- 13 Aug 12
Hot Press spoke to with the late, great sportswriter in 1984...
Sports journalist Con Houlihan died on August 4 at the age of 86. Declan Lynch spoke to the legendary Kerryman back in 1984...
The original idea was to ring up Con Houlihan at some atrocious hour on Saturday morning, well before midday, and arrange an interview in the most civil circumstances that could be managed. I rang several numbers but, pas de Con.
Eventually using my journalism powers of ESP, I decided to run down my quarry, to hunt the great Con to his lair. The choices were three, as I saw it. I narrowed it down to The Harp, The Palace and Mulligan's. I found him in Mullligan's.
You would not believe the impact of meeting this man in good form. If Mount Rushmore could come alive, it would look and act like Con Houlihan. I doubt it would speak like him, because nobody in the world speaks quite like Con.
I introduced myself to this enormous presence. He was seated at the bar with John Behan, the sculptor, and the presence of both was quite overwhelming. Con draws out a wad of notes from his pocket and orders up drink. I immediately like him. He goes on to say that Hot Press is a great magazine, “the new Ireland’s Own”, if you don’t mind…
An evening with Con Houlihan is like live theatre. To dislike him, you’d have to be a depraved amalgam of Mussolini, Mary Kenny and De Valera, if you can imagine anything so horrible. He’s a very affectionate man, and in his affection and generosity, he’s as big emotionally as he is physically. He has a way of describing people he admires. He says they’re, “up there”- and points to the ceiling. Most people you meet in a night out with Con think he’s “up there” as well. Trailing around in his slipstream, you get the distinct impression that Con Houlihan knows everyone in Dublin worth knowing.
People you wouldn’t normally notice suddenly seem interesting. You see, Con is not an establishment hack. He has the appearance and the temperament of a man who’s happier when he’s close to the backroom staff – from the printers right across to the street vendors. He has words for everybody, but he’s more comfortable with “ordinary” people.
Originally, I couldn’t understand a word that he said. He’d had a few, and he has a tendancy, as a result of an innate shyness, to put his hand in front of his mouth. This, in tandem with an inscrutable Kerry accent, threw me right out. “Mother of babbling God,” I thought, “I have to perform an interview with this man, and I can’t understand a word he is saying”. I knew that the mental equipment was fine, but the thoughts were just not manifesting themselves in speech. Or, rather, he was a bit jarred.
“Are you working tonight?” he asked me, I certainly hoped so. “We’ll do it in my place. In Portabello”, he insisted.
Con is a good pro, and he knows the bottom line. You don’t churn out four columns a week at that length unless you know the bottom line. After a few more pitstops we make it to a taxi near O’Connell Bridge. Naturally, Con knows the driver, his wife, his father-in-law and his cousin in the Congo. He pays him at least a tenner for a three quid ride, and we arrive chez Con.
Portobello is one of the prettiest parts of Dublin, a tranquil spot besides the Grand Canal. It’s devoid of paranoid images, it seems to have sneaked away, while teacher with his iron ball, his heroin spike, and his nasty videos, was looking the other way.
Con lives in a Coronation-type street, but the atmosphere around Portobello is one of independence and space.
His house inside is meticulously tidy, full of paintings. Con used to paint. There is a veritable orgy of good books lining the walls. Meanwhile the ostensibly wild man is organising his mind to speak some wisdom into my tape recorder. I am still in a state of chassis because I am having severe problems about undertanding a damn word he’s saying. I know the grey matter is working, as always, overtime, but it won’t mean a thing if the words don’t swing.
Con dispenses the hospitality in the shape of, to wit, brandy, two bottles of, whiskey, one bottle of, wine, one red bottle of. My liking of this man is turning gradually into love.
I choose the brandy. “Hot Brandy,” he insists,” and fuck the sugar. Have honey, sugar is just shit.” I have hot brandy and honey. Tape recording time. This could be good.
Like the professional he is, Con closed his eyes, placed a massive hand against his forehead and have me a blast of his wisdom. He wasn’t slurring words now. Though he had every right to be. After what he’d had to drink that day lesser personages would have been very, very, ill indeed.
In order to test the tape recorder, I ask him to bellow a few words into the microphone (machines rebel against me).
“My name is Charlie Haughey”, he begins. “I am a poor man with no ambition. I live in Kerry, and please God I will never leave it. I will be obscure, but famous”.
Could you give me a brief summary of your career to date? “My career? Oh, dear, dear, dear, dear, dear, dear, dear. Hello? Can yo hear me? My parents, Michael and Nell – he was a miner in Wales, came home in ’23 and fought in the Civil War… on the wrong side. He was handy, mechanically, and very strong.
