Spotlight on Con Houlihan

August 9th, 2012
by Eamonn Fitzgerald

Éamonn Fitzgerald  Visits Con Houlihan; Fear ann féin

Dublin has a special attraction for me; very regular journeys to Croke Park for well over half a century has been part of it. Less regular, but very enjoyable also were the visits to Lansdowne Rd, Dalymount Park and its offshoots, Glenmalure Park, Tolka Park, St Pat's of Inchicore and Home Farm. Leopardstown, Harold's Cross and other sports' venues had their own attractions. Sport apart the country's capital is home for many of my friends.

Dublin is home from home for one such great Kerryman. Con Houlihan, originator of 'arise Knocknagoshel and take your place among the nations of the earth ', was 86 years old a short time before Christmas. He was very much part of my interest in sport, particularly when Dublin in the rare auld time was also home from home for me. It was that period in life when one was engaged and enthralled in the world, so brilliantly captured in 'Give up your auld sins'. More about that in some other forum. Back to Con.

86 winters
Wasn't it Yeats himself in 'Among School children ', wrote about what he thought the impressions schoolchildren had of him when he was visiting them as a senator. "A sixty-year-old smiling public man. With sixty or more winters on its head" Con has 86 and he has aged of course, physically. The huge frame in the mighty big anorak, long before it became Bertie's trademark, that I met so often at the Canal End, or in Jimmy O Brien's on Munster Final day was no more. It has been a good spell now since we met. Time to head for Dublin.

The eyes narrowed when I entered. "Who have I now?" 'Another Kerryman, Con'. " Oh, and your name". Éamonn Fitzgerald'. Silence for all of 9, maybe 10 seconds at a stretch. "1972, Offaly. Replay. The mind was as sharp as ever, as I discovered over the next 2 hours.

He had 5 of that day's daily papers in front of him. The day was still young, about half-ten at most, yet at that stage he had spent several hours reading their contents.

'Where are your glasses, Con?'

"I never had them in my life and I don't need them now either", he replied and the first of many twinkles illuminated his visage, like the best of wine (to which he is n still not adverse) rose to the top,' like beaded bubbles winking at the brim'.

The Canal End
Like thousands of other sports lovers through the decades, I eagerly awaited the Evening Press, in particular, hitting the streets in mid-afternoon on the Monday after the All Ireland. What would Con's perspective be from his vantage at the Canal End? He avoided the Press Box. He preferred to be on the terraces, with the plain people of Ireland. In the press box journalists can be cocooned, somewhat adrift of the atmosphere generated by the spectators. Furthermore, there are several games being played and action replayed in the minds and bodies of the partisan supporters. Con was among them. That's why readers waited for Con's report. It would be different; it always was. Other scribes wrote to a formula of mainly factual account of the battle for Sam. Not so, Con.

4 in the morning
Did you write your column, directly after the match?

He was off and you knew best not to interfere with a poet in the stream of consciousness, so beloved by Joyce, that great Dub.

"After the match I went drinking, to Mulligan's in Poolbeg Street and to many other hostelries as well and I was in no hurry home. I started penning my thoughts at 4.00am on Monday morning. That's when I do all of my writing. My thoughts are clearest at that time of the day. That goes back to growing up in Castleisland. My father was an early riser and would be up at that time; he had to be. He worked in the creamery and he had to get the steam up for the creamery with timber and turf. Some years there was damn bad turf and that was no easy task. My brother Jerry (or is it Gerry, what's the difference when the master has the stage?) and sister Marie   and myself were well used to going to the fairs early in the mornings driving cattle and pigs to Castle island ." They're all dead now, God be good to them. We lived I mile north of Castle island on the main road to Dublin. There's nothing there now ".

He wrote everything long hand for the newspapers, but told me he turned to the laptop in modern times. "Sure you can learn anything."

He is very proud of Kerry, but all is not perfect. "You know there are some people in Kerry who have no interest whatsoever in football. They never see a game and couldn't care less. You also have some snobs, the rich looking down on the poor. That fate will never change for the ordinary people "

He often referred to The Latin Quarter in Castleisland." That's down there by the railway. That's all gone now. People from many European countries lived there; they spoke French and Italian freely in that area of the town.

I reminded him that he had spent a short time teaching, in his younger days. Correction.

"I spent 20 years at it in the Presentation Convent in Castleisland after doing the BA in UCC and I also taught in Bandon and in England."

Time to draw his breath.

Remembered by his own
'Castleisland hasn't forgotten you Con and neither has Kerry County Council. When they built that spanking new road and roundabout to bypass the town they gave it your name', I told him.

The eyes danced, the chest rose visibly. No need for words; the body language said it all. Pride, satisfaction and the realisation that his own people cherished him, loved him for what he is, and has been; it defied that dictum that no man is a prophet in his own land. He savoured the honour. Also of course his bust is in the main street in the town he loves so well.

