to the writing of the book? If Ireland, was it necessary to go back to Ireland to write it? If both, was this a necessary part of the process and why?
JC: The book was wrote in Ireland in a portacabin in a field in Longford. It was necessary to write the book in Ireland (I even did the rewrites here). I needed to be in the atmosphere of the place and listening to the local people talk, and I also gained so many stories from local people that ultimately found their way in some form into the book. It would not be the same book if it had been written in Australia. I just actually can’t imagine what it would have been. Ireland was the canvas and the book was the paint if you’ll pardon that bad analogy.
GB: How does the literary world in Australia compare to that in Ireland? — The literary community, the publishing scene, the literature itself? Is there an Irish literary community there?
JC: The literary scene in Australia is quite small compared to Ireland. There are lots of publications and publishing houses but not the sheer volume of writers as we have in Ireland. However, there are wonderful Australian writers with a unique Australian voice. It was only in living in Australia and Canada that I realized the tremendous output of Ireland in world literature. Thomas Keneally author of Schindlers’ List is Irish-Australian and would be the one stop shop for Irish literary scene to my opinion though other writers such as David Malouf have wrote books on Ireland or Irish-Australian subject manner. Ireland and Irishness is part of the history and story of Australia and many Australians have Irish heritage so I suppose we are part of the Australian story in many respects. I mean Ned Kelly was Irish after all. Peter Carey would not have got his Booker without us convicts!
GB: The novel is set in Longford where you grew up – how did the Celtic Tiger and its aftermath affect your home and community? Depression plays a central role in the novel. We know that suicide rates increased due to the recession particularly amongst those in the property business. What has been the psychological impact of the “bust”?
JC: The Celtic Tiger and its death had a huge impact on Longford and other rural communities. Longford was a very quiet place as a child, but it gradually became very busy during the boom years, and in the death of the tiger a ghost county as opposed to a Ghost Estate. Suicide was sadly all too common and still is. We have 10 suicides a week in Ireland. 8 of those are men. Many young men who had known nothing but success in the boom years suddenly found themselves in debt, unemployed and caught; and sadly far too many remained silent, suffered quietly and took their lives. It is a sad, sad truth but one that has yet to be fully talked about. For many, it was either emigrate to Australia and now Canada or face the quiet lonely Longford nights and the dole queue.
GB: You grew up on a farm — how has that played a role in your life? How has farming been impacted by the Celtic Tiger years and how have the changes affected rural communities?
JC: I enjoy the countryside and I’m proud of my rural roots but that’s about it. The Celtic Tiger changed everything in Ireland even farming; farmers were builders and developers too. Thankfully that has calmed down now and people are returning to the land in a more healing and respectful manner.
GB: On a final note, you mentioned that you know Yanis Varoufakis the current Greek Finance Minister. What is your connection to him and does it have any relevance to the book?
JC: Yanis and I talked a number of times after I heard a lecture he gave on the GFC. I was on the rewrite of my book at the time and Yanis’s ideas combined with those of Tony Judt whom I met before he passed away, really cemented some of my economic thinking on why things got as bad as they did. Yanis had offered for me to study with him in Texas, but I had a wedding to plan and he a country to run. Maybe in time we might get to reconnect on that one!
—John Connell & Gerard Beirne
Listen to John Connell read an excerpt.
Excerpt: Kane – a short chapter about the developer
John Kane balanced the car keys and mug of tea in his hands as he opened the sleek black door of his new Landrover. It was a bright if somewhat cold morning. He let the engine warm before he turned the ignition. One, two, three. He sipped from his mug quietly, as the window slowly defrosted.
He was used to this morning routine now. The Landrover moved smoothly along the country roads. He could hear the scrape of briars and overgrown branches against the vehicle as the lanes narrowed towards the cottage.
How many times had he come up this lane? It was beyond measure now. The house was still the same, had been since Noel had lived there. Old Noel, his distant cousin, the bachelor, the man who had left him everything in his will.
