ROLLING DOWN MEMORY LANE – EP. 12

“Paddy dashed back to his goal like a woman who smells a cake burning”


CON HOULIHAN, SEPTEMBER, 1978

There was a serious debate going on in this seat as to whether what you are about to read was worthy of inclusion in this chronicling excursion. Not because it wouldn’t be interesting or wasn’t properly written. Just because something almost identical appeared in this space many moons ago. In the very earliest days of this site actually.

Countering the doubts, though, is the realisation that it was and will forever be one of the most important pieces ever keyboarded by the one typing limb. Which is either right index finger if on the laptop or the thumb if production is being undertaken via the smartphone. Such as what you are currently reading!

Mention was made here not all that long ago that for a few consecutive years yours truly used to rock up at the Leinster GAA Summer Camps in our club. On one such occasion, Ballinrobe’s Liam Horan, who was then writing for the Irish Independent, was out in Dunboyne interviewing some of the players who were visiting the camp as it was the week of the Leinster final.

I’m not sure for how long thereafter he continued to scribe with the daily publication, but, lately, through the power of social media, our paths have crossed again. Liam now runs his own website, http://www.horanstand.com as well as hosting regular video events via Facebook.

Well, to say one of of them recently struck a chord with yours truly is comparable with pointing out the Pope is a catholic. August 9th, 2012, was, in some ways, an ordinary day. In any other year, Michael Clarke baling our bit of hay – and it was only a bit that year as the meadow was terrible – would’ve been the big story of the day. For me at least. Our place always does better in a year when there’s a proportionate amount of rain interspersed with what can often be stifling heat on the highest bit of the ground. On that particular evening however, I suspect the old Deutz baler took in more dust than grass.

The sun setting on one unforgettable day.

This was no ordinary Thursday however. The previous Saturday, an era had ended. A giant had left us. Ireland’s greatest man of letters had fallen silent. Now read on… Con Houlihan was born, as he once put it himself, “On the side of a mountain in a blizzard in December 1925”. I’ve always felt there was something very special about that particular generation. Yes, there is an obvious bias in this seat with the boss of operations here in his 91st year.

With due respect to all concerned, in those days, any of them who received any sort of formal education, in most cases it was self imparted. Look not further than Tom Yourell. Even allowing for that, though, it was surely the case that Con broke the mould in going to University at the time in question. If not for that reason, then surely he set himself apart by, as well as doing his MA in English, also taking on Latin and Mathematics in Cork.

A giant of a man in stature and in word

GOING HIS OWN WAY

If excelling in such taxing subjects was symbolic of a man going his own way, it was the beginning of a trend which would define the great man from Castle Island throughout his life and remarkable writing career. From his insistence that his beloved home town be written and spoken as two words rather than one, the giving up of a teaching job to become a journalist at the age of 46. That all his ‘copy’ was hand written, much of it on butcher’s paper. Often through the night too and into the early hours before walking into Irish Press HQ on Burgh Quay and handing it in himself.

Whatever about that part of his modus operandi being singular, shall we say, there was more to it than that. Much more. No Press Box seat for Con, out among the masses you were far likely to find him. For as long as the tree trunks masquerading as his legs were up to load bearing his mountainous frame

Con Houlihan produced content until days before his death in August 2012

Whether that happened to be on the Canal End in Croke Park or the terrace to the right of the goals at Richmond Park or close to Tattenham Corner on Epsom Derby day. Then there was the fact that at least some of his writing was done in some of his favoured watering holes. Be it the Mecca that was Mulligan’s of Poolbeg Street or the Brogue Inn of Tralee.

He was credited, rightly, with being the poet laureate of the seminal Dublin-Kerry rivalry of the 1970s and early 80s. Granted, the age-old jousts are like a banquet with endless courses at the buffet. The first one generally sets the tone for what comes behind it. A certain other former hack – who shall remain nameless – may have wrote a book about the storied confrontations between green and blue, which was a great pity for a lot of reasons. Chief among them that nobody was more qualified to colate a chronicling of those momentous happenings than Houlihan.

Only he could come up with the line atop this piece to illustrate the mechanics of Mikey Sheehy lobbing the ball over Paddy Cullen in the 1978 All Ireland Final. You always sensed Con stood out like a beacon wherever he was. Hands like grain shovels and the bedraggled mess of hair of a man who has been shovelling chips into a frier all day.

Former Dublin goalkeeper and manager Paddy Cullen

This was probably just an entirely personal observation on my behalf, but, from the time he moved up to Dublin in what I think was 1974, it often seemed as if he had been Knighted an honourary Metropolitan.

