Conor Farrell: “Chernobyl was mad, I was shell-shocked”
Sitting in Hamill’s Bar on Bridge Street in Ardee, Conor Farrell explains to ThisIsArdee.ie how the idea for his debut book ‘The Road To Chernobyl – A Photographic Tour’ developed. It’s fair to say, not all beginnings of literary classics begin quite like this.
“I had a hangover and I was lying on the sofa,” Conor tells us. “I threw on that channel Dave and sure, Top Gear is always on it. It was that episode where they drove across Ukraine and into Chernobyl. I was sitting there wondering if I could do that.”
As it turns out, if you haven’t already guessed, he could. And he did. He wrote a book about it. Conor’s book, which is now available on Amazon, delves into the story of the catastrophic nuclear accident that occurred 30 years ago.
On April 26th 1986, an explosion and fire at the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant released large quantities of radioactive contamination into the atmosphere. The plume of smoke swirled over Western USSR and Europe. It is considered the worst nuclear power plant accident in history.
31 people died as a direct result of the disaster – including many first responders and employees of the plant. Depending on who you speak to, the exact death toll due to the nuclear explosion and the subsequent widespread contamination could stand anywhere between 4,000 and 60,000.
The fallout from the Chernobyl explosion even reached Ireland – almost a week later on May 2nd 1986. Conor’s journey took him in the opposite direction, deep into the exclusion zone.
Whilst watching Top Gear – credit where it is due to Jeremy Clarkson and chums – Conor got to work on some basic trip research. Could it be possible for him to go to Chernobyl and experience the ghost towns and vacant cities, left almost untouched from the immediate evacuation that followed the disaster?
“I opened up the phone and looked up how I would get to Ukraine. That was cheap and fairly doable,” he explains. “There are tour groups who bring people in and there’s lots of different ones. I ended up going with the one that brought the Top Gear team in.
“It was quite cheap. You book it through them. They take care of all of the paperwork and insurance and all that because there is a lot of that to do when you’re going through borders to get in. I checked out hotels and I was still sat there watching Top Gear and it was doable.
“I said ‘Fuck it, I’ll go for it’. I booked time off work.”
Having studied physics and astronomy at DCU, Conor’s interest in nuclear energy had been long standing prior to his decision to head for Ukraine. Clarkson can’t take credit for that. He had always been fascinated by the Chernobyl disaster, and a keen photographer, this trip would provide ample material to educate and aim his camera at.
Harking back to his memories of watching news reports as a child, he recalls how they were so often dominated with stories from the Soviet Union and eastern Europe too.
“The whole idea of the Soviet Union rings a bell with me as well because back when I was young I used to hear about the USSR and the Berlin Wall and the break-up of Yugoslavia. I didn’t really understand what it all meant until I was older. I thought ‘Okay, there’s a snapshot of the Soviet Union in northern Ukraine and it’s just left there from the mid-1980s.’
“It’s all still there pretty much as it was left, though obviously, it’s deteriorated now.”
That deterioration is starkly presented in Conor’s book with stunning photography of Chernobyl, the reactor site, neighbouring Pripyat and its abandoned schools, public areas and apartment blocks. Over 60 photos provide readers with that quite literal snapshot of a forgotten land.
Of course, for as desolate as Chernobyl is, it’s far from forgotten. Everyone knows what Chernobyl is, and what occurred there. It’s a story oft-told. Conor’s trip to Chernobyl lasted just one day, so you’d be forgiven for thinking book writing pickings might be slim. Not so. The book is very uniquely his take on Chernobyl as he saw it through his own eyes – and his lens.
“It’s a bit of a mix of things,” he says, when asked how he would describe the book to a potential purchaser. “The sub-title of the book is A Photographic Tour so it is a photographic tour.
“The book itself is about my trip into the exclusion zone right from leaving Kiev, travelling on the literal road to Chernboyl, arriving at the exclusion zone border, getting passports checked, going inside and I wanted to tell people what that was like.
“In one sense, it’s a description of my experience of Chernobyl but it’s also the story of Chernobyl itself. What happened, what happened the people, the evacuation process, the clean-up process, what education might have been like in Soviet Russia,” he continued.
“It is a tour through the exclusion zone but it is also explaining the history and the context of the whole story as well. It’s a shortened history if you will.”