But wasn’t that what he had wanted, he reminded himself, all those visits, the shopping trips to Longford, the dinner in the Landmark. Had it all been for the hunger, the want of land, those twenty acres and the plot of turf in Kelleher bog? Yes, he admitted, and no. He and Noel had shared a friendship, and while it was not a surprise that one day the man asked to be brought to the solicitors in town, some part of him felt that he was entitled to it. It was in a way a gift. Though Noel’s niece had never seen it in that light. Not at the funeral when he had taken the front pew reserved for immediate family, nor at the reading of the will when she had received nothing, despite nursing him in those last few months.
Friendship had a price and that was not his fault.
He rolled to the door and beeped the horn. The vehicle hummed quietly as he waited on the cracked concrete. The house was old. Sheds dotted here and there around the yard were filled with turf and old creamery cans. The turf was never burned any more. The house ran on oil.
The Poles emerged with their shaved heads and plastic bags full of sandwiches. Odd they never seemed to have a lunchbox, not one between them, Kane thought to himself.
They had lived here for over two years. He’d done little with the house: put in some bunk beds, a lick of paint and that cheap oil burner instead of the range. The walls were still damp on cold winter mornings. They had probably brought on Noel’s bad chest and would, in time, would make the Poles sick too. But they were young and hardy.
‘Good morning lads,’ Kane said as Jans and the others began slowly to climb into the vehicle.
‘Morning boss,’ said Jans quietly.
‘We’re all well I hope?’ asked Kane, looking in the rear-view mirror towards the others.
‘We well, yes,’ they agreed sullenly.
Each morning was the same. A talk, a half-hearted chat that petered out. There existed in the car two different worlds with many incomprehensions.
‘I drop you at the manor today, okay?’ he said.
The group nodded.
‘Jans, can you come with me to the office? I need you to give me a hand.’
The Polish had arrived with the boom, come like a wind indeed. The country had woken up to find new names and faces that spoke of towns and villages no one had ever heard of. They were good workers and in so many ways were what the Irish had once been, Kane thought. Strong-backed, fond of a drink and, yes, ignorant. They were in search of a better life in another land and yet dreamed only of returning home.
Jans, who spoke the best English, had been a teacher of sorts, but there was more money to be made lifting blocks than teaching children. He, like all the others, had made that Ryanair migration across Europe and somehow, somehow, ended up in Longford.
It still puzzled Kane, Longford being multicultural, and was there not enough trouble between the two native groups that lived here already, not to mention the travellers? How were they ever to come to terms with foreigners when they had yet to come to terms with themselves?
But there was work to be done, and these men, these Poles, were ready to do it.
They never complained, they never questioned, they simply shrugged and worked. They had become serfs in a way; a man’s success could be measured by how many Poles he had working for him.
Kane drove toward the estate. Big Jack would be waiting for them. It was the same routine each morning. And they would be set to work on some menial task around the sites, something a contractor would refuse to do. They were the workhorses of this boom and when it ended, whenever that might be, they would be sent away like all old nags.
On Fridays after work he would bring them to town to wire their wages back to Poland, back to their families. It was perhaps paternalistic but he knew the minds of young men well. If they had the money, they would spend it, and an arsehole pub in the middle of Ireland was no place to waste a week’s work. He would give them their pay slips and drive them to the Western Union branch and the rest was their own choice.
It was not really a life, Kane often thought, to work and save and never be able to fully communicate your thoughts and fears for the lack of words. It was little wonder the men took to the cheap bottles of vodka at the weekend.
They were not so different, not so very different at all, Kane thought. A picture of Poland instead of Ireland on the cheap bedroom walls and a set of rosary beads under each man’s pillow. Poverty had a way of repeating its motifs.
‘Come on, Jans,’ he said as Lech and the others packed out of the Landrover. ‘The gutters in the office need a good clean. They’re full of fucking weeds.’
‘Yes, boss,’ Jans said simply, and returned to silence.
Was it better than teaching, Kane thought. It must be. It must be.
John Connell was born in 1986. He grew up in County Longford, Ireland. An award-winning investigative journalist, playwright and producer, The Ghost Estate (Picador Australia) is his first novel.