Friday 22 November 2019

Pierced with an Infinite sadness: The last time I saw my great friend Con Houlihan

Con Houlihan. Photo: David Conachy
Con Houlihan. Photo: David Conachy
Legendary Kerry journalist Con Houlihan became a prophet in his own land when the people of his native Castleisland unveiled a bust in his like along the main street
Statue of Journalist Con Houlihan in the lounge area of the dropping Well pub in Miltown. Photo: Gerry Mooney

Frank Greally

I left Dublin on Thursday last with a heavy heart. On Wednesday evening I paid what I suspected would be my final visit to see my great friend Con Houlihan in St James's Hospital.

I knew that Con was on his final lap and we did not need words to communicate. The eye contact we made told me the full story.

Harriet Duffin -- Con's 'friend-girl' for so many years -- was by his bedside and another dear friend, Feidhlim Kelly, had been to visit earlier in the day. For close to two years both had combined to help Con deliver his weekly columns for the Sunday World and the Evening Herald -- a brilliant wordsmith delivering copy in extraordinary conditions.

I first met Con Houlihan on a wet day in Limerick in 1979, the day John Treacy won his second World Cross Country title on a muddy Limerick Racecourse. I'd often seen the gentle giant from Castle Island from a distance walking along Burgh Quay or holding court in Mulligan's on Poolbeg Street.

That rainy day in Limerick was my first real meeting with Con, the beginning of a beautiful and enduring friendship.

The following day Con wrote about the race in the Evening Press. The piece was headlined 'The Magic Fox that Got Away'. I can still recall one passage from the piece: "On and on he went until in the mist and rain he was away out in front like Tied Cottage in the first three quarters of the Gold Cup. And like Tied Cottage he came down -- but it was only a slip on a splashy bend and in a few seconds only his muddy knees reminded one of it.

"In the last mile as the powerful Pole, Malinowski, began to make ground, he seemed like a leading dog in a very scattered pack.

"But the Magic Fox never looked like being caught. His biggest danger was the tumult of small boys that went out like tugboats to meet him."

As in so many of his columns over the years Con captured the true essence of that momentous day in Limerick.

As I left the hospital last Wednesday evening I remembered too another piece that Con wrote about his last day working in the bog in Castleisland: "I knew it was the last day. I was about to depart for a different world. It was also the last day that I worked with my father.

"At about six o'clock we raked the embers of the fire together and quenched them with whatever water was left over and with what tea remained in the kettle.

"I was pierced with an infinite sadness."

I too was pierced with sadness as I walked the short journey from St James's to my family home in Rialto. I remembered also a couple of Christmas Days at Con's humble quarters in Portobello -- a priceless experience.

And my heart went out to Harriet and Feidhlim -- Con's constant companions over the past few difficult years.

Many other close friends of Con crossed my mind here in London -- Tom O'Shea; Charlie Chawke; Pat O'Mahoney; Tom and Ian O'Riordan; Vinnie Reddin; Pat Coakley; and a host of other good friends.

Con left his beloved Castleisland many years ago and for several decades his back page column was the flagship of the Evening Press. It broke Con's heart when the Press closed. Burgh Quay was his village and his heartland.

He had succeeded Joe Sherwood as King of the Back Page and writing a tribute to his predecessor Con wrote: "Writing with honesty and insight you will be respected." The words echo for me here today in this great capital amid the clamour and excitement of the Olympiad

Feidhlim rang me with the news of Con's passing. I was about to leave my hotel to travel to the Olympic Stadium for another day of covering the Games. However, I postponed my trip to the stadium for a while to join Brendan Mooney -- who had soldiered with Con at the Barcelona Olympics -- for a cup of tea and a half hour of beautiful reminiscence.

Something had gone out of the day in London. A dear friend had gone home and it seemed more important to walk by the Thames and remember him than to go chasing stories in the Olympic Stadium.

Con was indeed a National Treasure and we will not see his likes again. God rest his beautiful spirit.

Sunday Independent

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