MICHAEL MOYNIHAN: Words take on life of their own if born from honesty

The passing of an 86-year-old writer has sparked a lot of comment in the last couple of days.

Not surprising, when the man was a hero to so many of us labouring in the trenches. Command of the language might be a given in a writer — though it’s surprising how often it isn’t, to be honest — but this particular writer’s outlook and viewpoint took articulate expression to a new level. He was always unique. Many tried to imitate but none succeeded.

A sad day, then, the passing of Gore Vidal last Tuesday.

Essayist, screenwriter, novelist, dispenser of bons mots, the great man’s sporting ties were few — his father was a noted American football player who was recruited for West Point — and his links to Ireland were pretty tenuous, though he owned a house in West Cork for a spell.

But Vidal was just too good a writer to let today pass without marking his departure from the stage.

If you read only one historical novel, then Vidal’s Lincoln is the book for you, though Burr comes a very close second, and Julian has its adherents as well.

If you read one set of essays — on politics, on literature, on Orson Welles as lunch companion — then just pick up United States: Essays 1952-1992 by the great man. If you require a gossipy memoir with eye-watering indiscretion about others’ personal habits, try Palimpsest.

If you need to sift through one big-screen epic for sly homoerotic intent, then try the scenes between Massala and Ben Hur in the film named after the latter.

Vidal always claimed that Irish actor Stephen Boyd — who played Massala — was in on his crafty plan to suggest the two central characters’ antagonism was the result of a lovers’ tiff; he claimed with equal consistency that Charlton Heston, who played Ben Hur, was ignorant of that plan.

You were probably expecting an encomium this morning to another 86-year-old, though. Con Houlihan passed away early on Saturday morning and has been the subject of many generous tributes ever since.

In honesty, the Kerry native’s salad days in the Evening Press came when your columnist was paying more attention to Judge Dredd’s tribulations in the Cursed Earth in the pages of 2000 AD, but the evidence of Houlihan’s ability survives beyond the glow of memory in a couple of fine book-length collections.

Most newspaper writing is sufficient to the day, as another Dublin-based writer once said, but the occasional gem deserves preservation. Many of Houlihan’s pieces now enjoy a deserved afterlife in those books and stand up to scrutiny no matter what your angle or what you require from sportswriting.

In some of the tributes paid to Houlihan it’s interesting to see that one of the characteristics of his approach which has gathered a lot of praise was a reluctance to stitch somebody up in print; a reticence about dancing on someone’s grave when they made a mistake.

A backhanded compliment? Maybe.

But the temptation to put a boot in can often be almost overwhelming when you’re at the keyboard, and all the more so because, for some perverse reason, it’s easier to do.

It’s noticeable that a cheap nickname will come to a desperate journalist a lot quicker than anything constructive (well, it’s noticeable that this all-too-often desperate journalist is often visited by demonic inspiration when it comes to offhand insults, but the genuine stuff comes a lot harder).

The hit from Houlihan’s back catalogue which was on heavy rotation all weekend was his description of Paddy Cullen backpedalling as Mikey Sheehy chipped him with his unforgettable free in the 1978 All-Ireland final; the writer said the Dublin keeper was like a woman who suddenly smells a cake burning in her kitchen.

Accurate, lyrical, but nothing hurtful there about Paddy Cullen.

By contrast, the one-liners of Gore Vidal’s which you couldn’t avoid earlier last week were a little more acid: you had a choice of either “every time a friend succeeds I die a little” or “it’s not enough to succeed; others must fail”.

Warmer memories of Con Houlihan, then, but he would also have recognised that a writer must be true to himself or else he’s at nothing.

Gore Vidal was honest with himself. “If you break this icy exterior,” he once said, “you’ll find cold water underneath.”

So was Con Houlihan.

* Contact: michael.moynihan@examiner.ie


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