Larry Ryan: Another tribute to Con Houlihan, who would have been the laureate of lockdown

Whichever way you look, isn’t sportswriting thriving without sport?
Larry Ryan: Another tribute to Con Houlihan, who would have been the laureate of lockdown

Con Houlihan at the unveiling of the bust in his honour in Castleisland in 2004. Picture: Don McMonagle
Con Houlihan at the unveiling of the bust in his honour in Castleisland in 2004. Picture: Don McMonagle

Whichever way you look, isn’t sportswriting thriving without sport?

Who told us it was a results business anyway?

Undistracted by matches, writers are reading the game clearer.

So just imagine, if the timing had fallen right, how much we’d have solved in 30-plus columns from Con Houlihan since sport finished up.

When he was pumping them out three days a week, how much truth could Con have unlocked in lockdown?

After all, at the great man’s funeral, one of the testimonies verified his capacity to ‘write about nothing and make it interesting’.

Alas, we don’t know what Con Houlihan made of global pandemic, but we do know what he made of Ireland v USSR, 1974, which is what kept us going last Thursday night, on RTÉ2.

It’s hard not to look at it differently now, the heaving mass of jubilation at Dalymount. You tend to see it in terms of ‘infectious incursions’.

Con looked at it differently even while he was in amongst it.

The Jungle had Rumbled that morning of October 30. And Con was inclined to give Ali some credit for the energy around Phibsboro that afternoon.

“As we hastened into town in the early morning, we could see the evidence of this fermentation: friends greeted one another with pugilistic gestures; there was an inchoate excitement that made the grey air seem like the light of Spring. It was as if the heretic from Kentucky had given us all a new charter.”

Con took his place in the Tramway Terrace — “Terraces are like the yeast in the loaf” — just as Don Givens bagged the first of his hat-trick.

Next day, in the Evening Press, he parsed it.

“Ireland’s albatross around the neck is the national sense of inferiority; at Dalymount the men in green shattered that grey image as explosively as Ali demolished Foreman.”

There’s no albatross on the writing front. If anything we're over par. And Con carried that confidence into the results business.

During his lunar career, Houlihan prized two tributes above others.

He saw one inscribed on the back of a toilet door in Inchicore: "Con Houlihan says that Pat’s will never die".

And the other came via letter to the Press, from a reader who told him: “You gave me my third-level education”.

Con is getting another tribute Monday night.

‘Now read on — a Con Houlihan special’ is a celebration of his work, to be broadcast live on The Horan Stand Facebook page.

The man behind it is another giant of the game, Liam Horan, who knows well the likes of Championship Man and Knowledgeable Noel. Better perhaps than he knows himself.

He knows the work of Con well too.

One of his guests on the night will be athlete and writer Feidhlim Kelly, no stranger to these pages either, a great friend of Con who typed his columns for the two years before his death.

Mainlining, even if not bylining, genius.

Why is Horan doing this show? Why wouldn’t he?

“Like so many others, I was a child of Con Houlihan,” he said yesterday. “DNA tests will show that he was something of a second father to many young journalists of the 1970s and 1980s.”

That’s how it went in our house too.

Con playing with words three days a week. Eamon Dunphy spitting words on the Sunday. A broken home, since the two didn’t get on at all.

(Not to forget Kevin Cashman teaching us words, railing against the nabobs and sciolists).

To Horan, Con was a sporting education.

“While he was the poet laureate of the Kerry-Dublin rivalry — the words he used to describe Mikey Sheehy’s goal in 1978 are stored away under lock and combination in the hearts of all GAA fans — he was also the man who introduced us to Richmond Park, Dalymount and Milltown.”

I loved his writing about St Pat’s. How the loyalists were so dislocated when Richmond Park shut for two seasons, they complained about the weather two miles up the road in Harold’s Cross.

We learned of the man stationed beside the Camac river in Inchicore, whose job was to retrieve balls, as well as small boys who jumped in after balls.

A role Con put beautifully in perspective. “Incidentally, Hereford United for this same job keep two men in a boat on the Severn.”

“My memory is that every column was a gem,” says Horan. “And that can’t be too faulty. How else could he have earned his reputation in every town, village and city in this country? Dickie Rock and Johnny Logan combined couldn’t match his army of followers.”

Horan enjoyed the way he inverted things.

“Bystanders need not always be innocent, as Sean Creedon, the soccer writer, reminded me while researching this programme. It conjured up images of all sorts of guilty bystanders. A bystander might be a murderer. Or a polygamist. Or a con artist. Or all three.

“Con’s touch was light. You might even miss the wordplay if you didn’t pay attention.

“I know a man. I will call him John, for that is his name…”

Or what about Limerick’s meltdown? The time they were ‘Dooleyed’.

“You could feed all the relevant data into the most sophisticated computer and end up no wiser. The All-Ireland Hurling Final of 1994 will defy the microchip — and even the micro fish.”

“Con loved words,” Horan adds. “He played with them in a joyous manner.

“John Betjeman, the poet, wished people to enjoy the sound of his words almost as much — if not more — than the actual meaning they conveyed. Betjeman had plenty to say about the desecration of English towns and rural idylls, but when you read his poetry, you are struck by its lyrical quality.”

Con talked poetry, and Patrick Kavanagh, way back, in an interview for the Irish Times.

“TS Eliot said in a moment of enlightenment — and he hadn't many of those — that art was about taking the here and the now and making it rich and strange. Kavanagh practised that. He didn't preach it.

“He made you see your own fields, your own little rivers and cows, as important.”

Houlihan didn’t preach either, Horan stresses.

“Con lamented the man who might misuse an apostrophe. But even that famous line was delivered playfully: Con never imposed his genius on you — and it was genius — and thus you tended to embrace, rather than resist, what he had to say.”

Con studied in UCC, under renowned academic Daniel Corkery.

"One time long ago Daniel Corkery taught me and he asked us, 'when man goes to the moon, how will people react?' And we all gave stupid answers, I can't remember what. And he said, 'They will think more and more about their own little parish'."

And that’s what Con achieved in that lunar career. Elevated on a pedestal of fine words what is closest, what means most. That'd be handy now, locked at home.

Which is why, in the pitiful style of a lad trying to get his second father and mother back together, I left a message with Dunphy this week, to see if he’d relent.

In one broken home, Eamo’s Only a Game? was thumbed as often as Con’s compilation More Than A Game would be.

Seemingly, Con gave the former a lukewarm review, which ignited a feud.

But there’s surely more to unite than divide them. After all, didn’t Con warn about Jack Charlton’s Wimbledon tendencies while Eamo still regarded Jack’s arrival as an antidote to ‘decentskinsmanship’?

So Eamo, what’s one more small u-turn? Build a bridge, like Johnny did with Dickie, and give Horan a call before Monday night.

Fógra: ‘Now read on — a Con Houlihan special’ will be aired live on on Monday night next at 9.25pm. Guests will include Jimmy Deenihan, Ian O’Riordan, Frank Greally and Feidhlim Kelly. It will be archived on the page afterwards.

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