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The greatest writer of them all

The greatest writer of them all

Michael Commins pays tribute to the late legendary journalist, Con Houlihan, who was buried in Dublin last Wednesday

Con Houlihan crossed the Great Divide last week. That great hulk of a Kerryman strolled across the rugged plains of our hearts like no one else in Irish sports journalism. He was the colossus that touched our spirit and brought us on magical journeys around the world.
First memories run deep and mine of Con were chiselled in stone many years ago. Let me take you on a little journey back in time, back to the mid to late 1970s when I was working with the Bank of Ireland in Abbeyleix. The web belonged to the spiders and the mobile phone was still a long way off.
Memories come cascading like some old forgotten waterfall far back in the canyons of the mind. Monday evenings and I can hardly wait to get out of the office and cross the street to Loughlin and Mary Moran’s paper shop, gentle souls of Laois whose accents still evoke the fondest of mellow feelings. The Evening Press has arrived from Dublin. And it’s the back page news that sings to the heart.
Con Houlihan’s epistle spread double column down the page on Mondays, Wednesday and Fridays was balm to the soul. From the great showdowns in Croke Park and Thurles to the World Cup and Olympic Games, the worlds of horseracing and rugby and boxing, we marvelled at the way he held us spellbound.
One Sunday evening when the crescendo of human emotions had eased to a gentle wave after a tumultuous Munster Hurling Final in Thurles, I met Con in The Hibernian Hotel in Abbeyleix. He was on his way back to Dublin. Con had a soft spot for The Hibernian and the Harding family who owned it. It was a regular oasis in his thirsty desert.

Familiar trademark
I recall most of all his familiar trademark …the hand cupped across his mouth. The voice was Kerry and the western seaboard, passed down the generations, transferred from Gaelic to English and moulded by the southwest winds and the rugged landscape.
It is a well known fact that he had a soft spot for this region of Ireland. He knew it echoed to a different beat than the South, the North and the West and Dublin. His term of affection was ‘the gentle midlands’. And in the days before the madness of the Celtic Tiger years, he nailed it with precision.
When I heard of Con’s passing, I was transported back to the summers of my dreams. I could hear the voice of the ‘Murray’ Anderson still referring to Portlaoise as ‘Mar’borough’ …one of the last of a generation to cling to the old name as the sun went down on The Empire. The ‘Murray’ loved his evening tipple across the road in Morrissey’s famous pub.
I was in digs in the home of Kitty Keyes, a country woman who moved to town from nearby Spink. One evening I lamented that I had never heard the corncrake around Abbeyleix and told her it was still quite common at the time back home in Mayo. Tears welled up in her eyes. She asked me to try and record the call of a corncrake on my tape recorder on my next visit home.  And that I did. In that kitchen on the Ballinakill Road, I learned a lesson that has stayed with me. We can never under-estimate the sounds of our youth and their ability to generate powerful emotions in the human psyche.
The night Big Tom and his band came up to her home after a dance in the local Macrá Hall and enjoyed late night tea and tart and biscuits before heading back to Castleblayney was a night she cherished until her death four years ago. All-Ireland medals in any grade in Laois are rare but she lived to see her niece Mary Kehoe win a Senior Ladies one when the blue and white defeated Mayo by a point in the epic final of 2001. I think Con would have serenaded the midlands girls on that famous day too.

Great rivalry
Con was enthralled by the great rivalry between Kerry and Dublin that flowered in the 1970s. No one played a more central part in glamorising the GAA than Con Houlihan. He took it to a whole new level. Sometimes his musings started off in the Hill Country around Knocknagoshel. It was a voyage of Biblical proportions. Players like John Egan had resonances of John the Baptist … preparing the way.
So many counties had their day in the sun with the greatest wordsmith of them all. Kilkenny and Mooncoin and lovely Molly danced in the winds. And Tipperary was never more than a stone’s throw away. And Cork and Limerick and Waterford were there too. He loved the Offaly and Clare hurlers who thrilled us in the 1980s and 90s.
And then there was Wexford, home of Boolavogue and Vinegar Hill and the pleasant Slaney. And the Rackard brothers from Killane whose deeds are up there with Cúchulainn. And when I think of full forwards in hurling, no one surpasses Tony Doran. Teeth missing, ferocious in battle, the heart of a great county. That hand rising amid a symphony of hurlers, battered but unbroken. If Wexford had decided to line out in black and blue as a tribute to Tony Doran, one could have understood.
Galway and the men of the West charmed Con. I recall reading his column after the hurling final of 1979. He was there in his regular spot on the old Canal End, the man behind the wire. Kilkenny halted their march that day. But the Connollys and maroon and white were back the following September. I was there when Joe Connolly raised the Liam McCarthy aloft and made that famous speech.
In 1987, Galway added another crown. Con wrote at the time: “The denizens of the Canal Terrace had seen two near miracles under their noses (saves by Galway goalie John Commins) - now they were in great voice. By now Galway’s equivalent of the US Seventh Cavalry, Noel Lane and PJ Molloy, were on the pitch.”
PJ, the man from Athenry, remains one of my especial heroes in Galway hurling lore to this day. I think Con once said that while football had its stars, hurling had its heroes. I endorse that sentiment all the way.

