Houlihan, Con (1925–2012), sportswriter, was born on 6 December 1925 in Reineen, near Castleisland, Co. Kerry, the middle child among two boys and a girl of Michael Houlihan and his wife Ellen ('Nell') (née Cronin). His parents farmed a small holding (about five acres of arable land), and Michael had also worked as a fitter's apprentice in a coal mine in south Wales, returning to Ireland in 1923 to support the anti-treaty side in the civil war. Afterwards he worked in two local creameries, Castleisland and Currow, and was a founder of the first Labour party branch in Kerry. Houlihan inherited his father's socialist politics and his mother's love of books. Educated at the local national school, he showed a great aptitude for mathematics and English, and had articles published in the school magazine and the Irish Press. After winning a scholarship, he went to Castlemartyr College, Co. Cork, where he excelled academically. He was physically as well as intellectually precocious: aged twelve he was 6 ft 3 in. tall and played under-sixteen football. Expelled from Castlemartyr for organising a school newspaper without permission, he completed his secondary education at Tralee Christian Brothers' School and Castleisland. He then went to England in 1943 to work as a labourer. Impressed by the wartime stoicism and humour of his fellow workers, he maintained an abiding admiration for the British working class.
In 1944 he returned to Ireland to attend University College Cork (UCC), and studied English, Latin and history. He graduated with a first-class honours Bachelor of Arts (BA), and a Master of Arts (MA) in English (1949) that examined the relation between poetry and society in eighteenth-century England. All the time he read widely, deepening his knowledge of European and American literature. After graduating, he taught history at a prep school in Hastings, England, before returning to Ireland to teach at the 'mountain academy' of Renagown national school, near Listowel, and at Presentation Convent, Castleisland. He also gave grinds to students, but was rarely paid and was too sensitive to broach the matter with hard-pressed parents. His legendary shyness – he always spoke with one hand half-covering his face – was manifest from an early age. He was, though, highly articulate, speaking a courtly, eloquent English in his soft, Kerry-accented mumble. He assisted local people with bureaucracy and form-filling as an unofficial 'public ombudsman', and often canvassed for the Labour TD Daniel Spring (qv).
His involvement in local life was reinforced by strong sporting interests: he played rugby at second row or no. 8 for Castleisland Rugby Football Club (RFC) well into his forties and had the scars and broken nose to show for it; he was also club chairman in 1971. He had a particular fondness for rugby, which he saw as the direct descendant of caid, the traditional form of football played in Kerry long before the codification of Gaelic games. Although an admirer of the Gaelic Athletic Association (GAA), he was not blind to its faults: after one particularly fractious game, he sympathised with the referee 'as he tried to chase away the bottle-carriers and the counsellors and the bone-setters and the physiologists and the next of kin and the sympathisers and the motivators' (Evening Press, 7 Sept. 1981). He was a fierce opponent of the association's ban on 'foreign games' and argued that 'not alone are the values embodied in the ban insane, but the proscribed games aren't in any sense “foreign”' (Irish Press, 18 July 1969). He strongly welcomed that the showing of the 1966 World Cup on RTÉ had 'effected a quiet revolution in our island: it opened windows and blew away cobwebs – and implanted soccer in almost every parish' (Magill, June 2002).
To supplement his income, he made blood puddings in Charlie Lenihan's butcher's shop in Castleisland. Lenihan, a progressive farmer and thinker, published from December 1957 a monthly newspaper, the Taxpayers' News, which helped secure his election to Kerry County Council, and appointed Houlihan as editor (Houlihan's habit of writing his copy in sprawling longhand on butcher's paper stemmed from these days). The Taxpayers' News was noted for its forthright views and eclectic content, including some early poetry by John B. Keane (qv). It closed in October 1960 after a libel action, but Houlihan stayed in journalism, contributing to the Kerryman as a features writer, and built a loyal local following. He wrote on a variety of topics, mostly cultural, but occasionally strayed into politics, usually to denounce paramilitary violence. In February 1974 his condemnation of Irish Republican Army (IRA) bombings in London resulted in threats to blow up the Kerryman's office, and the paper had a police guard for weeks afterwards.
