Coming so soon after the death of Maeve Binchy, the death this weekend of Con Houlihan is another great loss to Irish letters, journalism, sport, and public life.
Though they used very different palettes, both were astute and provocative commentators who made us all look in the mirror, even if we might not like what we would see. Both were, however, instinctively and irredeemably positive and humane.
Maeve Binchy was rooted in urban Ireland but Con Houlihan was cut from a different cloth, most probably one in the green and gold colours of his beloved Kerry. He often used the imagery and cadences of an Ireland becoming less familiar as every year passes, but with a sophistication as sharp as it was contemporary.
Though both could be critical if they had to be, their great, enduring popularity lies in their visceral enthusiasm in celebrating the great and small victories that bring joy to us all, be it the warmth of a nurturing relationship or an extraordinary sports-field achievement.
Con Houlihan, just like Maeve Binchy, was supportive and encouraging to scores of aspiring journalists, writers, and artists, conferring that most valuable gift — confidence-building interest and inspiration. Over decades, the Kerryman built up a considerable collection of contemporary paintings, often bought more to encourage a struggling artist than for any other reason.
Though Houlihan, who was 86 when he died after a long illness, will be primarily remembered as a beautifully lyrical sportswriter he was just as impressive writing about the arts and politics.
Described as “a philosopher who masqueraded as a sports journalist”, he used our almost insatiable appetite for sports commentary to speak about the great truths that make us all human.
He had, even very early in his career as a writer, a particular awareness of life’s poignancy, a trait he used wonderfully in a piece where he described the last time he worked with his father on the bogs outside of Castleisland — he insisted on using two words to describe his home town. In the piece, he described a situation faced by hundreds of thousands of young Irishman and women, when the moment of leaving one life to try to build another far away from home comes. He conveyed the sting, the emotional cleaving, that parting brought and how it marked him for all of his life in a profound and unforgettable way.
Before he became a professional writer, Con Houlihan was — like Maeve Binchy — a teacher and he brought from that profession a fastidiousness about syntax and punctuation that is not as universal today as it once was. That he followed these disciplines rigorously to present clear, joyous and hard-nosed writing is a great argument for placing greater emphasis on grammar in classrooms. Indeed, Con Houlihan argued that not teaching these basics in the mechanics of communication to schoolchildren was a kind of betrayal.
In a career spanning six decades, Con Houlihan enriched Irish life with his wit and humanity, with his insight and encouragement, with his particular elan and character.
An Olympian figure, it is fittingly symbolic that he passed as the world’s best athletes competed with each other in London. He lived a life and leaves a legacy most of us can only aspire to, a life that enriched all of ours.
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