Weeshie's Week

Tribute to Con Houlihan

1925 - 2012

Con Houlihan was often considered one of Ireland's finest writers and left behind a legacy of immense sports journalism that spanned over 60 years. Over a lengthy career, Houlihan covered many Irish and international sporting events, from Gaelic football and hurling finals, to soccer and rugby World Cups, the Olympics and numberless race meetings inside and outside of Ireland.

Waiting for Houlihan

Wonderful documentary produced by Maurice Healy and Jimmy Deenihan in 2004. Written by Con and narrated by Maurice O'Donoghue.

Con cast a spell with words
and lit a fire in all of our hearts

by Billy Keane, Irish Independent
'He was shy," my mother said. "That's why," said she, "Con kept his hand up to his mouth when he was talking."

Con Houlihan tried to hide his own brilliance behind that fan of a hand. His lore was told in hoarse whispers and you had to sit to his right to make sure you caught every word. There were no ramblings. His sentences were short but loaded.

On those Mondays after All-Irelands and All-Ireland semis, we gathered in Mulligan's of Poolbeg Street just to meet him. He'd be the first one in. Shaggy-haired, bawneen-sweatered, big-framed, friendly and loving the invasion from Kerry.

Column written in the middle of the night on a roll of brown wrapping paper, he was relaxed then. There was a queue. We waited our turn. A single sentence from him could change your life. He was an Athenian philosopher.

Con was good to young writers and he didn't patronise. He was a master of the admonition.

Brendan Kennelly sent Con his early poems. Con wrote back, ever the teacher. "Keep going. You made all the right mistakes."

Back home they waited, too. For the 'Evening Press'. Lads had the twine ripped off the bundle thrown from the bus before it hit the ground. Mr Kennelly recalls asking a group of lads outside the paper shop in Ballylongford what was the cause of such a big gathering on a Monday evening, when the weekend had drained the porter money and the village was already getting ready for bed.

"We're waiting for Houlihan," they said. And that was the name of the brilliant documentary made by Jimmy Deenihan and Maurice Healy about Con's life.

Con Houlihan was the father of modern Irish sports writing.

The one liners. When John Egan scored a famous goal against Dublin in 1975, he wrote: "Hill 16 was as quiet as Knocknagoshel on a Good Friday."

One of my favourites was on the occasion of Moss Keane's first cap for Ireland. "It would be a bad day for a man's horse to fall into the drain."

There were lonesome-for-home-country people, heavy-footing it through city streets, who for three evenings a week were back again among bog and the river. There were tales from the city, too. Of St Pat's of Inchicore, black pearls and pubs that became his living room. Con loved and lived by the Grand Canal. He was a man for All Ireland. Especially so for those who found life a tough old battle.

Con's dad was a fitter's apprentice in the coal mines of South Wales and Con inherited his father's longing for social justice. People went hungry when Con was young and they left in their thousands. The good son was a socialist in the best sense. Con only wanted for himself what everyone else had first.

My mother, who grew up with Con, said Con's own mother was a lovely woman. Mam called in for a drink of water on the way home from school and there was always a penny sweet from the little shop, even when there was no penny to pay for it.

Con lived about two miles from his beloved Castle Island.

He wrote the inscription for his own statue in the town that honoured him while he was still well enough to enjoy it. It reads Con Houlihan, 'a fisherman, a turf cutter, a rugby player, a teacher and a writer'.

He was happiest by bog and river. Con wrote of bog wisdom, of sleansmen and spreaders. His favourites were the breenchers. The Heavy Brigade. "They were distinguished by their wrist straps as matadors are by their pigtails."

Only Con could fit a bullring into a bog.

There were regrets, too.

Con supported the last strike at the 'Irish Press'.

"My courage failed me before the vote. I should have spoken. After all, it was my privilege as the most experienced journalist there. The meeting might have learned of a chance meeting between Vincent Jennings and myself a few days previously. He had told me that the financial situation of the Press Group was so bad that the next strike would be the last one. He had tears in his eyes. There could be no doubting his sincerity."

So sad he had regrets in his dying days. That act of contrition was written just a few short months ago. Yet his three columns a week kept the 'Evening Press' afloat for a good many years.

Con was brave. A local Provo threatened him when he wrote a piece in 'The Kerryman' condemning a murderous London bombing campaign. Con hated conflict for he was essentially a gentle man but his duty to his father, his country and to the primacy of the truth always prevailed.

He spoke out again in fairly recent times. We should have taken heed and joined his cause.

"The Irish gombeen man is proliferating. I see him as my enemy."

Con's love of sport and writing kept him going in those final days. There were columns for the 'Evening Herald' and the 'Sunday World'.

