One of the best journalists Ireland has ever seen
Con Houlihan had an extraordinary agility of mind – he could write with equal grace on sport as he did on literature – and he got every word right, writes COLUM McCANN
HE WAS already a myth by the time I met him. I had heard stories of the great Con Houlihan. A giant of a man. His hair flung sideways. His hands huge like paddles. His lumbering walk. A big brawl of language inside him. An original Irishman. A genius under the blue anorak hood.
He wrote in the sports pages in the back of the Evening Press and on Wednesdays he wrote a literary column that my father, Seán McCann, edited. I loved to read whatever Con wrote. He could give a greyhound immediate muscle. He could put the swerve on a Liam Brady free-kick. He could jockey us into the saddle when the rain was coming down over Aintree. He could make the turf at Lansdowne Road slide under your studs. He could harden the ash in a camán. He could hear the echo in the tunnel at Croke Park; in fact, he made it sing.
And then he would swerve and he could find the Wilfred Owen line that made perfect sense. Or he could write a sentence that made the ghost of Dylan Thomas sit up and have another whiskey. Or he could talk about the Brontë sisters and the deep dark soil that they came from. Or sing about the river Strule with Benedict Kiely. Or find the grace in a discarded poem.
There was great agility in that frame that was well over six foot tall. A pint of plain isn’t always yer only man. Con Houlihan had a ball of malt in him too. He could talk literary theory, or politics in Brussels, or Jackie Charlton’s tiepin, or how to cut the turf, or what the light lay like over the Atlantic beyond Cahirciveen.
But what interested him most was the ordinary man. He was a brilliant writer, one of the best journalists Ireland has ever seen. Fame didn’t interest him. There were no phone boxes on Burgh Quay that dialled up adulation. He put his head down and he wrote for the man in the street. He knew exactly what it was like to be Paddy Cullen that day, back in 1978, when the ball looped over the Dublinman’s head, and Con said it was like the fireman returning home to see the firehouse aflame. He knew what the evening in Stuttgart meant to an entire nation, when we went and stayed 1-0 up against England, what sort of gold-dust was sprinkled on Ray Houghton’s forehead. He could put his finger on the pulse of a hurling match, not with any sweeping observation, but perhaps a line that captured the fall of a full-forward’s sock, or the sound of the sliotar against the rain-slicked stands.
He was a legend in the Evening Press and every paper he worked for; the Sunday World, the Independent, Hot Press magazine. He sat at the Sports desk, the big blue anorak draped over his chair. No typewriter. No notebook. He was born a butcher’s son, so he wrote in huge letters on a sheet of paper – sometimes he would only fit a single sentence on the page. There was something of the bear about him, but if you approached he showed his huge shyness. He spoke with his hand across his mouth. His pale eyes darted about. He had a deep Kerry accent: you could hear the turf in it. If he had to dial in his copy there were not many who could understand him. But you could feel Con in the rain somewhere, huddled against the receiver, unshaven, a little whiskied, getting every word right.
I went to interview him in the early 1980s. I was 17 years old and he was already a hero of mine. We walked out the back of the Irish Press building together. Con could not go anywhere without being hailed. The printers all had something to say to him. The security men at the back door. The motorbike boys. The gurriers, the aul’ ones, the chisellers on the street. The girls from the sandwich shop along the quays. We stopped in Mulligan’s pub on Poolbeg Street. The bartenders adored him. The pint was pulled before he sat. No man could ever have just one pint with Con. He was a gentleman and, indeed, a gentle man. He seldom had a harsh word about anyone, although he took a glance at a fellow journalist sitting morosely at the end of the bar: “There he is, poor fella, forgotten but not gone.”
We drank and then we walked all the way out to his chaos of a house in Portobello. He took out a hunk of ham and a loaf and made a giant sandwich. Most of the time while I interviewed him he kept his hand across his mouth and it was difficult to know what he said. I was too young and too much in awe to ask him to repeat himself. He talked of his childhood. He talked of great sporting men and women. He knew love – there was a woman in Birmingham he mentioned, I was not sure if it was a daughter or a wife. He knew sadness too and what it meant to be solitary. And, like most men and women who know sadness, he could haul a laugh from the darkest corner. There was always an element of humour in a Con Houlihan column. There may never be his like again.
Most of all he was humble. Towards the end of the interview the phone rang. It was his bookie calling. Con Houlihan took his hand from his mouth and spoke very eloquently into the receiver. He would like to put five pounds on Hard Outlook in the three o’clock at Cheltenham, he said. His words were crisp and clear.
When he put the phone down, the hand went over his mouth once more, and the Kerry accent returned. “Sorry about that, boy,” he said. “What is it you want to know now?”
Well, I stuttered, I wanted to know how he wrote so beautifully. He gave a huge shrug of his shoulders and said it was time for another pint. He would take me down to the White Horse, he said. “There’s one in Dublin, boy, and theres one in New York,” he said.
When he closed the door he almost said sorry. When he opened the next he was glad to see it.
Beannacht Dé lena anam.
Colum McCann is a best-selling Irish author whose novels include Let the Great World Spin, Songdogs, This Side of Brightness and Zoli