“In those streets and fields where you grew up, there you will always live, and there you will die”.

CONSTANTINE CAVAFY

You couldn’t blame the Dubs if they had. Who wouldn’t want to claim even part of someone of such status and stature as their own. Yet, as much as he never hid his fondness for the Big Smoke, his “Little Town” that was Castle Island was afforded a reverence which nothing, nobody or nowhere could usurp. Often in his work, he quoted the following lines from the Greek poet Constantine Cavafy – “In those streets and fields where you grew up, there you will always live, and there you wil die”.

Now, every person who encounters that quote can probably relate to it. How fitting it was therefore that the celebrated wordsmith’s ashes went home for their final resting place. When Paddy Hussey’s pub, the rest of the Latin Quarter and the entirety of the Little Town stopped and lined the streets and bade farewell to their own gentle giant. Whether he made his final journey “In the belly of a metal bird” as he’d put it himself, I’m not sure

Such was the style of Con’s exquisite manipulation of the English language that the reader became familiar with Castle Island too. The River Maine and the bog and the well and the Nun’s Pool and the old convent. We, the readers became familiar with and fond of them all.

Reading some of Con’s work was like going on a journey with the big man. You could start the article trout fishing in the Maine or footing turf in the bog and by the column’s end the reader felt they were either trackside with Usain Bolt, ringside with Katie Taylor or after being in a lineout with Moss Keane. What really astounded me about his writing was the amount and variety of topics on which he could comment on with authority, fluency and no little humour.

Seemingly every sporting pursuit under the sun, art, novels, farming, fishing, rivers, architecture or whatever else seemed to take the writer’s fancy on a given day. Indeed, it wasn’t uncommon for the whole lot to be served up together in an omelette of literary excellence.

SITTING IN THE SHADOW OF A GIANT

When the time came that the trunk legs could no longer maintain full-time propulsion of the enormous frame to which they were attached, it meant the terraces could no longer be his domain. However, at no stage did what he might dub himself his “Brains Trust” diminish in the efficiency of its output. Right up to days before his passing when his close friend Feidhlim Kelly- who had been scribing Con’s columns, from his dictation, for a good while prior to his death due to the man himself being hospitalised almost if not totally full time – was transcribing art through words a la Con.

Therein was a nugget I could and did take solace from. Having shipped my unfair share of flak from those who asked in protest as to how comment could be passed on a given topic if these wheels were not parked thence, gleefully it would be retorted that the greatest of them all disproved that theory.

Knowing how Con operated in his later years gave me tbe confidence to believe that if you were attuned to a subject and up to speed with happenings therein, what reason was there that one couldn’t comment on same?

While I could never claim to have known him that well or been close to him, over the years, when our paths did cross, which was usually in either Croke Park or Parnell Park, there was always time for a chat. Especially once he knew I was a writer myself. When thinking of him, I’m often reminded of a few lines of Jimmy Dean’s hit song Big John “He just drifted into town and stayed all alone. He didn’t say much, kinda quiet and shy, and if you spoke at all you just said ‘Hi’ to Big Con (sic)

Whenever we did end up adjacent to one another, however, it was akin to sitting in the shadow of a giant. In every sense of the word. After his passing, apart from a very deep sadness at the death of one of my idols, the greatest regret I had was not trying to get some of my work to him to have his masterly eye cast over it.

ENTERTAINING EDUCATION

Doubtless, he was the recipient of voluminous amounts of similar unsolicited mail. It recalls the story of the young student who sent him a note which simply read: “Dear Con, thank you for giving me my secondary education”. I understood. For to ingest some of his mesmeric output was to be given an entertaining education in your own kitchen. However, it was actually a quote from his fellow Kerryman the poet Brendan Kennelly which struck the greatest chord in this seat.

President Michael D. Higgins with poet Brendan Kennelly

Kennelly himself had sent the wizardly wordsmith some of his early work so that the adjudicator might critique the offerings. In delivering his verdict, the judge simply replied “Dear Brendan, you made the right mistakes”. During Maurice Healy’s beautiful, moving documentary Waiting For Houlihan – which everyone should see at least once – the acclaimed poet said he understood what the old sage meant. Yours truly could decipher the hidden meaning all too easily as well.

