Con Houlihan (Photo: Laura Greally)
I still think about Con Houlihan every morning when I wake up. It is morning – well, mid-morning – as I start to write this column. This used to be the customary start of our daily ritual of tea and toast and Sky Sports News on mute.
Frank Greally introduced me to Con in the winter of 2007, with the idea of me getting some tips and lessons on writing from a living legend and renowned sports writer who was for many years King of the Back Page in the former Evening Press.
Con’s house in Portobello was a little wonderland – paintings decked everywhere much like how a schoolboy would arrange his football posters. In through the narrow hallway we went, to the living room, where the giant from Castle Isand sat to the right and centre of the room. There were books covering every section of the room and old football and racing programmes on the stairs. And an array of paintings covering all four walls.
That first visit was quickly followed by a second – we seemed to connect. I was 24 and Con was 82 and from that first meeting – a bond of friendship was formed. We found it easy to get along. Despite the age gap, we had much common ground in that we both loved sport and we were both dreamers. In fact, our lifestyles were strikingly similar. We both spent inordinate amounts of time sitting around watching Sky Sports News. It felt like I was in heaven. “Feidhlim,” Con would say, “It doesn’t matter, the age gap between people. It’s all about the mental connect.”
My visits to Con became more regular and I soon became a useful ‘maggot’ – an affectionate term Con used. It was not long before I found a new role tapping merrily away the keys of my laptop as Con dictated his weekly Evening Herald and Sunday World columns to me – a very special experience. I would then email the completed columns to Harriet Duffin – Con’s special partner and ‘friend girl’
Con believed in me, and told me that I could become a champion runner if I applied myself. He also said that I could become a good writer. Both sentiments may well have been expressed out of kindness, but he never stopped encouraging me.
It was also around this time I became friendly with Colin Costello. I’d known Colin for a few years, but now that he was back home after a track and field scholarship career in Arkansas, USA, and we got to know each other a little better. Colin’s years in Arkansas had not worked out as well as he had hoped they would. He had shown his rare brilliance when winning the European Junior 1500m Championships in 2005, but his time in America did not yield the further glory he had hoped for.
Like me, Colin was feeling a little rudderless at the time and I thought it would be good idea for him to meet Con Houlihan. You would be welcomed in Martin Street and you would not be judged. I had spoken about Colin often to Con and I felt that it was about time we added a third man to the party.
The connect was immediate. Colin’s father, also Colin, is a fisherman and Con’s eyes lit up at this news. “I was a fisherman,” he said. “I always wanted to be a ship’s captain.” This was the acceptance and welcome and from there it moved to chat about running and the sub four minute mile.
Colin and I often stayed over in Con’s sleeping upstairs in the spare bedroom that Con used to inhabit in his more nimble days. We would know that he was up when we would hear the clinking noise of his metal horse – otherwise known as his zimmer frame.
We were fascinated by Con – his big features, big ears, big nose and forehead and shovel-size hands. He was the real life version of Road Dahl’s BFG. We counted out the number of feet he would pace during a day between his bedroom, the front room and the bathroom. ”The Old Man And The W.C.” he would joke – a play on Ernest Hemingway’s The Old Man And The Sea.
Our proximity to Harcourt Street and all the local Latin Quarter had to offer was very tempting to me and Colin and at night we often succumbed to the temptation to hit the town. A typical evening would start in the house with red wine. A bottle of red wine a night was Con’s staple diet. On the way back in to the house in the wee hours, as we quietly opened the door, we would sometimes hear a voice call out “Who’s there?” Our night was then not over. A bottle of wine had to be opened for further discussion on any given topic that might take Con’s fancy. He would roll over and sit on the side of his bed. “Ah dear,” he would say, and we might talk about a match or of a time or experience back in his younger days at home in Kerry.
Sometimes we would just look at him – in total awe and admiration.
The day our little commune was fractured was on a Wednesday morning in the summer of 2010.
Con had been very ill for a while. The indefatigable Harriet – now famously known as Con’s ‘friend girl’ – was the manager of our team at that difficult time. Harriet was also ill with cancer but she still managed to organise us. On that Tuesday night I lay on the floor in the front room watching as Con lay gravely ill in his bed. I still cannot understand how he ended up dictating a newspaper column to me before he could be convinced to be taken to hospital. Con went into hospital early on that Wednesday morning and I ran in the Raheny Lord Mayor’s race series that night in a total daze.
I didn’t know then that we would never be back together in Martin Street. Con spent his last two years in St James’s Hospital, where I visited him regularly to take down his dictation and help him deliver his columns for the national newspapers. It was never the same though. We always dreamed that some day we would be back to our ‘commune’ – our ‘home’.
Writing this closing paragraph about my time with Con Houlihan – my eyes are filled with tears that stream uncontrollably down my face. Everybody needs someone to believe in them with innocence and without judgement. Con believed in me and in Colin Costello too. His dream was always for Colin to run a sub four minute mile – something he still has the potential of achieving.
Con once dictated a line to me to finish off a column: “Grow old with me, the best is yet to be.” Con, you grew old – you were the best at what you did and you were the best friend I will ever have.
Con used to say “You’ll get along without me, but maybe not as well” – how true.
Fogra: Before Con died, Colin Costello won the national 1500 metres title and brought his medal to the hospital. It was a very special occasion for Colin and Con – one part of a dream fulfilled by Colin – an even better tribute to Con from Colin will be when he breaks four minutes for the mile.