CON HOULIHAN was the finest Irish sports writer of all. For me, the words “Irish” and “sports” could be removed from that sentence.
Someone’s favourite writer is a personal thing. I judge by the amount of enjoyment gained from their words, so Con was the best.
On August 4 a brilliant light went out. I’ve been meaning to write something about him for the paper since he passed, but instead sat back and drank in the many tributes from people who knew Con, worked with him, supped with him and learned from him.
I never even met Con so can only offer a fan’s perspective. A fan’s perspective, though, is one of the many things Con brought to sports writing, so hopefully this won’t read thin compared to all the primary-source accounts of the man.
There are countless Con fans around. Most of them grew up with his words on the back page of the Evening Press. I missed all that — we were a Cork Examiner household.
I was always vaguely aware of Con Houlihan but only really discovered his work when given More Than a Game, a collection of his sporting essays, in 2003.
I can’t remember who handed me the book — but I owe a lot of thanks for that forgotten act.
At the time, through a combination of desperation and supreme good luck, I had landed a job as a trainee journalist.
I liked writing and reading newspapers and thought a job in the trade would be a lot more fun than the alternative — stay working in a video shop for minimum wage.
When I opened More Than a Game and read a few pages I was awestruck.
This job writing about local matters, mainly sports, wasn’t just a slightly less boring means of paying the bills. If done properly it could lift the spirit, fire the imagination, take your mind places it had never been. That’s what a good Con piece does.
Of course, in nine years my best work isn’t within a light-century of Con’s worst, but that matters not. You don’t need to be Beethoven to enjoy playing the piano; excellence should inspire the masses, not intimidate them.
That was the term a jaded pro used to me years ago in relation to Con.
This old hack wasn’t excessively keen on cheap trainees stinking up the place, so our conversations rarely progressed beyond curt nods. But the documentary Waiting for Houlihan had screened the night before and we’d both seen it.
“Inspirational,” he said. “When I get fed up with everything that goes on …” he waved around the newspaper office “… I sometimes read a Con Houlihan piece, remind myself of why I got into this.”
How could you not be inspired by Con?
“There are war criminals — and there are peace criminals. The faceless people who ‘rationalised’ our rail system got pensions — they should have got jail.”
That’s the introduction to an essay on Mick O’Dwyer. You have no choice but to read on — read the tale about a man born into peninsula neglected by even the shoals of mackerel who became a footballer and manager of legend.
Woven into the yarn are Thomas Wolfe, the red rocks of Eddystone, Napoleon on Elba and Sheikh Mohammed. From any other pen, such a combination would come off as over-reaching or just plain ridiculous.
With Con, the transitions from long-dead Greek poets to the Kerry half-back line are as natural as a horse breaking from a trot into a canter.
A sense of love and wonder ran through all of Con’s work; not just of sport, but of language, stories, the natural world, the great cities and how everything is one. Con knew that you had to understand many small worlds to truly appreciate the big picture. And you had to be aware of the grand scale to know where all the pieces fit.
Con was well into his 40s by the time he began writing for national newspapers and by then he was wise. Decades of labouring, reading, writing, observing, listening and playing sport had made him so.
He threw everything of himself into his newspaper columns. To be that good involves a singular devotion. Other areas of his life must have suffered.
If anyone was going to write the great Irish novel of late 20th century it was surely him, but it did not transpire. He never married and had no kids. Perhaps that was by choice, who knows? There was, however, a discernible sense of aloneness about him.
Like many great writers, he seemed a man apart, devoted to his work to the detriment of almost everything else, always chasing the perfect paragraph and phrase, all the while feeling it’s just beyond reach.
In a poignant column from last year Con reflected on his life and decided that, if nothing else, he had graduated to excellence as a bogman and a fisherman.
“Writing,” he said “is my profession but it isn’t easy to judge the worth of your work.”
He continued: “ …And then there is the song that says The Heart is a Lonely Hunter. Too well I know. There were affairs that didn’t last very long and there were affairs that hardly got even started.”
I’m not sure if Charles Bukowski is a writer Con approved of, but he would surely recognise the sentiment in this: “If you’re going to try, go all the way. There is no other feeling like that. You will be alone with the gods, and the nights will flame with fire … It’s the only good fight there is.”
Con fought the only good fight and went all the way, writing his heart out, right to his dying week.
To us readers he was note perfect.
But he was different to us: the Gods seek perfection and when it came to writing, Con was closer to heaven than earth.
Often he wrote so well that we saw what he saw. It was magnificent. Ours was the pleasure, his the burden. It can’t have been easy to lift so many so high.
I believe in the cliché about not meeting your heroes, it’s embarrassing for both parties. I do wish I had bumped into Con along the road someday, though, just to nod the head and say thanks. It’s been inspirational.