In 1969, David Marcus (qv), literary editor of the Irish Press, commissioned Houlihan to write a review of Alexander Solzhenitsyn's novel The first circle; he regarded its publication on 15 January 1969 as one of the proudest moments of his life. He was an accomplished and imaginative reviewer, his insights conveyed in precise, elegant prose. He also wrote excellent reviews of sports books, which from 1971 earned him occasional work as a sportswriter with the Evening Press (then the most popular evening newspaper in the country) and eventually the offer of a full-time job. In September 1973, aged forty-seven, Houlihan moved to Dublin and was soon the Press Group's most admired and recognisable journalist, largely because of the excellence of his thrice-weekly columns, but also because of his singular appearance: his great stature, craggy features and general dishevelment marked him out in Dublin pubs and sporting venues. Often seen at Richmond Park supporting St Patrick's Athletic, there, as at other grounds, he would stand somewhat apart from the crowd. Despite his shyness, he was a highly sociable man, with a word for everybody, while maintaining a sense of separateness that allowed for the keen observation and independence of spirit that were his hallmarks.
His columns were often worked out in conversation or contemplation in pubs such as Mulligan's, the Silver Swan or the Palace Bar. He drank heavily but claimed that alcohol stimulated his brain and that he never missed a deadline. In his writing he aimed to be in some way original or thought-provoking, while always being grammatically correct. He scorned the sensationalist bias, triumphalism or fault-finding of some sportswriters, and invariably showed a deep sympathy for human fallibility. He rarely dished out severe censure or extravagant praise, recognising that most sportspeople did their best, and were generally lauded too much for winning and damned too much for losing. His experience on provincial papers taught him to deal fairly with people, since doing otherwise would have meant social ostracism. This, though, never stopped him from making acute judgements or commenting wryly on the pretensions and absurdities of modern sport: he looked askance at the proliferation of sports psychologists and their endless talk of 'motivation', and wondered: 'Would you need to motivate a man running from a bull?' (XPress, 4 Aug. 1995).
Although he considered Gaelic football to be a somewhat 'synthetic' game, it inspired some of his most memorable writing, notably on the epic Kerry and Dublin clashes of the late 1970s; his account of Kerry's victory in 1978 is one of the classic pieces of Irish sportswriting. Many did not feel they had experienced these contests to the full until they had read his Evening Press reports. His taste in sports was wide-ranging, and in addition to popular team sports he wrote superbly on athletics, boxing and horseracing. Possessed of vast knowledge and insatiable curiosity, he was as much a storyteller as a sportswriter, and believed that sport was woven into the fabric of everyday life and should not be confined to the back pages. His style was unique, blending acute observation, literary reference and anecdote, with his own brand of gently surreal humour; carefully judged digressions were as important as the main topic. His use of metaphor was often striking and original: a cagey soccer match in which both teams were reluctant to attack was described as a game of 'mouse and mouse' (XPress, 27 June 1995); a stranded goalkeeper 'dashed back towards his goal like a woman who smells a cake burning' (Evening Press, 25 Sept. 1978); a despondent Hill 16 watching Dublin slump to defeat by Kerry in an all-Ireland final was 'as lively as the Main Street of Knocknagoshel on Good Friday' (ibid.).
Inevitably, there were occasional flat columns, but most readers accepted these as understandable lapses for any writer who had to cope with short and frequent deadlines. Like all writers on sport, he endured the condescension of those who dismissed it as a trivial matter, unworthy of serious writing. He could accept that some people took no interest in sport, but was somewhat amused when they boasted of it, and regretted that more literary greats had not followed William Hazlitt's lead and tried to fathom its depths.