I reminded him of the full size 6 foot plus bronze statue of him in the Bankers Club in Dame Street. "'Tis a great place to drink and a fine eating house, too". The sculptor captured well his eccentricities. You can see his habit of covering his hand over his mouth "I was very shy growing up, conscious of my size and that was how that came about". The irony of it all was not lost on him, either. There are several banks in Dublin's Dame Street, or more accurately several operated there in the boom years. Cue in to politics . No starter's orders, he's off.

"So many good years were wasted in this country. Some people are very poor. There was poverty in my young days. Only the few had money. You'd spare up your money for the All Ireland and there was wide spread emigration. It's back again. Thank God we have a change of government. Fianna Fáil had their chances and we know how they brought us down. It is up to Fine Gael now with their opportunity. We were always Labour and stayed that way. There weren't many Labour supporters in Kerry in my youth. We were always in the minority. Others regarded us as Communist growing up supporting Labour. I had great time for Dan Spring, a Kerry footballer and a great Labour politician. You've another great man down there in Kerry now, also a Kerry footballer and a very able and honest politician. What a pity Mick Gleeson didn't make it to the Dáil. They could do with people like him. Still I hear from the dispatches that he is doing mighty work in local politics. As for the EU, I campaigned and canvassed against it at the time (of Ireland's entry), but I was wrong and we are better off in it, even with the present financial troubles.

The magic carpet
Enough of politics. Time for a little 'sos' and then we're both away on the magic carpet, with the wind beneath our feet.

He's away in a hack. "I wasn't great at the football myself, but I did play senior colleges football at midfield when I was only 14. I went to school in Castlemartyr and to Tralee CBS. "Sport is very important in the lives of people and never more so than now. With all the bad news and such negativity, sport can be the great escape. Not just for the hour of the game, or the short minutes of the greyhounds rounding the final bend in Shelbourne Park, but all the talk before and after the events. Mícheál O Muircheartaigh is right, sport is life itself, a great escape when we need to escape and then there is the unpredictability of it all, just like life.

His eclectic range of sports provides the artist with a wide canvas to explore and the gentlest of hints is enough. Roll it there, Collette, not forgetting Róisín, either Gaybo.

"We have 36 and we left the last one after us badly. It was ours, but we slipped up to the Dubs for number 37. Of course I felt it. You'd always be down on the Monday after losing an All Ireland; a win does so much for our spirits. What it does to lift the spirits of the country, when Ireland win the Triple Crown. 'Tis the same when Charlton's lads were winning".

SOS beag eile and an opportune time to range over the greats of Irish sport he covered.

"I spent one year in England but spent many short stays there to visit Anfield, Epsom, Aintree, Cheltenham and other places covering great sporting occasions. The English are very fine people and I have fine memories of that country Arkle was a mighty champion. I can still recall those great moments in the Gold Cup with Arkle and Mill House. They both fought a great battle up that hill in the closing stages. Ireland v England. The Irish contingent went stone mad when Pat Taffe brought Arkle past the winning post. Arkle was great and was so consistent He never ran in the Grand National because his owner was too fond of him and was afraid he would get injured. I Knew Pat very well. Then there was Dawn Run and John Joe O Neill, how he battled back from so many jumping mistakes and beat them all. Shergar, of course was also great. I patted him on the way in after winning in Epsom. What happened him at the end, we will never know. The strange thing about him for a thoroughbred horse he had 4 common looking feet like a plough horse, but he had a great heart.

I suppose Jackie Kyle was the best I saw in rugby. I played rugby myself with Castle Island, Curnow, and Killarney and I found it great. In rugby you are involved in the game all the time, whereas in football you could be out of the play for long periods."

Football greats
And that leads us nicely in to the greats of football. Jog the memory.

"Mick O Connell was supreme, a wonderful stylist. Jack O Shea of course. What a man, you could play him everywhere and anywhere. When the team was struggling Jacko would turn up anywhere and lift the siege. He had a strong engine and heart to burn. Still in Iveragh and you have to mention your own name sake. .Maurice Fitzgerald; he was a classy player, a real stylist, great forward and you could play him at midfield also.

Colm Cooper is the best forward I ever seen. He's a genius; he sees things and opportunities that no one else sees. He operates by instinct and often he gives the impression that even himself doesn't know what he will do next. He sees things no one foresees; just a quick shimmy and he is away. It broke my heart that such a great player was denied the honour of captaining a winning Kerry All Ireland team. He is very brave and a wonderful left leg. Great players who are ciotógs have a big advantage. It is very hard to hook a great left handed hurler. Same in tennis, McEnroe and Connors.

Ciotógs, rugby, football and the art of sports' journalism are the topics covered in this concluding section of Éamonn Fitzgerald's interview with legendary sports 'writer, Con Houlihan.

"Yes, I was talking to you there about 'ciotógs'. There are many sports people who ply their trade from the left-hand side; that is not to say they are all good. Skilful players, who operate from that side, have big advantages. See how difficult it is to beat a skilful southpaw. In tennis you had McEnroe and Connors; now you have Colm Cooper. All shine with the left, but they are all skilful," said Con Houlihan, in my recent interview with him in Dublin.

