Remembering Con Houlihan

By Frank Greally

Remembering Con Houlihan- 10th Anniversary

 

By Frank Greally

 

I was greatly privileged to have known  Con Houlihan as a dear friend and on 10th anniversary of his passing (August 4th)- memories of days and evenings in my home town of Ballyhaunis come flooding back.

 

I can still see the little red Ford Anglia van screeching to a halt outside Mile Lyons’ shop in Ballyhaunis on Monday, Wednesday and Friday evenings back in 1977.

 

About a half dozen of the town’s citizens, whom I would loosely describe as kindred spirited, would be gathered outside the shop in Abbey Street discussing the affairs of the day, the nation and the world. The banter would be lively, laced with wicked wit. 

 

When the red Anglia finally arrived, in a blur and with a screeching of brakes, the young man at the wheel flung a bundle of evening newspapers onto the sidewalk and roared off into the evening towards Claremorris, his next port of call.

 

It was usually Seán Ruane, for years the loyal farm hand at the local convent who produced the knife to free the bound package of its treasure. We would grab for the papers like children at a street counter and, as one, go straight to the Evening Press back page sports column where Con Houlihan reigned supreme.

 

The individual members of our little group would only skim the column before carefully folding the paper and branching off homeward in different directions. Con’s back page column was sacred It could only be read in the comfort of one’s home with a full pot of tea on the brew.

 

When we met again the following day at lunchtime outside Joe Regan’s Corner Bar in the middle of our town, the Con Houlihan column was the main focus of discussion. I remember those afternoons and evenings as times of beautiful innocence- a period in my life when I had just re-connected with my hometown after a four year sojourn in the hills of East Tennessee.

 

It was my late uncle Michael Mannion – a sports fanatic and a lover of fine literature, who introduced me to Con Houlihan’s Evening Press sports column and the full page Tributaries feature that appeared in the paper every second Tuesday.

 

The uncle shortened many a day in the bog holding court on Con’s wisdom and his rare writing talent. “He has a way with words, a way with words,”  the uncle would repeat as he flung the sodden sods of turf at me off his sleán. “He brings you the whole game and a lot more. His column is better than listening to the game on the wireless.”

 

On many a Winter evening during that year of 1977 I found my own delight in reading Con Houlihan’s Tributaries – that once-a-fortnight focus on the life and works of some of the great writers and artists.

 

When I came back to live and work in Dublin in the late 1970s, I felt that although I had never met him, I already knew Con Houlihan well. I’d see the gentle giant from Castle Island walking along Burgh Quay on afternoons shortly after the Evening Press had hit the street and I would often watch in awe as he held court in Mulligan’s pub in Poolbeg Street.

 

Then one wet day in 1979 I watched John Treacy win the World Cross Country title on a mud-soaked Limerick Racecourse. That was my first meeting with Con – the beginning of a beautiful and enduring friendship.

 

The following day Con wrote about the race on the back page of the Evening Press. The piece was headlined – The Magic Fox That Got Away. I can still recall one passage from the piece in particular.

 

“On and on he went until in the mist and rain he was away out in front like Tied Cottage in the first three quarters of the Gold Cup.

 

And like Tied Cottage he came down- but it was only a slip at a splashy bend and in a few seconds only his muddy knees reminded one of it. In the last mile as the powerful Pole, Mallinowski, began to make up ground, he seemed like the leading dog in a very scattered pack.

 

But the magic fox never looked like being caught- his biggest danger was the tumult of small boys that went out like tugboats to meet him”

 

As in so many of his columns  over the years, Con captured completely the true essence of that great day in Limerick long ago.

 

What other writer would lead -off a Tributaries piece on Vincent Van Gogh with

 

It may seem ridiculous to compare Lester Piggott and Vincent Van Gogh: each, however, was consumed by a passion that led to sacrifices so enormous that ‘normal people’ can hardly comprehend.

 

That opening paragraph immediately draws you into a wonderfully insightful essay on Van Gogh, the unquiet spirit.

 

Con Houlihan had a wry sense of humour, but you suspect too from reading him that, although his experience of sadness and loneliness had not been different in kind from that of other men, it had been sharper in intensity. It may well have been a key to his ability to have given us such insight into the often complex world of great writers and sports stars.

 

I particularly love a piece Con wrote about the last day he worked on the bog in Castle Island. Con used to say that- The Last Time are are three of the poignant words in any language.

 

“I knew it was the last day; I was about to depart for a different world. It was also the last day that I worked with my father.

 

At about six o’clock we raked the embers of the fire together and quenched with them with what water we had left over and with what tea remained in the kettle. I was pierced with an infinite sadness.

 

Con left his beloved Castle Island in the early 1970s and for several decades his back page column was the flagship of the Evening Press. It broke his heart when the Press Group closed. Burgh Quay was his village and his heartland.

 

He had succeeded his hero Joe Sherwood  as King Of The Back Page . Con wrote in appreciation of Joe’s work: Writing with honesty and insight, you will be respected.

 

When I think back to those days in the Ballyhaunis of 1977 and my little band of friends, many now departed, I remember how in writing with that same honesty and insight, Con earned our respect -as well as that of thousands of readers the length and breath of the country. Con Houlihan- a wonderful writer and a dear friend now 10 years- Gone Home

 

I visited Con in St Jame’s Hospital in late July of 2012- just before I left to cover the London Olympics for Irish Runner magazine. We both knew that we were unlikely to meet again in this mortal world. Con was on his last slope and he knew it. He said to me: “You will get along without me- but maybe not as well.” He was right there!

 

When I returned from the Olympics I came up with an idea for an event to celebrate Con’s life and work and Athletics Ireland supported my idea for an event that I called the Remembrance Run 5k- a Walk or Run event open to people of all ages who wish to celebrate the lives of loved ones passed. Con used to say: To be forgotten -is to die twice.” I believe that we all have a primal wish/need to be remembered – even in some small fond way and the Remembrance Run 5k- gives people a unique opportunity to rememember family, friends and work colleagues on a Sunday morning in mid- November. 

 

Remembrance Run 5k is a unique event that takes place this year in the Phoenix Park on Sunday, November 13th. The event includes- Choirs- Music- Song and a Special Wall Of Remembrance where people write names of loved ones- family and friends passed – as well as heartfelt messages. All participants receive a commemorative souvenir candle.  See: remembrancerun.ie