He himself wrote about literature and the arts in his fortnightly 'Tributaries' column in the Evening Press, featuring favourite writers such as Thomas Hardy, Dylan Thomas, John Clare, F. Scott Fitzgerald and Sherwood Anderson. He lamented that the relentless analysis of much modern literary criticism, often driven by ideological imperatives, had squeezed much of the joy and beauty out of literature. Happy to champion unfashionable writers such as Charles J. Kickham (qv) and Canon Sheehan (qv) and question the merits of more esteemed ones, he admitted to finding many of the plays of Samuel Beckett (qv) formulaic and pretentious. He was an incisive and witty drama critic: when a theatre company complained about his snoring during a play, he replied that it was a shame the audience was required to stay awake for it. Houlihan retained a rather didactic character from his teaching days and was always ready to impart knowledge. He once received a letter from an Evening Press reader who told him: 'You gave me my third-level education' – a tribute that meant more to him than any public prize. He also had a great love of the Irish language, which he spoke fluently, but was opposed to it being forced on anyone, and believed that any real revival of the language would come from the working-class areas of Dublin.
Much influenced by the celebration of the commonplace in the poetry of Patrick Kavanagh (qv), he cherished his rural upbringing, proudly describing himself as a peasant. He loved to rise before dawn to go fishing, and to harvest his food and fuel from the land. Cutting turf on the bog was for him the essence of rural life, and he regarded it as akin to a sacred ceremony. The natural world inspired some of his best writing, especially on elusive creatures such as the hare and the eel. He savoured all aspects of rural life and contributed commentaries to an Irish Countrywomen's Association cookbook, praising the delights of foods such as freshly caught trout fried in butter, currant bread made with wild fraughans (bilberries), and goose-blood pudding. Although he felt a deep attachment to the landscape, customs and folklore of his native north Kerry, he was capable of adapting to any environment, and was as much at home in a London pub or Parisian café as he was on a Kerry bog.
Houlihan was heartbroken by the closure of the Press Group in May 1995, comparing it to 'the death of a village' (Irish Times, 2 Jan. 1997). Having spent over twenty years on the Evening Press, he regarded it as his home and was revered by colleagues as the heart and soul of the paper. He admitted to feelings of loneliness and desolation whenever he passed its offices on Burgh Quay. Supporting staff who occupied the premises, he was a leading contributor to the XPress, the single-sheet newspaper produced by Press Group journalists to generate publicity and raise funds. It contained some of his best and most autobiographical work (later collected in Windfalls (1996)), and he personally sold copies on O'Connell Bridge. When it was clear there was no way back for the Press, he wrote weekly sports columns for the Sunday World and the Evening Herald, and occasionally for Magill magazine.
While visiting Cheltenham in 1994, he fell and broke his hip (he was at pains to stress that he fell in Cheltenham, not at Cheltenham). He never fully recovered and, after a prolonged period of poor health, died on 4 August 2012 in St James's Hospital, Dublin. He was survived by his partner, Harriet Duffin, with whom he lived in Portobello, and who cared for him devotedly in his final years. After funeral mass at St Kevin's church on Harrington Street, Dublin, and cremation at Mount Jerome, his ashes were buried with his parents in the old graveyard at Kilbanivane, Castleisland, Co. Kerry.
His status as one of Ireland's finest journalists was widely recognised during his lifetime. His articles were republished in several collections (see Sources below), and he was the subject of Waiting for Houlihan (2004), a television documentary written by Houlihan and produced by Maurice Healy and Jimmy Deenihan. In 2010 he was given an All-Ireland Inspirational Life award for his 'unique and vocal insight into all aspects of Irish society'. A bronze bust by the sculptor Hugh Hanratty was unveiled in Castleisland in 2004, with an inscription written by Houlihan himself: 'Fisherman, Turf-cutter, Rugby Player and Teacher'. This added to the busts already placed in the Palace Bar in Fleet Street, Dublin, and the Dropping Well pub on Milltown Road, and the full-sized statue outside The Bank in Dame Street. Few Irish journalists have been honoured with such frequency, or remembered with such affection.