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

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

I wanted to keep a promise I made to myself 10 years ago. I was young then, younger than now and I live in Australia. I had embarked on a kayaking tour of Sydney Harbour, a harbor that nearly cost me my life, and I had made a promise to myself that when I was out of danger I would go down the River Camlin, near mine House in Co Longford . It would be a journey, a journey I would take to say thank you to life for bringing me back.

In those two faithful and fateful days, we traveled down the river and found a world untouched by the pandemic. It was a world of trout and dragonflies – a world that went on. Time stood still then, but time never ended either. The rivers flowed on like the lapping of the seas.

The River Camlin has always been a special place for me, a river that I used to build rafts on as a boy with my family and neighbors. The Camlin, the crooked pool as it is known, was the place for fun and merry travel back then, but in 2020 it has become something so much more. It became the site of a great journey, a journey, a journey into the Dreamtime. It was a journey of the heart.

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

As one world closes, so often another opens. If we have eyes to see, we can fathom all depths, wade through all traverses.

My friend Peter was home from the UK, home to write a book, when I proposed the idea that we venture down the river some 30 miles or more from near its source in the east of the county and take it up to it for two days to follow it ends in Clondra in the west of the county.

We didn’t know what we would find, but we had a song in our hearts, and during this time of stillness, it was a way to bring movement back into our lives. It was our chance to find the Eden in everything. It was our own Seven storied mountain as the Trappist monk Thomas Merton so rightly put it all those decades ago.

The river knew me as a boy, why shouldn’t it know me as a man, I thought – and so we set out from the village of Ballinalee that May evening – and for the first time discovered home as it seemed.


Negotiations on the River Camlin

In canoeing on a river, in paddling its current, we have to slow down, we have to move with the flow – like being one with a river. In this space, a minute can be an hour and an hour can be a minute.

We have entered the flow time and in a way I think I am still in that time. Still flowing with its gentle swaying.


Camlin River, County Longford. Image: Carrickcraft

We encountered a new horizon on the river and a canoe was the way to go to see it.

Rivers were the first roads in this land, along which the ancients explored the interior and pushed ever further inland from their coastal communities. We think of the canoe as a modern vehicle, but here in this country canoes are of such an age that we marvel at the genius of their predecessors. Just think of the Lurgan canoe in the National Museum of Ireland in Dublin.

Nations as we know them today did not exist for the ancient people and although the world was so much larger then, regular trade took place between Ireland and the rest of Europe. In fact, the beautiful goldwork made in Ireland from the period can be found as far away as Germany and Scandinavia. Such was the connection of the ancients through their waterways.

I didn’t know until my trip why the ancients took to the water all those thousands of years ago, but I think now it was something with the infinite horizon, beyond its limits, beyond its limits, life’s true mysteries lay.


Peter and John on their way down the Camlin

I went on the journey with Peter not just to thank God for bringing me home safely to the fields that know my name. I brought with me some wounds, some injuries and casualties that had to be left behind 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 seemed like in my seventh year at home it was time to leave those things at the end of that river. There was a failed marriage, a dark dog of depression that nearly drove me to the abyss, and the loss of loved ones in my life.

In the Harvest of Memory, as Irish poet John O’Donohue called it, we so often remember only the bad memories. They gather like a scab that erases the good in the book of life. These things had hung around like a dark specter, wiping out the good things or damaging them in so many ways.

One of life’s great sufferings is the unresolved and unlived, but one of the great tragedies is the thought that we haven’t made the right choices. Walking down that river, I tried to let those thoughts drift away, to put an end to their haunting. We cannot change our past, but we can make peace with it.

Water is a song between rain and earth, but it is more than that, it is the liberating liquid of life. It can wash away everything.

There was also nature along the river, nature in all its beautiful forms. The mind of the world created the majesty of the swans and I remember them best now, in their graceful forms was the calling of beauty and that is something we must always strive to cherish in our hearts.

When we first saw animals, as the writer John Berger said, they were sacred, they were magical. We have painted their shapes on our humble caves. They spoke to us in a way that goes beyond words. The animals of the Camlin communicated to me in this way. They were our north stars, our guiding lights. They let us into their world without reproach, they weren’t glasses, they were another sentient thing with thoughts and actions of their own. They weren’t broken animals, they weren’t tame creatures, they were givers of life and guides that led us to a bright future.


John Connell in his boat on the river

Out on the river we forgot about the pandemic for those two days. We talked about life and adventure. We thought of St. Brendan, whose feast day fell in the period of our travels.

I’ve always loved St. Brendan, not least because he’s the father of all boating in this country. His Navigato Sancti Brendani Abbatis is one of the first and truest Imrams. The Imrams are both mythological and real sea voyage stories about the voyages across the wild Atlantic to the Immortal Lands, or in the case of Saint Brendan, the Promised Land.

Like the Navigator, we too were on an imram, setting out on adventure like the heroes of old, but also in doing we have come to fulfill something deeper.

As the journey continued, we traveled on a journey of soul work. And I realized something – that the soul, like life, is not flawless. It’s a messy, dirty, dirt-covered thing associated with wounds and victories. In short, it’s real and complete.

This canoe trip changed my life. It was the summer we discovered at home. It was the summer that we discovered ourselves. It was the journey that made me aware of the power of love and that time has its own rhythm.

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

John Connell’s The Stream of Everything, published by Gil Books, is available now for €16.99 “I was a man who had suffered a dark night of the soul for four years – there was depression and the loss of loved ones in my life.”

Fry Electronics Team

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