Sunday 23 October 2016

From the frontline

Con Houlihan

Published 07/08/2008 | 07:00

Con Houlihan
Con Houlihan

It sounds like a makey-up but it is absolutely true: It is a story about the women who survived the sinking of The Titanic.

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They came together in a New York hotel on the night before they were about to go back to their homes. Before they started their supper, one of them got up and said: "For the rest of my life, no matter how long I live, I will never again worry about small things."

She sat down to warm applause: Obviously she was articulating what they all felt. My neighbours who came home from the First World War would have understood.

They had endured terrible suffering and had experienced unspeakable horrors -- being back in normal life was a kind of promised land. One man who became very well known to me was an exception: He had never married and thus didn't ever settle down. His name was Bill Cronin -- some people called him Baku because he occasionally spoke about his time on The Eastern Front.

There was nothing special about his appearance: he was of average height and build -- but he had a remarkable career as a soldier. Indeed you could say he was a soldier before ever he went to war. He was only a boy when he played his part in attempting to prevent the last eviction of its kind to take place in Kerry.

A small farmer known as Dick Johnny couldn't pay his rent; the bailiffs and the police came to evict him. A little group of his neighbours put up a fierce resistance but of course they couldn't win.The siege was immortalised in a ballad by the local bard, Eugene O'Mara.

It began:

"Ye brave boys of Cordal, ye made a great stand.

Ye fought night and day to keep Walsh on his land

In that sweet little cot by the side of the road

Where the thrush and the blackbird do sing in the grove."

When Bill was wounded on the Eastern Front, he was sent back to Britain to be mended. His kind of wound was called a Blighty -- generally it meant that for you the war was over. When he was deemed again fit to fight , he was sent to The Western Front. He ended his soldiering in Flanders.

In 1950 he got a letter from The War Department telling him that he had got a small emolument for his special services. I filled in the form. The money duly arrived -- it was £270. Bill didn't put it in the post office.

Tales abound about the speed with which that money was spent. I know that it lasted for three whole days. On the day after that epic spree the good soldier Bill was in a terrible state and for about the only time in his life he almost asked someone to stand him a drink. It was a few days after a County Council Election and he met a famous man from Scartaglen, Champion Brosnan, who had just been elected. Bill said: "Well done, Champion, I voted for you." "How could you?" said the Champion, "I'm in South Kerry -- you are in North Kerry." "I know but I voted for you all the same," said Bill.

Bill eked out his pension by doing all kinds of odd jobs. He often gave me a hand or two loading pigs or calves. When the town's drainage gave trouble, he was the man who went down to solve the problem. He had another rather odd duty; it involved a taste for stout.


Mrs CD O'Connor was the leading publican in the town; she was also the most particular. Sometimes a barrel of stout became "casky" as it neared the last few gallons; it was perfectly good but a trifle offside in taste. Mrs CD always sent for Bill to drink the "casky" stout. He did so, aided by some of his companions who had helped him spend £270 in three days.

Bill, God rest him, left behind an immortal one-liner: "There is no such thing as bad porter."

His kinsman, Pa Cronin, usually called Paeen, was almost a member of a different species. He was a tall hardy man with a triangular face -- he had a total aversion to regular work.

He was a brilliant handballer: He could give good players several points of a start and win without breaking sweat.

Money was terribly scarce in those days. Paeen did well if he made five shillings on a good Sunday, usually at three pence or six pence a game. He had other means of making a living: When he went out in the last hour before dusk, he usually carried a sack under his arm. If he met a hen that had strayed too far from the house, he would put her into his sack to save her from the fox. And if he met a duck that loved water not wisely but too well, he would save her from being carried down to the ocean.

I doubt if Paeen ever darkened the door of a draper's shop: His coats and trousers were mostly those of men who had passed away. His shirts were usually new.

Paeen, was of course a terrible thief -- and yet he was respected: During the War Of Independence he had saved the lives of many volunteers by keeping both ears to the ground -- especially at night. He had a good wife and a nice family; eventually when a mission came to the town, they persuaded him to make his peace with God. And so he told a Redemptorist all about his drinking and thieving. The priest said: "Will you change your ways?" Paeen, being a very honest man, said: "No father."

"Then by the time the bell strikes for twelve tomorrow, you'll be dead."

Next morning he went down to the river and lay in a bed of reeds. After what seemed an infinity of time the bell rang. He waited until the last stroke to make sure and ran up the field and in the back door of his local pub. He shouted: "Mrs Kelleher, I'm alive." She said: "Pa, I can see that." And she began to pull a pint.

He told her his story and said: "Mrs Kelleher, even if I live forever, no matter what a priest tells me, I won't die again."

Fogra: Danny Mullins, son of Tony and Margaret, brought in three winners one day at Galway last week: It was marvellous for a 16-year-old

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