“I was the middle child. I went to school at seven. I wasn’t brilliant but I was average. I had a great oul’ turn for mathematics. And very stupidly, I was promoted from infants to first class when I was far too young. At 11 I was finished school – everyone else was 14.
“I was sent to secondary school when I was totally immature. I was only a child. I was sent to Castlemartyr College, near Youghal. A beautiful place, magnificient place. I jumped a huge amount of my education. It was crazy. I never learned the alphabet! I was thrown into the deep end. I didn’t sink, but I swam very badly.
“Nobody in this world has an education worse that I have. It was a joke. I hadn’t the fundamentals. I was the Golden Boy, so I survived. I was a total chancer. Passing examinations with glib little answers. Did my Leaving at 15, which was total madness. Being smart at an early age you were promoted. Madness! I was six foot three when I was 12! I played Under 16 football when I was 12. We won, and they objected that I was over-age!”
Did you say you don’t know the alphabet? “To this day I can’t say the alphabet, A,B C, I’m stuck after that”.
Con was expelled from Castlemartyr. “I won’t name the principal because he’s still dead! He was a bad person. We did little things like sabotage and so on, and I was part of that little movement. I went to Tralee C.B.S., then. Ah, gentlemen! There I was treated as a human being. They were… up there. Books that were censored in Dublin we had them there. Eventually, I went to a school set up in Castleisland. There were 20 of us, and every one had been expelled. I did my Leaving went over to England in ’43. Good years, the War years. I was making £20 a week which is money you wouldn’t even think about now.”
Con was pro-British during the War. “Oh I was totally pro-British. Totally anti-Nazi. Oh, Jesus, yes of course. I was very aware of the anti-Jewish thing before the war. I knew Hitler was a bad person. Never doubted it. He was a rascist. To me we’re brothers and sisters and lovers and I despise racism. To say I’m better than you is deplorable and despicable.
“We knew what was happening here, we weren’t friggin’ asleep. I thought de Valera handled it very badly. Here's the strange thing. Only one state offered the Jews asylum. That was South Africa. It’s an irony but it’s true. In the '30s, when decent people were being put to the wall, we admitted two or three Jews. Why? We come on now as anti-apartheid. In 1937, who gave the Jews total ingress? South Africa. That’s why I can’t be anti-apartheid. I know the obscenity of the black/white confrontation but I can’t forget what happened in ’37. I wrote a letter to the Press in 1941 saying that James Dillion was right, we shouldn’t be neutral. It was short, grammatical and non-libellous and they didn’t use it.”
If anyone apart from Dev had been in control do you think we’d have been neutral? “My background is socialist, left wing. In ’24 there was no revolution, there was a rebellion. When the smoke died down, people who owned land and factories still had them. The pyramid of power, money and prestige remained. The colour of the post office boxes changed but in James Connolly’s terms there was no change. I love Connolly. He was a working-class man. “Ireland without its people is nothing”. It was people working down at the East Wall. It wasn’t Cúchulainn fighting a war.
“To me freedom… you wake up in the morning in a house that isn’t a hovel. And you have a decent wage. Poverty’s a bad thing! Oh dear, dear. That to me is brutal. And thirdly. Freedom is going out of an evening and being able to speak your mind without getting a belt. To me freedom is a lovely concept, but to bring it down to an ordinary level, it’s having enough to eat and drink, having a houst that isn’t crowded, and most important, being able to go out and play billards or have a few drinks, and speak your mind. To me having ten houses, and ten girlfriends and a million pounds a week – I don’t want it.”
Do you enjoy luxury? “ Lunxury is reading books and looking at television and writing poetry.”
Even such a gentle and generous man as Houlihan who aspires only to life’s simplest pleasures, is no stranger to controversy.
Con’s script for the recent Green Fields documentary on RTÉ1 was criticised by the G.A.A as being “anti”. RTÉ obediently tugged the forelock, and are plaaning another programme to correct the impression that the G.A.A are anything but the greatest bunch of boys in the history of civilisation.
“We were asked to look at the G.A.A., its roots and its future. Look, oh dear God, we were at it day and night. Three men who are all mature, and we love the G.A.A. We were called propagandists! Holy Christ in heaven, I don’t know. Doreann Ní Bhriain is a girl from Cork who speaks Irish. She was shown the film. She said it was lovely! Doreann is a magnificent, intelligent woman. End of story.
“Look. I was born in a council cottage. My parents fought in the Civil War. I have a Fenian background. I speak Irish. I’m anti-G.A.A.? For the love of Jesus! This is shit, it’s rubbish, it’s paranoia. For god’s sake, love isn’t blind. I have a girlfriend and I love her. Suppose you have a girlfriend and you like her. The more you love her the more you’re aware. Tomorrow morning, I guarantee you’ll see her faults. It’s a funny world.”
