Con Houlihan RIP; Fear ann fein
by Eamonn Fitzgerald
I heard of Con Houlihan's death on Saturday last and immediately looked to Carrauntuohil.; the commonality of Ireland's highest mountain and Ireland's greatest sportswriter. The mountain was gone, but later in the day, all 3414 feet of the mountain reappeared; Con didn't, but his writings will live on. The supreme referee had called for the ball; time up for Con and no more time added on for injuries.
He spent 20 years teaching in the Presentation Convent in Castle island (his way of spelling Castleisland), Bandon and in England; how I would love to have been in his class. He knew the essence of good teaching; be crystal clear in your own mind what you wish to communicate, know your target audience, communicate your message and don't allow anything to come in the way that might distract that process. How do you do it? Extend the hook of awareness and work from the known to the unknown. Over to Jesus Christ, the best teacher of all. He taught in parables to the plain people of currently strife-torn Israel. Likewise with Con and also recently deceased Maeve Binchy; one nurtured in rural Glounsharoon, but adapted to Dublin, the latter a true Dub. "Any darn fool can make something complex; it takes a genius to make something simple, " wrote Pete Seeger.
John B Keane rooted his great dramas in the obsessions for land and other compulsive facets of rural Ireland. Fellow Listowel writer, Bryan MacMahon opened the windows of wonder for so many of us in his short stories. Synge captured the cadences of the Aran Islands' dialect for his dramas. Seanchaí, Éamonn Kelly, and Mícheál O Hehir fuelled our boyhood dreams. Add in Patrick Kavanagh, another drinking loner genius, but truculent, unlike Con's humorous good nature. Then there were Gorky, Tolstoy, and certainly Rousseau eclectic influences on the mind of Houlihan. He never plagiarised; his integrity dictated so, but he created his own niche and made The Evening Press.
His writings are always at arm's length from this keyboard, a refuge and a reservoir for the odd time that one chases inspiration, when it's in elusive mercurial mood. Yeats captures it well.
"Now that my ladder's gone,
I must lie down where all the ladders start,
In the foul rag-and-bone shop of the heart"
There is a need for the factual reportage of sport, the detailed minutiae of who scored and how many wides were recorded. Con chose a different path; a genius always does.
He absorbed the sporting event, processed the full picture, had the intelligence to distil the essence of the contest, filtered out the distracting side shows and then the creative genius wrote. Not for him the typewriter, PC, Laptop, IPod, or IPad. Just plain paper, reams of it. He needed it because his handwriting would hardly get him out senior infants. His scrawl, and what a scrawl he had, was more appropriate for medics and pharmacists.The plain sheet was the canvas where the wordsmith crafted his language in his unique style, often eccentric, but always hooked in to the minds of his readers, sending their imaginations in to freefall. No one did it like him. Think of Mikey Sheehy's freak goal in the 1978 All Ireland final and Paddy Cullen like the poor woman knowing the bread was burning; both knew it spelt disaster.
He held court in Mulligan's pub in Poolbeg Street and loved the Monday mornings after Kerry winning an All Ireland. He told me he that he found the Mondays after they lost hard to take. The timing was perfect; he was spared last Sunday's defeat to Donegal.
Sports stars, managers and other experts often did not agree with his analysis of a sporting event; he didn't expect that, or it didn't bother him. He was his own man, presenting his views. Nothing pretentious about Con, just a genius presenting his work of art to be savoured by so many, this writer included.
"We may have great men, but we'll never have better. Glory o, glory o, to the bold Fenian men ", runs in to one's mind. I don't know if he was in the Fenian mould. He was certainly a nationalist with elements of Marxism and strong supporter of Labour's Dan Spring, but very strongly opposed to the IRA and to mindset of people, such as Martin Ferris.
Old school in respect of basic English grammar and syntax, he was fastidious in the proper usage of the language. The editor never had to change Con's copy; the writer's full stops, commas, colons, and semi-colons were always in the correct places. He did acknowledge that language is organic, but not to the extent of the anything goes style, fashionable by some current writers. He was always seeking perfection in his writings down to the correct preposition. " I fell in Cheltenham, not at Cheltenham", he wrote. Such precision, he sought in the pursuit of artistic greatness. The damaged hip caused hardship for the past few years, but Harriet Duffin, his 'right-hand woman' (his description) proved a loyal companion. Singer Luke Kelly, another artist I admire so much also had female compassion and companionship in his latter years of illness.
Numerous efforts to visit Con in that bachelor pad in Portobello proved abortive. I missed his regular stew menu, wine galore (which he drank out of a mug) and the pieces of art he purchased to assist struggling unknown artists. However, two glorious hours upstairs in Block 2 of St James' Hospital, Dublin last January and an exclusive interview for On the Ball made a great start to 2012.
Go ndéana Dia trócaire ar anam Con Houlihan. Ciarraíoch go smior, bhí féith na filíochta is prós in a chuid scríbhneoireachta. Intleacht, uaisleacht, daonnacht agus thar aon rud eile daonnacht faoi leith i nduine faoi leith, m'anamchara, Con.
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