He was delighted when I informed him that Killarney RFC had purchased a new playing site, after many false starts. Aghadoe was not sufficiently accurate a location. "Where there in Aghadoe did they buy? " That much clarified, he continued. "I played with Killarney at one stage. There was one great player with them, John C Cooper. He was very good. I am delighted for the rugby club in Killarney ". I went on to outline the great work going on by the Killarney club, fielding teams in competition each week, as well as the coaching of the underage players. "Give the people in Killarney rugby my best regards".

We talked about the oval ball at local and at international levels. "Jack Kyle was the best I saw."

I reminded him of the Kerry rugby internationals. He warmed to the subject. All politics may be deemed local and to continue the analogy, so too did our discussion on rugby. Bring it all back to Castleisland and  Currow. He concurred that such a small area in the middle of a predominantly Gaelic football county produced Irish internationals, brothers Mick and Tom Doyle, Moss Keane and Mick Galwey. Doyler (Mick) and Moss Keane have now gone to their etenal rest. "Didn't Moss die very young. I can recall many moments Moss had in the Irish jersey; one day he put the ball under his oxter and started on the long journey into enemy territory. He got a long ways, dragging half the opposition with him". Con would relish the recall of Mick Galwey's tribute to Moss in the Limerick Post, 10 October 2010. He  recalled a great moment in 1993 when himself and Moss Keane were 'paraded' around Curnow on the back of a truck. "I had been picked to play with the Lions and of course Moss played 12 times in 1977 for the Lions too. The locals wanted to honour us and that is how they did it. No frills, just honest. That was Moss all out."

All comparisons are odious, this one included, but frailty thy name is woman also extends to the masculine species. We engaged in a discourse on the oval and the round ball.

"The one great thing about rugby is that as a player you are involved in the play for the full match, whereas in football the action can be up at the other end of the field and for several periods of the game a player can be out of the action," said Con. "The GAA can definitely improve the football game and they need to give more protection to the referee. The rules are there; enforce them. Far too often some players are allowed to carry the ball much too far, outside the rules. Get good refs; train them properly and back them. Mick O Dwyer is correct; there is no defined tackle in Gaelic football. This leads to too much pulling and dragging."

Mention of Mick O Dwyer. He was nicely in to The Golden Years, guiding his Kerrymen home with Sam Maguire almost on an annual basis, when Con wrote a very interesting piece on his favourite back page of the then thriving Evening Press ,all for the benefit of aspiring, and often perspiring, young  sports journalists. I filed the contents in the mind, to be retrieved so often over the next three decades. He returned to the same subject in a more recent article in The Herald, as recently as 2008.Con wrote , "You should get a fair grasp of the elements of language. By that I mean grammar and syntax: the basic rules are much the same for English and Gaelic …English differs from most languages in having the apostrophe, an innocent little squiggle of great importance". From the same article we read," you cannot express yourself unless you understand the laws of language. Our mandarins followed the example of their English counterparts: grammar was downgraded in the school curriculum. The result was chaos. Any boy or girl who wishes to become a journalist in print or on sound should acquire the elements of grammar".

He recommended a number of reference books, including' The Elements of Style ', by J, B Strunk Jr. It was out of print at that time, but The Killarney Bookshop came to the rescue. For over three decades it has never more than an arm's length from this keyboard and is as relevant today, as it was then. "There is very famous book called The Elements of Style by JB Strunk. It is not really for beginners but when you have a good foundation acquired, you will benefit from it. Some of the advice may seem eccentric but that shouldn't surprise you -- the author is American," concluded Con.

How about the use of the colon and the semi-colon, Con.?"
They are very important and damn awkward to use. Far too often they are used wrongly. They signify linkages. The colon should be used for listings. Let me give you an example. You might have a sentence like this. The causes of emigration are many; no jobs, wanting to travel and so on like that. There are other uses of the colon. Now the semi-colon should be used to join clauses that could be sentences in their own right. There must be a relationship between the two."

Con uses both judiciously. You could put in the single dot, better known as the full stop. However, with the semi -colon one has to work out the relationship for oneself. That's one of the real charms of Houlihan's writings. He has a way with words. He concluded, 'here now is my most important piece of advice: whether you are writing for a tabloid or a broadsheet or a freesheet, always write at your best. Don't lower your standards. Always think of your closest friends as your readers -- write with them in your mind.'

Time to go. "Send me a copy of your article, when it has been published. Slán abhaile anois agus go raibh míle maith agat."

Last Saturday's Examiner reported on Con's Inspirational Life Award. The master was unable to be present in person, but his great friend Pat O'Mahony went in as a sub and described him as an "intellectual powerhouse".He continued "Con is an intellectual powerhouse with exceptional knowledge of maths, philosophy, and English, and is probably Ireland's leading expert on syntax. A liberal by disposition, he has opposed racial and class discrimination, political violence and is a huge supporter of the Travelling community. I encourage him to never stop writing."

So do I. 62 years of the man who has a special way with words. Go maire sé bhfad fós i réimse an chinn.

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