Friday 20 October 2017

He'd keep you talking till dawn

They were poor but decent people, barely scraping a living on a small farm that was more water than land. Con Houlihan's friends milked three cows and grew their own spuds and cabbage. Dried and salty bacon hung from the roof of their thatched cottage. The diet was simple. Bacon and cabbage for the dinner. Potatoes every day, and the odd feed of an old hen when her egg-laying days were over.

There were no factories and the only employment to be had was in the shops of Castle Island or a maybe a few days' hire with a bigger farmer. It may have seemed like an idyllic, self-contained world of wholesome food and living off the fat of the land. In a way it was – but the life of the small farmer was hard, and money was always scarce.

Con idealised this world in his writing. He did not give the full picture. Con couldn't bring himself to tell the whole truth. These people were his friends and neighbours. How could he tell of the grinding poverty and embarrass his own?

There was hardly a house in the hill country that didn't have several in the States or England. The money sent home afforded the occasional luxury and kept Ireland afloat. Con wrote lovingly of men bringing the milk to the creamery by donkey and cart, and they wearing the parcel from America, orange pants and multicoloured, Hawaiian-style shirts.

We have finally arrived, after a good few detours, at that neighbour's cottage in the highlands near the edge of the Houlihans' bog.

Con brought his own food. A loaf of his mother's homemade griddle bread, a drop of colouring for the tea in a Baby Power bottle, a couple of hard-boiled eggs and maybe a lump of full-fat, home-cured yellow bacon. His mother kept a small shop and Con brought a bag of penny sweets for the children.

In with him then to the neighbours, for the kettle was always boiling there over the turf fire, even in summer.

Con got a great welcome and he was asked to sit at the table while the woman of the house prepared a feast. Now, Con knew these were poor people and you can imagine his surprise when five lamb chops with huge hoola-hoops of fried onions and a haycock of pandy was placed before him. There followed a dessert of jelly and custard. The red jelly was left in the huge saucepan it was set in. A full saucepan of custard was poured over the jelly. Con could hardly get off the sugan chair after the feed.

The bean an ti wet the tea but she couldn't bear to see such a big man, such a brainy man and such a well-loved neighbour drinking the tea on its own. She put down another feed on the big, blackened, cast-iron griddle. A half-pound of sausages, shop rashers and black pudding sizzled and whistled for Con. One of the clutch of children was sent out to search for a hen egg. He came back with two. One was fried and the other was boiled.

Con, being Con, ate every last bite. Out of politeness.

He told the whole story later that day at my Uncle Jim's shop. Con was so welcome there, too. He was one of their own who went to university on a scholarship, in times when only the rich could afford to go. Con graduated with first-class honours from UCC. The people in and around Castle Island had a great love of learning and Con was declared a genius before he was no more than 20 years of age.

For all his brilliance, young Con always spoke with a hand to his mouth. My mother put it down to shyness, "or maybe," she said, "it was his way of not showing off how brilliant he really was." Con, it seems, might have had a crush on my Auntie Norrie but he was too shy to ask her out and there was the danger, too, he might spoil a lovely friendship.

My Uncle Jim told of how the poor family from the bog lands purchased vast quantities of groceries from his shop, so much so, the messages had to be brought up to the house in tea chests.

The family had the great luck to get an inheritance from some far-out cousin who died in America. There wasn't enough to live forever without working but the legacy was more than sufficient to provide a feed fit for Con Houlihan.

Some 60 years on, my mother remembers every word of that story told in the country shop on the road to Abbeyfeale, and it was here, too, that Con met my father for the first time.

John B cycled the 20 miles over the steep hills of Lyracrompane to see my mother. Con happened to be in the shop at the time and the young writers became friends for life, within minutes.

Con was already a rising star, with regular pieces appearing in 'The Kerryman'. He was also part of the editorial staff of two on the 'Taxpayers' News', a radical paper set up in Castle Island by Charlie Lenihan. Charlie was a butcher and a farmer. He was one of the first to recognise Con's genius as a writer. The young Con not only produced articles on Sartre but also helped make Charlie's famous black puddings, which were exported to places as far away as Killarney and Tralee.

Con maintained it was the printer's ink from his mixing hand that gave the puddings an enduring darkness and unique flavour.

John B was young and eager. Con and John B had so much to talk about. Poems were said. Scraps of writing were read. Con praised Dad and gave him courage.

Dad walked his bike as far as Con's house, about two miles in towards Castle Island from Uncle Jim's shop. With the flow of the conversation, he missed the turn off for Listowel.

Con walked back with Dad from his own place to the edge of Lyre at a high place called the top of the Maam. The lights of Castle Island twinkled down below in the valley and the two talked of writing and of writers and of football and of rugby and of their dreams and fears, until the street lamps were turned off at dawn.

My grandfather, Bill, was a teacher and he was leaving for school when Dad arrived home to Church Street.

"I was very worried, John. Where in the name of God were you all night?" And the same man, who was very mild-mannered, was cross with my Dad. These were different times. No boyfriend would dare to stay out all night a-courting back then.

"Ah," said my Dad to his Dad, "you'd never know who I met over in Mary's house, only Con Houlihan."

"That explains it all," said Granddad. "Sure wouldn't that man keep anyone out all night?"

Irish Independent

Editor's Choice

Also in Irish News