Memories of the pressing game with Con Houlihan

Just when you think you’ve heard all the Con Houlihan stories, along comes one from way back in the day about the time he and sportswriting colleague David Faiers were in Paris for France versus Ireland in the rugby.
Memories of the pressing game with Con Houlihan

On the eve of the big game, the two were enjoying a long, liquid night in the French capital when, on the back of some sort of minor disagreement, they abruptly decided to finish up and go their separate ways. Unfortunately — and, perhaps remarkably, considering his great size — Con was the victim of a mugging on his way back to the hotel, losing his money, his passport and, most worrying of all under the circumstances, his match ticket.

Cut to the Parc des Princes the following afternoon and, with only minutes to go before the off, there’s still a vacant seat in the press box where Con is supposed to be. At which point, Faiers is approached by a stadium official who says that there is a “Monsieur Oolahan” outside who claims to be a member of the Irish press corps. Would Mr Faiers be able to offer a description of his putative colleague so they might permit him access to the game? “Of course,” Faiers replied, not missing a beat. “Monsieur Houlihan is a small, dapper gentleman...” (Needless to say, there nearly always being honour amongst hacks, even rival ones, David eventually relented and Con got in).

The yarn was told to me by former The Sunday Press editor Michael Keane shortly before he took to the podium in Liberty Hall on Thursday night to deliver a wonderful speech on the occasion of the launch of The Press Gang, a new collection of memories of The Irish Press group from the 1950s through to its shocking closure, 20 years ago, in 1995.

By the bittersweet end, I’d come to know Con Houlihan well enough that, when he began contributing a series of superb autobiographical pieces to the X-Press — a small fundraising paper produced by journalists during that long, hot summer of industrial action — I joined an elite group in Burgh Quay who had learned to decipher the Houilhan hieroglyphics with sufficient fluency to ensure that his articles made it into print as God but, more importantly, their author, intended.

Three times a week, at around noon, I would repair to The Irish Press annex — better known as Mulligan’s of Poolbeg Street — to meet with Con, receive his latest hand-written manuscript, read it aloud in his presence to our mutual satisfaction and then head back across the river to our war office in Liberty Hall to type it up for publication in the X-Press. (Con’s preferred libation at the time, as I recall, was “a glass of Bud with a Guinness head”, an interesting change from his most celebrated tipple of choice — brandy and milk. Once when asked why he favoured such a strange concoction, he matter of factly explained: “The brandy takes the shting out of the milk.”).

It was during one of those meetings in Mulligans, in the run-up to the All-Ireland final between Dublin and Tyrone, that I witnessed a true high noon moment in the famous saloon. When I arrived, the only other occupant was the poet John McNamee, a literary man about town known to both myself and Con and, if truth be told, most of Dublin. Clearly nursing a cunning plan, John was anxious to know if Con would be joining me that day. Moments later, he got his answer, as a great shadow in the doorway presaged the arrival of the Castleisland Colossus himself. John was immediately off his stool and when Con paused just inside the door, it meant the two men were facing each other the length of the bar, like gunslingers in a wild west showdown.

“Con,” said John, breaking the silence in an unnaturally loud voice, “are you at all familiar with the works of ----”, and here he named an author unknown to me.

Con, of course, not only knew the author but promptly reeled off the titles of about a dozen of his books, the clear implication being that he’d read them all, probably more than once, and maybe even backwards to boot.

You could tell from the slightly sagging look on John’s face that this revelation didn’t entirely suit his purposes but, undeterred, he ploughed ahead.

“Well, Con, what would you say to a bit of horse-trading — the collected works in pristine condition in exchange for two tickets for Croker on Sunday. What do you say, Con?” After a short pause, Con gave his considered response in a calm but firm voice.

“McNamee, “ he said. “That is not horse-trading, that is ass-trading.”

And, with that settled, he turned to order his Bud with a Guinness head and McNamee returned to his stool.

While I’m in yarn-spinning mode, I might as well reveal the only time I ever fell foul of the Dev legacy while working in Burgh Quay. For reasons unclear — though my long-time ghostwriter Phil Space could probably elucidate — I once decided to spice up a radio review column for The Irish Press by recycling the doubtless apocryphal but still glorious tale of the time The Long Fellow was invited to throw in the ball at a big game. Just as he was about to do so, it’s said that a dissident voice from the depths of the crowd rang out as follows: “G’wan Dev, why don’t you throw in your own two while you’re at it and make a pawn shop of the game like you have of the country.”

Need I confirm that the said radio column duly appeared sans spice?

I didn’t get around to submitting any of the above yarns for The Press Gang but the fact that I am still one among some 55 contributors — photographers included — should in no way put you off filling your Christmas stocking with what, all bias aside, I regard as a wonderful and frequently hilarious store of memories of the newspaper world as it used to be, lovingly compiled and edited by another Burgh Quay exile, Dave Kenny.

And if I can be permitted one spoiler, it has to be this one, from former Evening Press feature writer and columnist Maura O’Kiely, recalling an interview she did with Nina Tully, in which the then principal of the Merrion School of Ballet in Ballsbridge reminisced about her 50 years as a dance teacher.

Setting the scene, Maura tells how, before the interview began, the grand old lady had walked into her dance studio and headed over to the bar, not even the presence of a walking stick able to disguise a lifetime’s dedication to good posture.

“The epitome of old-school decorum,” her final words to the journalist were, “Be kind to me.” Over to Maura: “Of course I was kind to her. She was perfection. I probably went over the top with the superlatives. The piece was published.

“The opening line read: ‘Nina Tully wanks into the room and heads for the bar’.” Maura never did send her a copy.

The Press Gang — Tales From the Glory Days Of Irish Newspapers, edited by David Kenny and with a foreword by Tim Pat Coogan, is published by New Island Books.

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