Have you ever been married? “Well, I’ll tell you this way. I’ve been married about 11 times. Not legally, but, such is life. Obviously the first thing that attracts you to women is the sexual thing. That’s nature. That’s always there. Sex is a word I hate. It’s a bad word its been abused totally. In Western Europe, there’s the implication that there should be one relationship. The man/woman relationship. We’re brought up to believe that marriage should be man/woman, end of story.
“In primitive tribes, no way. I could never see a world where a man could love one woman only. You see, Western Europe and America has this myth. It’s the Woman Magazine. Buy this girl! The whole lie about marriage… I can love 40 girls at one time. At present I have a girlfriend. This belief that you meet a girl, have intercourse and get married – it’s a total lie. I could be fond of 40, 50 girls and my girlfriend could be too.
"It's a myth, marriage. Mary meets Paddy. For god's sake. Tomorrow morning you get married to Peggy. The following day you'd be looking at someone else – of course you would. It's a lie, it's a lie! Up in Iceland, most parents aren't married at all. I'm a great believer in single parenthood.
"Families! Oh Jesus, families are bad. I love a country where you can have a child and go your own way. Families are savage. I have a cousin now and he's so lucky. Born out of wedlock. Reared in an orphanage. He's now one of the leading conductors of classical music in the world. Lucky!"
What do you think of your fellow sports journalists?
"We're deeply flawed. Eamonn Dunphy, now, Eamonn and I are friends for a long time and he's a gentleman. I'm fond of Eamonn. But he has this idea, that if you're nasty you'll be great. Now, integrity is fundamental. Eamonn is the John Feeney of sport, creating sensations. It's flash. We have a column in the Press called 'The Expert', written by Jim Shanahan. It's a column that helps people with their tax and P.R.S.I. and so on, or if you lose something in Croke Park, you write in to try and get it back. That, to me, is fundamental. Jim Shanahan is totally unknown. I'm flash, you see. To me, in papers, people who do their little jobs quietly, like Jim Shanahan, are fundamental. If some day, you work at the Press, you come in and you see people buying it - what's the first thing they look at? It isn't the black page. No. They look at the ads."
A common perception of you is that "Houlihan is a bit of a poet".?
"Ah, a bit of a poet, yeah, it's nice to hear it. The man on the bus. A good man. I'd prefer that to approval by the literary set. In Dublin, and London, publishers have a little circle to themselves. Inside track. Publishers, critics, writers, so-called gurus - if you're not part of that little inside track, you'll be cold-shouldered for an awful long time. You could be great, but they'll push you out. Oh, dear, dear, dear. There are people who ar good poets, good writers, good journalists. They'll come through, they'll get by, they'll survive."
Who are your favourite authors?
"My heroes could be Sherwood Anderson. Flaubert, oh yeah. Checkov. O Christ, Jesus, yeah. Thomas Hardy. They're my heroes. Dan Corkery. Patrick Kavanagh, oh yeah. Scott Fitzgerald is a great man. Up There. Magic man. "The Great Gatsby" is a book that will last millions of years. It's a poem. It captures a period of history forever. I can quote the last few pages. It's poetry. Sheer magic. Zola. George Simonon writes rubbish to make a living. Okay. Sometimes he writes for his own pleasure. Three novels are classics. He can come into a town in Normandy, say, and in ten sentences, you're there. He's such a great journalist."
Do you think journalism can be literature?
"Of course! Of course! Simonon is up there. Oh, dear Jesus, that fellow is magic. He wrote about Paris. You'd see Paris, you'd hear Paris, you'd smell Paris. I couldn't do it. He's better than Joyce. Ulysses is a huge chronological encyclopaedia. Simonon describes Montparnasse, and oh, Jesus Christ you're there. Joyce hadn't got it. No way! He hadn't it. There isn't one paragraph that captures it!"
Do you like Paris?
"I love the respect they have for old people. Go into a café or a pub, and I'll guarantee you, if you're an old person, you're a hero. One day in Paris I saw an old woman very heavily built, falling down some steps. In America they'd walk by. There, Jesus Christ Almighty, no way. to me, it's fucking magic."
Does getting old trouble you?
"I'm 58. Ah yes, it does trouble me of course, but as regards death, I was born without knowing about it and I'll die the same way, which is a cliché, but true. Say you're 70. You can't play football, you can't make love to women, you can't drink. But there's compensation if you're a writer. You can recreate it. That's true.
"To me this country is cursed with fixed ideas. We should be a nation of great prosperity and why aren't we? Ignorance and prejudice. I hope when I'm 70 I'll be as open-minded as I am now."