Fondness for loyalty
St Patrick’s Athletic became Con’s adopted team in League of Ireland soccer. He had a fondness for loyalty. I have never yet been to a League of Ireland game but, on the invitation of my good Dublin friend Frank Duffy, a Shelbourne supporter of some decades, I hope to rectify that before this month is out …on the condition that I wear my Mayo jersey to the game!
The late 70s was the era of Tracy Austin, that Californian teenager who won the hearts of millions. Blond and beautiful, my young generation all fell in love with Tracy back then. I think Con did too. She won the US Open in 1979 and 1981 and though never winning the Wimbledon Singles, she did capture a doubles title with her brother John. Con wrote about her with devotion. I often wonder what he would have thought of Suzi Quatro, a pop idol of that era and when the soothing tones of John Denver and Don Williams were calming as the Ibiza sunshine.
One of the greatest tragedies in the history of Irish publishing was the demise of The Irish Press, Sunday Press and Evening Press. These papers, through poorly managed, had their finger on the pulse of a large swathe of the nation. Tim Pat Coogan was a giant in the editor’s chair at the Irish Press. Though Con Houlihan continued to write for other publications, his natural home was The Evening Press. For many years, he was, in essence, the heart and soul of The Evening Press.
Mulligan’s in Poolbeg Street was one of his favourite haunts. He enjoyed his drink and made no apologies about it. It relaxed the mind and opened up a flow and torrent as powerful as Niagara Falls. As Tammy Wynette once sang the immortal line, “after all he’s just a man” …. and what a man Con was from Castleisland.
Portobello Bridge and the swans on the canal, the ducks on the river behind the Canal End at Croke Park, are now part of Dublin in the rare auld times when we think of Con. On a walk along O’Connell Street, he once described the countryman’s visit to the Gresham Hotel as ‘in the front door, through the lobby and out the back’.
Many of us have our own favourite writers that waltz through our minds and take us to places where eagles still fly. John Steinbeck has done that for me over the years. The legendary Californian writer was blessed with an intellect that combined rural glory and small town life. One small paragraph from The Grapes of Wrath encapsulates the beauty of his mind. “A large drop of sun lingered on the horizon and then dripped over and was gone, and the sky was brilliant over the spot where it had gone, and a torn cloud, like a bloody rag, hung over the spot of its going. And dusk crept over the sky from the eastern horizon, and darkness crept over the land from the east.”
Paddy Kavanagh from Inniskeen shook hands with this beauty too. His Monaghan hills ‘looking eternally north towards Armagh’ resonate deeply. And In Memory of My Mother, he touches home base:

“Going to second Mass on a summer Sunday -
You meet me and you say:
‘Don’t forget to see about the cattle - ‘
Among your earthiest words the angels stray.”

Earthiest words

Con Houlihan also wrote the ‘earthiest words’. He was a romantic at heart. When Fermanagh reached the All Ireland semi-final a few years ago, it was the equivalent of Scunthorpe reaching the last four of the FA Cup. Con loved the glorious uncertainly of sport which, of course, reflects life itself. Moments like these brought out the child in his wondrous mind.
I would dearly have loved to see him report on Mayo bringing Sam Maguire home to the land of the shamrock and heather. That can never happen now but we will still wear out the roads to Croke Park in search of the Holy Grail as is part of the nature of our western spirit. Others will do the same on the roads to Thurles and Clones and whatever sport appeals to their hearts.
Kitty Keyes and the Murray Anderson from Laois have crossed to The Far Side Banks of Jordan.  Now Con has crossed that river too. Like he once said about Jack Dempsey, the World Heavyweight Champion, boxing has its own grapevine. Con Houlihan has produced a harvest that will last forever and a day. Castleisland, you produced a legend. He was, without question, the greatest writer of them all.