Genial Con would drink a toast to success of Maria McCambridge and Rose-Anne Galligan

Two dedicated Irish athletes have deservedly qualified for the World Championships in Moscow next week

Marathon runner Maria McCambridge has booked her ticket to the World Championships in Moscow next week. Photo: Morgan Treacy/Inpho

Marathon runner Maria McCambridge has booked her ticket to the World Championships in Moscow next week. Photo: Morgan Treacy/Inpho

Sat, Aug 3, 2013, 06:00

They were out of Steinlager in O’Briens in Carrickmines on Thursday night so we picked up two bottles of Yellow Tail instead and drove straight back to Luggala for the first anniversary toast to Con Houlihan.

Not many people still claim Steinlager to be their absolute favourite beer, but Con always did, at least when he was drinking outside of Belgium – where he liked to remind me they had more breweries than dairies. He’d first tasted it in New Zealand, when he was down there for the 1987 Rugby World Cup, falling in love with the place, and the beer, describing it as “easily drinkable”, which believe me it most certainly is.

Con also introduced me to Yellow Tail, and when it came to wine he always had a preference for a relatively cheap Australian red. They sold it in the Spar just around the corner from his beautiful harbour in Portobello, and he always insisted on paying for the two bottles, pulling out an old €20 note from under the telephone next to his soft white chair.

He did, occasionally, call for an intermission and served up mugs of Barry’s tea or small thimbles of Courvoisier cognac, but the two bottles would soon disappear and he’d call it a night, promising the ghost of John Millington Synge would steer me safely back to the Dublin Mountains.

Roaring fire
Another reason he liked Yellow Tail so much is explained by the little label on the back, which reads “best enjoyed in front of a roaring fire”. No mention at all of a saucy steak or spicy cheese.

It was perfect for Thursday night too given the misty rain and smell of the wet mountains prompted the lighting of the wood burning stove for the first time all summer, in front of which the two bottles soon disappeared.

Like Yellow Tail, most of Con’s favourite things were “not fashionable”, as he’d say himself, and obviously not just in the dress sense. In the calm wonder of where the year had gone since his final journey home came the memory of how much he loved distance running, long before that ever became fashionable.

Indeed Con had a special love for women’s distance running, long before that became fashionable at all. He used to say the only women he ever saw running around the streets of Dublin in his heyday were either Americans or would-be-Goddesses from Scandinavia.

“Both species,” he reckoned, “were of course over here to do a thesis on Finnegan’s Wake. Now all, all is changed – an alarming beauty is born. The Women of Ireland are running and you know neither the day nor the hour when as you turn a corner you’ll be trampled all over by dainty feet.”

Con gladly championed all these women when the late lamented Evening Press come on board as sponsors of the Women’s Mini Marathon, and he also stood up for Sonia O’Sullivan and Catherina McKiernan during their first small steps onto the world stage. One of the last chats we had, before the London Olympics, was about the team of Irish athletes being sent, and he still couldn’t figure out why they didn’t select Maria McCambridge in the women’s marathon.

McCambridge missed out to the three other (and younger) Irish women who had run marginally quicker, although she didn’t argue, just kept running away, and was awarded with a personal best of 2:35:28 in Dublin last October, winning back the national title in the process.

At age 38 she’s defying all notions that her best years are behind her, and her 2:35:28 was the only Irish qualifying time for the women’s marathon at next week’s World Championships in Moscow, making her selection seem perfectly justified.

Con believed he knew the McCambridge family, from nearby Rathgar, and maybe he did, but he recognised too how special it was to see a local athlete competing on the world stage. Her long, loping stride is certainly familiar to anyone who walks the roads of Rathgar or out by Clonskeagh towards UCD, and this is a woman – married to former Irish men’s marathon champion Gary Crossan, with a three-year old son Dylan – who continues to display exceptional commitment to her sport. That more than anything is what Con recognised.

The last thing Con would have burdened any woman athlete with is the label of being “the next Sonia O’Sullivan”, because that wasn’t his style, although I know he would have got a great kick too from hearing that Rose-Anne Galligan had just broken one of Sonia’s oldest Irish records. No one really saw it coming (and I initially missed the result myself) but the 2:00.58 Galligan ran at the Anniversary Games in London last Friday not only eclipsed the 2:00.69 which had stood to O’Sullivan since 1994, but also earned her a ticket to Moscow. Again it’s perfectly justified.

No one ever labelled Galligan “the next Sonia O’Sullivan”which might actually explain why now, at age 25, she’s slowly but surely breaking through, rather than burning out like so many of our best young talents.

Like McCambridge she’s not going to win a medal in Moscow but that shouldn’t mean she’s not properly celebrated for getting there, claiming an 19 year-old Irish record on the process.

Some people will always argue there’s no point in sending these athletes to major championships unless they’re going to win medals, but I can see Con shrugging his great big shoulders at the thought of that, calling for a top up of Yellow Tail, and declaring that sort of talk as just being fashionable.

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