“I was a man who had suffered a four-year dark night of the soul – there was depression and the loss of loved ones in my life”

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When I think back to the summer of 2020 when the world was down, when the soul of the nation was still reeling from the first wave of the pandemic, I found the invincible summer within me.

decided to keep a promise I made to myself 10 years ago. I was young then, younger than I am now, and I lived in Australia. I had embarked on a kayaking trip in Sydney Harbour, a port that nearly cost me my life, and I promised myself that if I got out of danger, I would venture down the Camlin River, near my home in Co Longford. It would be a trip, a trip I would take to say “thank you” to life for bringing me back.

During those faithful and fateful two days, we sailed down the river and discovered a world that had not been destroyed by the pandemic. It was a world of trout and dragonflies – a world that went on. Time had stopped then, but time too was endless. The course of the rivers continued like the lapping of the seas.

The Camlin River has always been a special place for me, a river I built rafts on as a child with my family and neighbors. The Camlin, the crooked pool as it is known, was the site of trips of pleasure and merriment at that time, but has become so much more in 2020. It has become the site of a grand voyage, an alley, a Dream travel. It was a journey of the heart.

I decided to venture down the river in a Canadian canoe, but needed a co-pilot. I needed a friend.

As one world so often closes, another opens. If we have eyes to see, we can fathom all the depths, traverse all the crossings.

My friend Peter was from Britain, at home writing a book when I came up with the idea that we venture the length of the river about 30 miles or more from near its source in the east of the county and that we followed her for two days until her end at Clondra in the west of the county.

We didn’t know what we were going to find but we had a song in our hearts and, in this period of downtime, it was a way to put some movement back into our lives. It was our chance to find Eden in everything. It was ours seven story mountain as the Trappist monk Thomas Merton so aptly put it all those decades ago.

The river knew me as a boy, why not know me as a man, I thought – and so we set out from Ballinalee village that evening in May – seeing the house as it seemed for the first time .

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Negotiate the Camlin River

Negotiate the Camlin River

Canoeing a river, paddling its course, we have to slow down, we have to move with the river — become one with a river. In this space, a minute can be like an hour and an hour like a minute.

We entered river time and in a way, I think now I’m still in that time. Always flowing with its gentle rocking.

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Camlin River, County Longford.  Photo: Carrickcraft


Camlin River, County Longford. Photo: Carrickcraft

Camlin River, County Longford. Photo: Carrickcraft

On the river we encountered a new horizon and a canoe was the right way to see it.

The rivers were the first roads of this land, on which the ancients explored the interior of the nation and pushed ever further into the interior of their coastal communities. We think of the canoe as a modern vehicle, but here in this country there are canoes so old that we marvel at the genius of those who came before us. One need only think of Lurgan’s canoe at the National Museum of Ireland in Dublin.

For the ancients, there were no nations as we know them today and despite the fact that the world was so much larger at the time, regular trade took place between Ireland and the rest of the world. ‘Europe. Indeed, the beautiful silverware of the time produced in Ireland can be found as far away as Germany and Scandinavia. Such was the connection of the ancients by their waterways.

I didn’t know until my trip why the ancients took on water thousands of years ago, but I think now it was something about the endless horizon that across its borders across its lines lay the true secrets of life.

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Peter and John going down the Camlin


Peter and John going down the Camlin

Peter and John going down the Camlin

I took my trip with Peter not just to say thank you to God for bringing me back safe and sound to the fields that know my name. I brought with me wounds, wounds and losses that had to be left on this river.

I was a man who had suffered a four-year dark night of the soul. An inner journey of love and loss and it felt like it was then in my seventh year at home that it was time to leave those things at the end of that river. There was a failed marriage, a black dog of depression that almost brought me down, and the loss of loved ones in my life.

In the harvest of memory, as the Irish poet John O’Donohue called it, we often only remember bad memories. They gather like a scab erasing the good in the book of life. These things had hung around like a black specter that erased good things or spoiled them in so many ways.

One of life’s great sorrows is that which is not navigated and unlived, but one of the great tragedies is thinking that we have not made the right choices. Going down this river, I tried to let these thoughts float, to put an end to their obsession. We cannot change our pasts but we can make peace with them.

Water is a song between rain and earth but it is more, it is the absolved liquid of life. He can wash all things.

On the river too, there was nature, nature in all its beautiful forms. The spirit of the world created the majesty of the swans and it is them I remember best now in their graceful forms was the call of beauty and it is something we must always strive to keep in our hearts.

When we saw the first animals, as the writer John Berger said, they were sacred, they were magical. We painted their shapes on our humble caves. They spoke to us beyond words. Camlin’s animals communicated to me in this way. They were our northern stars, our beacons. They allowed us to enter their world without reprimand, they were not spectacles, they were another sentient thing with thoughts and actions of their own. They weren’t broken animals, they weren’t tamed creatures, they were givers of life and guides leading us to a bright future.

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John Connell in his boat on the river


John Connell in his boat on the river

John Connell in his boat on the river

There, on the river, we forgot about the pandemic for those two days. We talked about life and adventure. We thought of St Brendan whose party had fallen at the time of our trip.

I have always loved St Brendan, not least because he is the father of all boat travel in this country. His Navigato Sancti Brendani Abbatis is one of the earliest and truest immrams. The immrams are both mythological and real tales of sea travel concerning journeys across the wild Atlantic to the Immortal Lands or in Saint Brendan’s case, the Promised Land.

Like the navigator that we too were on an immram, we left like the heroes of yesteryear for the adventure but also we too in the action came to accomplish something deeper.

As the journey progressed, we traveled on a journey of soul work. And I came to realize something – that the soul, like life, is not spotless. It’s a messy, dirty thing, covered in dirt, bandaged with wounds and victories. In short, it is real and complete.

This canoe trip changed my life. It was the summer when we discovered the house. It was the summer when we discovered each other. It was the journey that made me realize the power of love and that time makes its own rhythm.

It was a book of the pandemic, it was a book that this time could only have created. It made me the human I am now. Water is life as the saying goes. It’s the flow of everything.

‘The Stream of Everything’ by John Connell published by Gill Books is now available, price €16.99

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