One of the greatest sportswriters that Ireland has produced, Con Houlihan made a huge impact during his long life and this tribute for the former SWAI member highlights how such a simple man left behind such a fantastic legacy.
By Sean Creedon
It’s now more than 18 months since the great Con Houlihan left us, but it is never too late to pay tribute to a gentle giant from Castle Island, who was a member of the Soccer Writers’ Association of Ireland.
Con passed away on August 4, 2012 in St James’s Hospital, Dublin at the age of 86 and his funeral mass at St Kevin’s Church on Harrington Street was on August 8 – a few hours before Katie Taylor won her semi-final at the London Olympics. Con worked right up to his death and forecast that Katie would win gold in London.
He was a lover of all sports and was a supporter of the League of Ireland, especially St Patrick’s Athletic. Many Sunday afternoons in the 1970s, 80s and 90s, Con could be seen ‘shuffling’ his giant frame around the perimeter fence on the Camac side at Richmond Park.
He didn’t drive and one often wondered how the ‘big man’ used to make the journey from his home in Martin Street, just off the South Circular road in Portobello, to Inchicore. When he was a regular at league game, they started at 3pm on Sundays and he usually walked up along the Grand Canal, stopping along the way to check if there were any new ducklings making a splash.
There was usually a big breakfast in his home on match days, but he could later be spotted in a few pubs. And when Con graced a pub, the barmen, the staff, and the locals knew who he was: one of the greatest sportswriters of his generation.
Tom Ryan Jr, son of the late Tom Ryan of the Harold House pub on Clanbrassil Street, used to say that his father would make sure a member of staff rushed out to get a carton of milk whenever they saw Con approaching. He liked brandy and milk and it’s likely that he had some pit stops at Tavey’s, McDowell’s and the White Horse – before and after each game.
Con insisted that his visits to pubs along the way to various sporting venues were for ‘research purposes’. And while the great man enjoyed a drink, there is no doubt that he was able to gauge the mood of the people from his visits to the most colourful of watering holes around the city of Dublin – and elsewhere.
He visited all League of Ireland grounds, but there is no doubt that he held a special affection for Richmond Park. Readers of the Evening Press were often kept in tune with what happened at the ground and the Camac river got almost as many mentions in his match reports as the players did.
If there was one thing that made Con stand out – apart from his poetic style of writing – it was that he was very approachable. No matter where he was covering a game, supporters from football, and GAA, would engage with the Kerryman for a chat and many of those conversations ended up in the ‘Fogra’ at the bottom of his column.
Con’s favourite place to witness a game was on the terraces alongside the supporters; except for when he was at the old Lansdowne Road, where he sat in the press box in the upper deck of the West Stand. In Croke Park, he was a recognisable figure at the Canal End. In fact, many people were amazed to see him in the crowd, where he would scribble notes down on a match programme.
At his funeral, long-time friend Ray Hennessy said: ‘Con could paint a picture with words’. And another tribute that seemed so fitting was when someone remarked that he would ‘write about nothing and make it interesting’.
Few sportswriters have that sort of talent, but Con did. He was different in how he attended games, reported on them, and even the way he wrote. With his huge hands too large to fit on the keys of a typewriter, he wrote his articles in long-hand on plain sheets of paper, one paragraph per page. It was such a unique way of filing copy, but a personal touch that reflected the man.
When I edited a staff paper for eircom, Con wrote a column for us and one of my pleasant tasks was the short walk from our office in St Stephen’s Green to Martin Street to collect his copy every month. His house was like a library and an art gallery. He would always greet me with ‘put the kettle on’. A shy man, it was difficult to engage in conversation whenever he covered his mouth with his hand, but at home he was more relaxed and if you listened closely you would pick up a few nuggets of information.
Con’s columns on sport proved to be hugely popular throughout his career. But it was his ‘Tributaries’ column that really broadened his appeal. He even admitted that one of his proudest days was when he received a letter from a reader, who wrote that he had never attended college, but that he got his third-level education from ‘Tributaries’, which encompassed many subjects, including politics and the arts.
Always a perfectionist, Con often said that ‘anybody who misplaces an apostrophe is capable of doing anything’. He had a fantastic way with words and switching them around without every losing their meaning. A great example would be his one-liner: ‘Who said the bystander was innocent?’
It is sad that Con is no longer with us, but his words, and his kindness, will live on. When someone like that graces the world, they are not easily forgotten.
*Image courtesy of Sportsfile