The late Con Houlihan was a larger than life figure in Irish culture and journalism. His influence on sports writing was matched by a love for St. Patrick’s Athletic. Cian Manning profiles a literary giant.
Born on the 6th December 1925 in Reineen, Castle Island, Co. Kerry, Con Houlihan achieved first class honours in Latin and History and subsequently obtained a Masters in 1949. A student of Daniel Corkery at University College Cork, he was less vitriolic in his conception of Gaelic Ireland. While writing for the Kerryman, he penned an article condemning the IRA which led to a threat against the paper and Garda surveillance of its premises. He eventually made the move to Dublin in 1974 aged 49 to write for the Evening Press (after careers as a teacher, editor of The Taxpayers News and black pudding maker). A biography in the Independent on Houlihan described his uniqueness as a sportswriter: ‘He frequently invoked classical literature, using metaphors and other literary devices to make his point. People with no interest in sport read his columns, such were their excellence.’
Perhaps Houlihan’s wider view of Ireland compared to the Gaelic nationalism with which his childhood and adolescence were cultivated, was given context with this comment on foreign games:
‘The proliferation of soccer in this island is about the best thing that has happened to us since the arrival of the potato.’
This was, after all, an island where players of the indigenous sports of hurling and Gaelic football were not permitted to play ‘foreign sports’ (soccer, cricket, rugby) under Rule 27 of the Gaelic Athletic Association known colloquially as ‘the Ban’ until it was lifted in 1971.
Yet with the Evening Press, Houlihan was a Renaissance man dabbling in articles from literature, to theatre to sport. To invoke the Shakespearean phrase ‘the world’s a stage’, Houlihan was to be one of its most versatile scribes of daily record. His love of soccer was channelled through his devotion to St. Patrick’s Athletic in the League of Ireland.
The Dublin club won four successive Leinster Senior Leagues while Houlihan studied where Finbarr taught on the banks of the River Lee. For the 1951-52 season, they were admitted to the League of Ireland with Cork side Evergreen United. Finishing champions in their first season was the start of a golden era for the club. They claimed two more league titles and the same number in the FAI Cup boasting players such as Irish Internationals Shay Gibbons and Ronnie Whelan Snr (father of former Liverpool captain and Republic of Ireland international Ronnie Whelan Jr).
A piece in Ireland’s Own noted ‘…Con could be seen ‘shuffling’ his giant frame around the perimeter fence on the Camac side of Richmond Park’. The nearby hostelries were frequented for ‘research purposes’. The club which had brought Terry Venables to Ireland and introduced Paul McGrath was to be a match of celestial proportions.
In a collection of his unpublished essays he wrote ‘The very heart of Inchicore is a rectangle of ground off Emmet Road on its western side. This is Richmond Park… its followers were like one of the lost tribes of Israel.’ Established in 1929, Pat’s originally lined out in the Phoenix Park before moving south of the river Liffey. The redevelopment of Richmond led to a nomadic existence of sorts. Houlihan writing for the Irish Independent outlined when Pat’s left Inchicore for Harold’s Cross for four years that ‘…hardly three miles away – their supporters were not happy. The local people were not friendly, the drink didn’t taste right, the weather was colder. All this may sound funny, even hilarious but homesickness is natural.”
For Pat’s were a microcosm of the characteristics of Irishness. The early 1990s saw future Republic of Ireland manager Brian Kerr put together a side of young cubs such as Curtis Fleming, Pat Fenlon and John McDonnell. But rather than flourish like the Celtic Tiger economy, Pat’s went near the brink like Houlihan’s employers. The Press stopped printing in 1995. Meanwhile, St Patrick’s Athletic suffered a series of failed takeover attempts, leaving Kerr to sell his side’s most prized assets.
Upon returning to Inchicore, another league title was achieved in 1996 with the aid of Pat Dolan bringing through players such as Colin Hawkins and Trevor Molloy. The club had wandered in the wilderness but had finally reached paradise. On Pat’s supporters he wrote ‘It is a people’s club in the fullest sense of the term: it cannot be bought and its ground is safe forever from the greedy hands of “the developers”.’
Liam Buckley was appointed club manager in 2012 and raided Bohemians, bringing players such as Chris Forrester and Christy Fagan to Inchicore. A league title, FAI Cup and two league cups have followed in what are halcyon days for Pat’s. Sadly, Houlihan would not see this return to silverware.
Mick Lawlor in the Independent recalled upon the death of Houlihan, that he ‘considered (Pat’s) a true family club, representing the community of Inchicore.’ ‘Through thin and thinner’ Houlihan rejoiced and commiserated with the Pat’s faithful. During his lifetime, the Inchicore club won eight League of Ireland titles and two FAI Cups. The latter competition became a Man of La Mamche quest for Pat’s who in total have finished runners-up in the final on eight occasions. It was not until 2014 (their first victory since 1961) in which they achieved the seemingly impossible dream.
At a Leinster Cup final in the early ‘80s, which Pat’s won, Con was seen conversing with the balladeer of Dublin, Luke Kelly. Twelve months later Kelly died, which led Houlihan to compose ‘The Song of a Bird Alone’. The two form a partnership that informed and created the spirit of the country and are continually evoked. Sharing the same gospel but spreading it through different mediums.
In an article for Magill magazine, Houlihan wrote ‘St. Patrick’s Athletic have survived many crises. At times it seemed that they might cease trading. In this context I got the highest tribute of my life. One Sunday long ago I saw it inscribed on the back of a toilet door in Inchicore: “Con Houlihan says that Pat’s will never die.’
In an era where we continually question the promotion of the League of Ireland via the FAI and national media, surely the humorous assertions and literary illustrations of this Kerryman was the greatest exposure soccer in Ireland could get. His legacy continues loom large over sports journalism in the country since his death in 2012. In defining eras of history whether it be for journalism or St. Pat’s in the League of Ireland, we’ll use the abbreviation BC and ACH, ‘Before Con’ and ‘After Con Houlihan.’