A LIFE LESS ORDINARY: In the sixth in a series chronicling the stories of remarkable people who lived remarkable lives, KillarneyToday.com reflects on the life and times of the great wordsmith Con Houlihan – a larger-than-life personality whose great work as a newspaper columnist, sports analyst, essayist and wit will live on forever in the hearts and minds of a whole generation of Irish people who clung to his every word
THE death, in August 2012, of respected author, journalist, historian and turfcutter Con Houlihan, at the age of 86, cast a real pall, not only over his native Kerry but throughout the entire country and beyond.
That irony of the fact that he passed away during a weekend in which the game he loved and wrote about so proficiently was back on centre stage was not lost on those who admired one of the most gifted and respected GAA commentators of all time.
It was, perhaps, fitting that his passing competed for headlines with the exploits of his beloved Kerry footballers whose battles over several decades inspired and enthralled him and who were facing Donegal in an All-Ireland quarter-final in Croke Park as he was taking his last breath across the city in St James’s Hospital.
Although rugby was his first love growing up in the small and remote townland of Reinin, outside Castle Island – which he always insisted was two words – it was his gift as a GAA and soccer writer, with a totally unique perspective and a beautiful turn of phrase, that elevated the big man to the status of national treasure.
Considered one of Ireland’s finest newspaper columnists – and probably the greatest – over a lengthy career, Houlihan’s passion for and knowledge of all sporting codes and his ability to offer a refreshing and alternative view earned him a ticket to many of the world’s major events.
But he eschewed all the trappings of celebrity commentator, declining invitations to occupy ringside seats in press galleries and star treatment in corporate suites in favour of a standing room perch on the terraces, clad in his trademark anorak, where he loved to mingle with everyday fans, like himself.
Such joyous encounters provided much of the raw material from which he manufactured some wonderfully enlightening prose that lifted a nation in the immediate aftermath of any great sporting occasion, whatever the result.
After early days spent fishing and as a turf cutter and labourer on neighbouring farms in his beloved Kerry, and a brief but enjoyable spell as national school teacher and maths grinds specialist, big Con turned his attention to writing and it wasn’t long before he was carving out quite a reputation in his chosen code.
A Green and Latin scholar, he wrote initially for The Taxpayers’ News, a pioneering, campaigning and eccentric local publication that eventually closed after printing what was termed an outrageous libel concerning the antics of a local county councillor who also happened to be a solicitor.
Houlihan’s talents were quickly snapped up by The Kerryman but it was only when he joined the Irish Press, in 1973, that his rich writing talent and clever wordplay was exposed to the national and international audience he fully deserved.
In the process, it helped to rejuvenate a profession that was suffering hugely as a result of the popularity of the broadcast media and back then, as is very much the case now, newspaper sales were dramatically flagging and advertising revenues were drying up.
Houlihan’s Tributaries slot and, more particularly, his back page Evening Press column, four evenings a week, simply became a must-read for those with even a passing interest in sport and his essay like, simple, yet brilliant style attracted thousands of readers who were mesmerised by his remarkable adventures at Olympic Games, World Cup clashes, classic GAA encounters and glamour race meetings in many parts of the world.
Houlihan loved nothing more in life than charting the adventures of the Kerry football team and high octane Munster final clashes with Cork or September Sunday showdowns against the Dubs in Croke Park provided a free-flowing ink ammunition belt for him to hone his special talents.
In Kerry, where the big man was worshipped, his most famous and memorable piece of writing was his description of that infamous Mikey Sheehy goal when the crafty Kerry corner forward audaciously chipped the ball over the head of frantic Dublin netminder Paddy Cullen in the dramatic 1978 All-Ireland final decider.
Houlihan said the sight of a wide-eyed Cullen racing back to his line, arms flailing in sheer desperation, reminded him of a woman arriving into her kitchen and smelling the cake of bread burning in the oven.
Never one to neglect his social obligations, during his Press days Houlihan was a familiar figure in the hostelries of Dublin where he loved to mingle with fans of all codes and share some great stories, some tall, which provided much of the inspiration for his career as one of Ireland’s top sports journalists.
The sad demise of the Irish Press Group in 1995 broke Con Houlihan’s heart. He attributed the collapse to what he described as “two colossal blunders” – the decision to convert the Irish Press to tabloid format and the relaunch of the Evening Press as a two-part publication.
Though devastated, the giant Kerryman later found a new home for his writing talents with a weekly column in the Sunday World, as well as in the Irish Independent, The Star and the Evening Herald, and he appeared more than comfortable catering for a whole new generation of fans who quickly grew to love and appreciate one of the true greats of Irish sports journalism.
Con Houlihan has been immortalised in bronze in the two places he called home throughout his long and distinguished life. A bust in his honour was unveiled on the main street of his native Castleisland in 2002 with Houlihan’s head glancing in the direction of his beloved Latin Quarter, overlooking Molly Mac’s and Paddy Hussey’s public houses.
As well as that, a bronze sculpture of Houlihan was erected outside The Palace Bar in Dublin which is a building he was known to frequent on occasion.
But the tribute from which Con Houlihan derived most satisfaction, according to his close friend, former government minister and retired footballer Jimmy Deenihan, was a scholarship set up in his honour at Listowel Writers’ Week with an annual bursary presented to a young sports writer who demonstrates certain promise and enthusiasm.
Never slow to encourage and cajole ambitious would-be writers, Con Houlihan was determined that the craft to which he devoted his life with such aplomb, would pass securely and for safe keeping down through the generations.
In the wonderful collection of rare Con Houlihan essays, published in 2005, a foreward by novelist and playwright Dermot Bolger reflected that Con was an authority on many subjects, from Knocknagow to Van Gogh and Cézanne to Hopkins, and he could make the artists and writers he admired come alive.
Bolger wrote: “He makes you feel his enthusiasm and makes you want to read and experience their work, not as rarefied, obscure mysteries but as everyday wonders to be discussed in a pub as just one of the strands that make life both ordinary and extraordinary”.
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