Con Houlihan

Wednesday 30 July 2014

Poetic licence

Con Houlihan

Published 26/06/2008|08:47

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Con Houlihan

In a previous incarnation I was the editor of a periodical. And so you might say that I have come down in the world -- and I don't mean The Sunday World. The Taxpayers' News was a rather prosaic title for a monthly magazine that was anything but prosaic.

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It was bright and lively and in some ways you could say it was bizarre. You might see an article on how to make good concrete side by side with a poem, perhaps a love poem.

Patrick Kavanagh used to say that the standing army of Irish poets was never less than a thousand. He didn't know the half of it: it seemed to me that this number was in Kerry alone. The appearance of Castle Island's first-ever paper seemed to convince half of Kerry that they could write poetry. Little old ladies and little young ladies strove for instant fame. I couldn't accommodate them all.

One of the first poems I published came from a young man called Jackie Keane. It was his first appearance in print. He went on to great fame and some fortune as John B Keane.

Our paper had a literary flavour as befitted a county where the best English is spoken. In every number we included a short story by some famous writer or other. This was a good idea in two ways: the stories were excellent reading and we didn't have to pay the authors -- they were long dead. Every month we published a rather long poem -- of course it wasn't a poem at all -- it was only verse or worse. It commented rather irreverently on current affairs, local and national and international. It was called The Doggerel In The Manger.

We also carried cartoons and drawings. I remember one especially: it showed three men standing on a rick of hay -- it was captioned "Summit Conference". A local expert contributed Gardening Notes. We also had a column on cooking from a famous woman -- an Abbey playwright no less. On one occasion she failed to send her piece. That's where an editor comes in -- he has to fill the void. I wrote about what I knew best -- how to fry trout.

My immortal piece began: "To avoid fragmentation, roll in flour -- the trout, not yourself."

We hadn't our own printing works -- we had to search around. Some we found too costly: others were too timid -- they were paranoid about libel. Eventually we found a grand little man called Tommy Hayden, who owned and managed Marian Press. Tommy was a republican in the purest sense of the word. He would have been at home behind a barricade at the foot of Montmartre in 1870 when the people of Paris fought the Germans after their own government had deserted them. He loved The Taxpayers' News for its spirit of independence and was proud to be associated with it.

You will sometimes be told that printers and bookbinders are better read than most -- Tommy Hayden was an example. We usually posted our material on Monday morning. I went on the first train from Tralee to Dublin on Wednesday morning to do the proofs. I collected them from Tommy's printing house in a lane near Groome's Hotel and corrected them in Conway's pub. I was usually finished by three o'clock, then Tommy and I had a few pleasant drinks before I got the train back to Tralee. They were good days.

The paper was going well. It wasn't on sale outside Kerry but it got around, especially in Dublin. Naturally with all the comings and goings between Kerry and the capital this was inevitable. That grand man Seamus Kelly, [Quidnunc] of The Irish Times, often gave us a good mention. That wasn't surprising, he and I were acquainted. Very surprising was the attention given to our modest paper by one of his colleagues.

Myles na Gopaleen, otherwise Brian O Nuallain, was then at the apex of his fame. His Cruiskeen Lawn was a marvellous medley of wisdom and wit and occasional wrongheaded waywardness. I was often within talking distance of him in some pub but I never spoke to him -- I was too much in awe. And so one day as I worked my way through the sacred pages of The Irish Times, I was amazed to find that Myles was aware of us.

He had taken a piece out of The Taxpayers' News and put it into his column with only a few words changed. This was flattery at its best. As he took bits and pieces from our paper more than once, I concluded that humour is like air and water -- it belongs to everybody.

Anyhow, I eventually paid Myles the ultimate compliment by perpetrating a pun so outrageous that he would hardly have dared to utter it himself. It occurred in that load of ribaldry called The Doggerel In The Manger. It was part of a rundown on some of Ireland's more famous journalists:

"And next is Myles na Gopaleen,

Who thinks he's a famous funman.

When all is said and done,

He's only The Shadow Of A Punman."

The Taxpayers' News was probably unique in that it was published from a butcher's shop. And so we provided food for the body and food for thought. The owner of both shop and paper was Charlie Lenihan, legendary politician.

On a certain Monday he had business in Dublin. We didn't send our material by post -- Charlie took it with him. I couldn't prevent him, I feared the worst. He added a piece of his own -- in it he referred to a fellow county councillor as a crook in politics and in his profession. They were fighting words, of course a libel action was inevitable. Sean McBride appeared for the offended county councillor.

McBride was unable to pronounce a particular consonant: it gave his speech a certain charm -- unless he was opposed to you. This peculiarity gave rise to a rather wry joke in The Doggerel In The Manger:

"He gave a hitch unto his gown,

And with a piercing look,

Said: "Come tell me, Mr. Lenihan,

Did you call my client a cook?"

It was no contest -- that was the end of The Taxpayers' News. No news was bad news.

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