Someone once said you should never meet your heroes. The inference being that you might end up disappointed. Thankfully, that his never been the case in this seat. Special and treasured friendships are now held with those who were initially heroes afar – Colm O’Rourke, Graham Geraghty, Trevor Brennan and Noel Meade – among many others.
While I could never claim to have known Con Houlihan very well or been close to him, the fact that he got to know my name and always had time for a word whenever our paths crossed – usually in either Parnell Park or Croke Park – is something very special to me. He took great interest in the fact that I – like himself – was both a sports fan and a writer. And that was a very humbling feeling.
The influence Con Houlihan had on me as a writer is incalculable. Did I try to model myself on his writing? Undoubtedly. Now, I’d been writing for quite a while before really taking note of his work. That really happened when a copy of More Than A Game – a collection of Con’s sports articles – was acquired. It changed and (hopefully) improved me as a writer.
What struck me most about Houlihan was the variety of topics which he could fluently comment on. Reading Ernest Hemmingway never would have registered on the radar with yours truly, but, having read A Harvest – a collection of Con’s non sporting works – I found myself getting stuck into The Old Man And The Sea.
Two things I have taken from Con and – hopefully – worked into my own work were increased vocabulary and range of knowledge, sporting and on many other topics. What was truly amazing was the amount of topics he covered – often in the course of one column. An evening reading Con could begin trout fishing or footing turf or making hay somewhere around his beloved Castle Island and end up as if the reader was trackside with Usain Bolt or ringside with Katie Taylor.
It was perhaps, however, in his later years that Ireland’s greatest wordsmith became most inspirational to this corner. The two of us had one important thing in common – circumstance dictated that not as many sporting events as would have been liked were seen ‘in the flesh’. Yet, Con proved that if you had a knowledge of a subject and were able to keep in touch with the happenings therein, there was no reason why you couldn’t write thereon. It’s known that in certain quarters it was questioned how your columnist could comment on things despite not being there. The greatest of them all disproved that theory.
The following point was touched upon earlier but let’s return to it – the variety of subjects the former teacher could scribe on was astounding. From a purely sporting sense, leafing through the aforementioned collection, one encountered seemingly every sporting pursuit under the sun: GAA, Racing, Athletics, Soccer, Rugby, Tennis, Cricket, Golf, Boxing and Cycling. Even at that, I’ve probably left some out!
Readers were often left with the impression that, out of all the sports he covered, rugby was Con’s especial favourite. Then again, you got the feeling he was simply in tune and in love with everything in life. How else to explain interests ranging from, for example, the Aintree Grand National to the art of Paul Cezanne and the literature of the likes of Hemmingway and Thomas Hardy?
Some of that diversity of interest definitely rubbed off on me as well. Maybe not in terms of being an art aficionado or reading heavy tomes of material, but certainly when it comes to diversity of interests in other ways. Is there any sport I wouldn’t watch? At this stage the answer would nearly have to be no. That’s down to the Houlihan influence.
Like the late Kerryman also, the interests spread much further than just sport. As has often been said before, it sometimes tends to be the cause of much curiosity, hilarity and, sadly in some cases, derision that somebody in my position could be interested in something like farming. Sport and farming are undoubtedly the two greatest passions, but a deep affection is also held for music, politics and lots more besides. Does that diversity remind you of anybody?!
When it’s thought about, though, maybe the best thing derived from reading Con Houlihan’s material was a love of reading itself. At the best of times, sporadic would describe the reading habits here, but, once of Con’s books were picked up, putting it down was nigh on impossible. Likewise, his regular offerings in the many places they appeared were an essential part of the weekly reading diet.
His passing leaves a massive void in Irish journalism. The presses in the newsrooms above are sure to get a whole lot busier but for many of us who read and were touched by Con’s work it won’t be the same to ‘Now read on…’ anymore. Ni beidh a leithid an aris.