Monday 16 September 2019

Declan Lynch: An Irish folk hero for whom sport was essence of life

Con Houlihan was not only a very good writer, he was very popular -- a remarkable feat indeed, writes Declan Lynch

Declan Lynch

Declan Lynch

I have loved the writing of Con Houlihan for most of my life, as indeed have hundreds of thousands of Irish people. Of his many accomplishments, this may be one of the most remarkable -- not only was Con very good, he was very popular. Which doesn't happen much in this life.

He was one of the few living writers who saw plaques and even statues dedicated to him, usually in the environs of public houses. Just over a year ago, they wanted to name the Castleisland bypass after him, though he had been against the project.

A giant such as Con could so easily have become just another Irish "character", but he was better than that. He was an Anglophile who hated the IRA and everything associated with it. He was an authentic Irish folk hero and yet cosmopolitan to the core, a beloved figure at Gaelic grounds who could write that "the proliferation of soccer in this island is about the best thing that has happened to us since the arrival of the potato".

Perhaps he was not properly appreciated by academics or by the literati who are simply not equipped to know how good he was. But he did not seek any of this recognition, and was never known to engage in acts of self-promotion other than producing work of an extraordinarily high standard for the Evening Press and for other newspapers more or less all the time for about 40 years.

He didn't do television or radio, not least because it could be very hard to understand what he was saying, without years of intensive training. He would sit at the counter of Mulligan's of Poolbeg Street speaking quietly, in these little flurries, and even if you got the first part of a sentence, the rest of it might well be obscured by Con's huge hand placed across his mouth, a habit which probably grew out of his extreme shyness.

So his way of being in the world did not make him the perfect talk-show guest or a frequent panellist on some breezy radio round-up of the week's events, and he had a few wardrobe issues as well.

Yet despite it all, Con had the charisma of a great communicator. Wherever he went in the country, to a match or a race meeting, people came up to him and called him by his first name as if they were close personal friends. And he would say something to them with the hand across his face, and even if they didn't catch it they would laugh, seeming to understand.

I didn't understand much of what he was saying the first time I met him, to interview him for the Christmas issue of Hot Press. I knew him only by his columns on the back page of the Evening Press, which I had been reading since I was a small boy, knowing little about its creator, except the obvious fact that he was the best, apparently receiving the Sports Journalist of the Year award as an annual ritual.

His column looked special even before you read it, and not just because of its length and prominence. I have a theory that there's something about the work of a good writer that just looks right, on the page. Something about the way the piece is organised, seems to send a subliminal message of reassurance to the reader, inviting you in. Con's articles always had that mysterious quality.

Maeve Binchy and Gore Vidal remembered SEE Page 26

He arranged his pieces in short paragraphs, a device which made the piece look attractive, each paragraph containing some new insight or observation about the match or about the things he had seen on his way to the match or perhaps a quote from F Scott Fitzgerald or Sherwood Anderson about the nature of existence itself.

Even as a small boy without much discernment in these matters, it was easy enough for me to grasp the superiority of Con Houlihan. Much later I would learn of the hard work that made his articles so easy to read.

Each paragraph was written in longhand on a separate page, his choice of longhand partly dictated by the fact that his fingers were so big they would get stuck in the keys of a typewriter. So he would dash off these dozens of pages, often under the most terrifying deadline pressure, and yet always with that attention to detail which you will find in Con's own declaration that "a man who can put an apostrophe in the wrong place is capable of anything".

And then, with the presses rolling, often in the middle of the night or with the dawn breaking over Burgh Quay, he would drink. In an early house such as the White Horse he drank brandy and milk, the pub often full and buzzing at daybreak in that deeply surreal way of the early house with Irish Press workers coming off the night shift. People would see Con later in the morning in Mulligan's, wondering how a man can be drinking brandy at noon, even if there's milk in it, perhaps not realising that while they slept, he'd been crafting the article that they were now reading in the first edition of the Evening Press.

He loved that life, when the Press was turning out two papers a day and another on Sunday. It really fired his imagination to be right there in the centre of this chaotic industry, this wild man from Castleisland who had played rugby in his bare feet, but who was also an urban sophisticate , a newspaperman, a star columnist cranking out his copy time after time like something out of The Front Page.

In later years he would speak darkly of the modern newspaper office as having "all the atmosphere of a suburban pharmacy". But the old ways of alcohol and adrenaline were still unchallenged when I sought out Con for that Hot Press interview, eventually finding him in Mulligan's just by guessing, really, having failed to find him in the original venue which had been arranged, and a few more besides.

It was around tea-time on a Saturday, but none of the company was drinking tea, or indeed had been drinking tea for some time.

I recall that Con's friend, the sculptor John Behan, was there, as well as an ancient Dublin philosopher of some sort, who spoke gravely about the kind of sleep a man has after he's been drinking all day -- it is not a real sleep, he explained, more of a coma.

Clearly no interview would be taking place here, in this packed pub with a man who had to say everything to me several times before I could hear him properly. We would go back to his place, stopping at about five more pubs so that Con could wish a happy Christmas to all, and then getting a taxi to his little terraced house in Martin Street in Portobello -- inevitably Con knew the taxi man, and gave him an enormous tip.

As he offered me a choice of beer, whisky, brandy, red or white wine and perhaps some stew if I required it, I admired the many paintings on the walls of Con's living room, most of them modern Irish works, a collection which according to legend had been started with the proceeds of a very large bet on Kerry to win the All-Ireland Final.

He also mentioned he had some poitin, but I respectfully declined. I was already a bit drunk after Mulligan's and the madness of the night, and was about to get a bit more drunk on the whisky, yet there was still a sense that we could get this done, even if neither of us had a clue what the other was saying. Perhaps it was something about the stew he had prepared before the show, as it were, that created confidence.

The big tape machine was switched on, and placed on a chair, with Con positioning himself above it, speaking not to me but directly into the microphone through his hand.

I would have no idea if the interview was any good or not, until I listened back to the tape. And there would be about two hours of that, until we reached the end of our "conversation".

Normally at that stage I would expect to be shaking hands with the subject who would leave me to the door and perhaps wave goodbye, but this was a bit different. Con said something that I didn't understand, and went into the front room for a while. Quite a long while, as it turned out.

I became anxious, and followed him into the front room where I found him asleep on the couch. It was about 9 o'clock, which for a man with Con's deadlines was of course, bedtime.

I quietly let myself out, but that was not the end of it. I had forgotten the tape-recorder, which Con himself handed to me at the door the following afternoon, looking not exactly tanned and fit, but probably just about ready for another day's work -- Con being a man who would never forget his tape-recorder, because he wouldn't bring one in the first place.

The interview, when I listened back to it, was wonderful.

Con Houlihan, writer and teacher, by any of the measurements that matter, was wonderful.

Sunday Independent

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