I didn't get to see him for a good while. Couldn't. Too cowardly to watch him slipping. I would have loved a parting glass.

He loved his Dublin locals and they loved him, for drink suited Con. He was forever pleasant and very funny, but he so longed for Kerry.

He quoted the parting words of his favourite poet, Dylan Thomas. "Tonight at home the men are in the pubs, they have their arms around each other and they are singing."

We'll be singing for you too, Con . You defined and purified us. We wish you were here now so we could put our arms around you.

I'm sure Con was traipsing the Gleansharoon River as he lay dying in St James's Hospital where he was so well looked after by the staff, his lovely nieces and his friends, especially Ray Hennessy, Con's Boswell.

Harriet was his 'friend girl' and so much more. They were very good to each other. Thank you so much Harriet, on behalf of all of his readers, for minding Con so well.

Four walls and a frail body tied to tubes are no great encumbrance to a mind that flies and a soul that soars.

"My heartwater was in the Gleansharoon River," he wrote. "It is almost 25 years since I fished that river and I can still remember all the runs and the pools and the shallows and depths and the places where trout love to run and the places that they shun."

When he passed over, the Gleansharoon's boggy brown waters were coursing round and in and out through the four posts of his hospital bed.

And overhead, the bog lark sang a requiem for Con Houlihan, the fisherman and bog lover who cast his spell well beyond the banks of the Gleansharoon and lit a bright, burning turf fire forever, in all our grieving hearts.

He's home now. Home at last.

Welcome home, Con. Welcome home.

Kerry Play Dublin in the All-Ireland Football Final, 1978

Irish Press Newspaper
If a man who fishes for salmon with a stake net had seen his cordage dance as often as Paddy Cullen did in this astonishing All-Ireland Final, he would have been very happy with his day's work. But there is an immensity of difference between bending to take out a salmon and stooping to pick up a ball that has got past you – and for long years to come Paddy will now and then rack his brains and try to find out what happened him yesterday.

At about twenty to four he had every reason to feel that his bowl of glory was about to flow over: Dublin were playing as if determined to get a patent for a new brand of Gaelic football – and Paddy himself was ruling his territory with a style and authority redolent of Bat Masterson.

And the many Kerry battalions in the crowd were as apprehensive as accused men waiting for the jury to return after an unfavourable summing up against them.

And well they might – because in the first third of what was surely the most extraordinary final since Michael Cusack codified the rules of Gaelic football, their team seemed faced not only with defeat, but humiliation.

It looked every bit as one-sided as the meeting of Muhammad Ali and Leon Spinks – and the more it went on, the more the gap in ability was seen to widen.

In their glory-garnished odyssey since the early Summer of '74, Dublin have never played better than in the opening third yesterday.

The symphony of classical football began with Paddy Cullen – he got no direct shot in that period, but his catching of a few swirling lofted balls dropping almost onto his crossbar was as composed and technically correct as if being done without opposition to illustrate a textbook.

And his distribution was as cool and unerring as the dealing of a riverboat gambler.

So was that of his comrades in the rear three – Kerry's infrequent sallies towards the Canal End almost always ended up as launching pads for a Dublin attack.

The drizzling rain seemed irrelevant as Dublin moved the ball with the confidence of a grandmaster playing chess against a novice.

From foot and hand it travelled lucidly in swift triangular movements towards the Railway Goal – Kerry were forced into fouls as desperate as the struggles of a drowning man.

And Jimmy Keaveney was determined to show that crime did not pay: the ball took wing from his boot like a pigeon homing to an invisible loft strung above Kerry's crossbar.

The blue-and-navy favours danced in the wet grey air – the Hill revelled and licked its lips at the prospect of seeing Kerry butchered to make a Dublin holiday.

They roared as the points sailed over – and one felt that they were only flexing their vocal muscles so that they might explode when Charlie Nelligan's net bulged.

And such was Dublin's supremacy that a goal seemed inevitable – by the twenty-fifth minute it was less a match than a siege.

And Dublin, as they have so often done, had brought forth a new ploy for the big occasion – this time the rabbit from the hat was the swift breakdown with hand or fist. It added to Kerry's multitude of worries.

And Kerry's not-so-secret weapons were misfiring: Jack O'Shea was not ruling the air in midfield – and Kevin Moran was playing as if his namesake Denis had only come for a close-up view.

Kerry's map was in such tatters that Eoin Liston, their lofty target man, the pine tree in whose branches they hoped the long high ball would stick, was forced to forage so far downfield that his marker, Sean Doherty, was operating within scoring distance of Kerry's goal.

After twenty-five minutes Dublin led by six points to one – it did not flatter them. It seemed less a lead than the foundation of a formidable total.

But perhaps it is true that whom the gods wish to destroy they first make mad – the ease with which Dublin were scaling the mountain seduced them into over-confidence.