Since launching the book earlier this month, Conor has seen it snapped up by readers all over the world – including the United States and across Europe too. It’s been a whirlwind few months. Just a few months ago, the Ardonian had no concrete plans to write a book – despite an interest – nor was a trip to Chernobyl on the cards. Now, he’s an author on the subject.
He travelled to Ukraine for his trip back in April of this year. In the book, he goes into detail about the trip, what he saw on the long bus journeys in and out of the 30km and then 10km exclusion zones en route to the reactor site at the former power plant and Pripyat too.
His images – he took between 600 and 700 on his visit that lasted a mere few hours – lay bare the scale of the evacuation procedure in the immediate aftermath of the nuclear explosion. It’s eerie. His words recount the horror and scale of the accident.
“We left Kiev at about 8am,” Farrell recalls, “and it takes about an hour and a half or two hours to get to the border with Belarus to get into Chernobyl.
“We stayed there all day. I spent half the day visiting these abandoned villages – they’re not even villages anymore, they’re just signposts dotted around the place. Then we went up to the reactor site and saw the reactor which is being covered at the end of this month actually.
“Then we went into the old abandoned city of Pripyat for a few hours as well, into these old factories, old schools. It was mad. I was shellshocked on the way home to Kiev on the bus. What had I just experienced? Everything was running through my head. That was so intense like. It was crazy. It was an unreal experience.
Before embarking on his trip, Conor had anticipated merely to take lots and lots of photographs – which he did. The intention was to write a long read blog post of some sort, as opposed to going down the route of becoming a published author.
“Before I went, I didn’t know what material I would get there. I did intend to take a lot of photos. But just to have phots. It was maybe a couple of weeks afterwards that I decided to get these into a book.
“I had such a really interesting time there, it was so fascinating, I had so many photos and there was a massive story to tell. I decided to bypass the whole blog post and stick it into a book. That’s how it came along. I just got writing.
Effectively self-published using the Amazon Create Space platform, Conor wrote the book, choose his photos and constructed the page layout a few hours at a time over the last few months. It has been far from a painstaking experience. He says the only really difficult aspect of putting it together was having to decide what photos to leave.
“The painstaking thing was trying to decide what photos went in the book. The writing – the narrative – tells kind of a story, chapter by chapter and it kind of tells my experience from walking through towns and villages,” he says.
“It was the hardest thing to do but also the most important thing to do because you have to put forward a sense of what this place is like.
Perhaps a rare case, Conor’s decision to write a book after he had returned from his trip to Ukraine and Chernobyl had an impact on his writing process and the sort of book he delivered. As opposed to an author making a trip to research an upcoming work, it was very much the other way round for Conor, originally from Boat Trench in the town.
On a practical level too, Conor was quick to point out that support he received at home as plans for his book developed and ramped up over time. Given the nature of how his book was being published, there was an obvious reliance on friends and family to do – amongst other things – much of the proof reading.
“I had to do a lot of research after it to consolidate that knowledge I gained and put it into something coherent. A lot of the stuff I learned about Chernobyl came after the trip.
“I didn’t expect to write a book before I went,” he explains. “If I had, I probably would have done a load of research beforehand and then fortified it with the trip itself. I think the book would have been too factual. I did my research afterwards and I was able to portray my own personal experience of it.
“I think that worked very well because it was a very, sort of, an interesting experience. I wanted to portray that and show that it did impact on me personally.
“I had a lot of help from friends and family who supported me through the writing process. I’m very thankful to them because without their encouragement and support, I probably wouldn’t have had a book in the end. Everyone is still supporting me and the project.”
Working in IT for Dublin based Terminal Four, Conor admits the possibility of more writing excites him. Given the breadth of photographs at his disposal and insights with to explore further, he says Chernobyl could be the subject for a follow-up to his debut.
“It was hard writing it but it’s satisfying. Writing a book like that is addictive.
“There is the possibility of going back to Chernobyl and writing more about it. There is a lot more to see in Chernobyl. I do have a lot of material there for another book.”
Fuck it, he may book some more time off sometime soon then.
The Road To Chernobyl – A Photographic Tour’ by Conor Farrell is available to buy now on Amazon, for £17.99. You can find out more information about the book and Conor’s journey plus read an extra chapter and see new photographs – on his website conorfarrell.com/chernobyl. Alternatively, you can check out The Road To Chernobyl Facebook page.