They pushed too many troops forward and neglected their rear – and then a swift brace of passes from Jack O'Shea and Pat Spillane found a half-acre of green ground tenanted by only Paddy Cullen, and with Johnny Egan leading the race in its pursuit.

Paddy Cullen is a 'modern' keeper – he guards not only the goal but its forecourt. And it was one of the ironies of a game that might have been scripted by the king of the gremlins that now he was caught too far back.

He advanced desperately, but Johnny Egan, scorer of that lethal first goal in the rainy final three years ago, held the big trump – and he coolly fisted the ball over the keeper and into the net.

That goal affected Kerry as a May shower a languishing field of corn.

Dublin were like climbers who had been driven back down the mountain by a rockfall – they had to set out again from a plateau not far above the base.

Soon a few Kerry points had put them at the very foot – then Dublin went ahead with a point. And now came the moment that will go into that department of sport's museum where abide such strange happenings as the Long Count and the goal that gave Cardiff their only England FA Cup and the fall of Devon Loch.

Its run-up began with a free from John O'Keeffe, deep in his own territory. Jack O'Shea made a flying catch and drove a long ball towards the middle of the twenty-one-yard line.

Mike Sheehy's fist put it behind the backs, breaking along the ground out towards Kerry's right. This time Paddy Cullen was better positioned and comfortably played the ball with his feet away from Sheehy.

He had an abundance of time and space in which to lift and clear – but his pick-up was a dubious one and the referee, Seamus Aldridge, decided against him. Or maybe he deemed his meeting with Ger Power illegal.

Whatever the reason, Paddy put on a show of righteous indignation that would get him a card from Equity, throwing up his hands to heaven as the referee kept pointing towards goal.

And while all this was going on, Mike Sheehy was running up to take the kick – and suddenly Paddy dashed back towards his goal like a woman who smells a cake burning.

The ball won the race and it curled inside the near post as Paddy crashed into the outside of the net and lay against it like a fireman who had returned to find his station ablaze.

Sometime Noel Pearson might make a musical of this amazing final – and as the green flag goes up for that crazy goal, he will have a banshee's voice crooning: 'And that was the end of poor Molly Malone.'

And so it was. A few minutes later came the tea break. Kerry went into a frenzy of green-and-gold and a tumult of acclaim. The champions looked like men who had worked hard and seen their savings plundered by bandits.

The great rain robbers were first out onto the field for Act Two – an act that began almost as dramatically as the first had ended.

In their cave during the interval, Dublin, no doubt, determined to send a posse in fierce pursuit – but within a minute of the restart, the bridge out of town had been broken down.

Eoin Liston was about to set out on a journey into folklore – and for the rest of the game it must have seemed to Sean Doherty that he had come face to face with the Incredible Hulk.

Eoin proceeded to leave the kind of stamp on the second half that Mario Kempes left on the final of the World Cup.

People were still settling down for the second half when Jack O'Shea drove a long ball from midfield; Eoin, near the penalty spot and behind the backs, gathered, turned and shot to the net.

Dublin's defence is justly famous for its covering – and the manner in which this score came indicated the level of their morale. Not everyone suspected it – but Dublin had conceded it. From then on only a few of them had their hearts in the battle.

Kevin Moran never surrendered and played magnificently all through that unreal second half. He had good lieutenants in Tommy Drumm and Bernard Brogan.

Kerry's fourth goal was both a finisher and a symbol of their immense superiority.

A high ball dropped into the apron of Dublin's goal. It seemed to be manned by a little man with spikes in his forehead who was shouting, 'Take me to your leader.' The leader, of course, was Eoin Liston, who plucked it out of a low-flying cloud, gave an instant pass to Ger Power on his right and moved on to an instant return.

Eoin's right-footed shot was executed with the panache of one who knew that he could do no wrong. And the remarkable aspect of what followed was that Kerry did not score a dozen goals.

They got only one more – when Eoin Liston raced on to a fisted cross-goal pass from Johnny Egan on the right and palmed the ball in at the far post. And so in the grey drizzle we saw the twilight of the gods.

The Hill watched, as lively as the Main Street of Knocknagoshel on Good Friday. And it all seemed so unreal. The final score was no reflection of Kerry's second-half superiority – neither did it tell the truth about the difference between the teams.

For twenty-five minutes, Dublin were brilliant; for forty-five, Kerry were superb. How come the change? That wry prankster we call luck has the answer. And in the last chapter of the minor final, he had shown his hand.

A fumble by Dublin's keeper gave Tom Byrne the chance to drive home the decisive goal. The mistake that gave Kerry victory came at the Canal End too. 

Radio Kerry - The Voice of the Kingdom