Did I model my writing on Con’s? Absolutely. To the extent that, on several occasions, the view has been actually expressed as to how alike my musings were to those of my idol. There could be no greater compliment. Not just to the occupant of this seat, but to any writer. There were a few factors in particular which me drew to his work. Now read on…

There’s a bit of a contradiction on the way, but please stay with me here. One of the biggest attractions of his writing was its easy readability. Yet, at the same time, the reader couldn’t but (a) broaden their vocabulary and (b) garner knowledge on such a variety of topics as the right time to drill spuds, the art of Paul Cezanne, Ernest Hemmingway’s novels and Dawn Run’s sensational annexation of the 1986 Cheltenham Gold Cup.

How else would the likes of myself end up reading Hemmingway’s The Old Man And The Sea. Or part of it even. Some day when there’s a bit of confidence – so easy to lose, so grueling to try and regain – I’ll get back to finishing it. Along with another vast chunk of my library which has lay unread for so long it leaves me upset and embarrassed.

To return to the August day referred to in the first few furlongs of this odyssey, that morning, the hay got its final lick of a turner to ready it for rowing up and baling that evening. Less than 15 miles away, at the same time Pat Clarke’s old Massey Ferguson 390T and Haybob were whizzing around my theatre of dreams, Con Houlihan’s funeral mass was taking place.

Making hay while the sun shone…

Normally that would’ve been enough to keep the switchboard in my head buzzing for one day. However, now factor in that between the meadow being turned that morning and Mick Cummins going back in with the veteran fleet, Katie Taylor claimed a gold medal in the boxing ring at the Olympics in London.

Were any further verification required as to how clued in the revered writer was up to the very end, consider that the last column he dictated to Feidhlim – published in the Sunday World the day after his death – praised the Bray pugilist and opined that she would indeed be queen of London.

That evening, as the sun set and the meagre yield of round bales were given life like eggs from a battle-scarred but determined free-range hen, perhaps inevitably, my mind drifted away to pondering what the departed disciple of the ink would have made of it all.

Have no doubt, all of the tumult would have got its airing in the course of the one column. Along with the fact that a local fisherman – who sadly all too soon afterwards went to bait his hook and cast a line in search trout at the fishing resort behind the clouds – actually had landed two of the aforementioned albacore on a stretch of the River Tolka which rides shotgun to a very beloved bolthole.

In my mind’s eye that night, thoughts of what the master craftsman of penmanship would have concocted out of it all took hold. As I sat dealing with a jorum of black necter, the image of him working his way through his patented brandy and milk ensamble while weaving a masterpiece, one sentence per page of butcher’s paper reverbarated like a trout shimmering under the surface in the sunlight.

So we arrive back at Cavafe. With the lockdown and all its associated contaminating of normality, the inventiveness at which Houlihan was beyond compare in the course of his writing has become staple diet by way of keeping the ship some way afloat here.

It is said that he wrote every day. Something only possible owing to having a vast acerage of subject area from which to harvest. Likewise, lately, I’ve tried to produce content every day in this space. Either the written word or video content or the soon to return podcast. On occasion, akin to a recalcetrant equine, we get left in the starting stalls.

In an attempt to keep my mental stability on the right side of the scales, this series of keyboarded perambulations – of which this marks a dozen incarnations – was conceived. It has stirred a lot of special, treasured memories, but some very poignant ones too.

Particularly as the year has moved on. A few weeks back, your columnist was struck down by the worst, most upsetting bout of illness ever encountered in nearly four decades of dodging potholes on this big round ball. For the first time since my ‘big’ operations in 1985, confinement to bed for two days was noy only my lot but my choice. It did however recall an old dictum often wheeled out by Con – “Those whom the Gods wish to destroy they first make mad”.

FOUR GREEN FIELDS AND A FEW FIELDS OF GOLD

During the aforementioned and adored Waiting For Houlihan Tony Meade, who was heavily involved in the production of The Kerryman spoke of how he “Wrote about things he knew, about country customs, but not in some shilly-shally sort of way. Con could make a sermon out of going to the bog”. And he did.

It almost seems unfair to highlight one scene over the other in the amazing documentary. But there are a few which caused lumps in this here throat. There was one shot of him, obviously filmed years beforehand with a man whom it is presumed was his father, digging the spuds at home in Castle Island. Another captures the essence of him, writing at his kitchen table as the sun came up, one sentence per sheet of butcher’s paper, and the last was shot on what may well have been his last sojourn down home. It shows him sitting on a stook of turf as neighbours footed their plots while an old iron kettle enabled open-air sustenance that was and forever will be the epitome of summer work in the countryside.

What came to mind upon viewing it, maybe fittingly, was a momentous production by another Kerry legend – John B Keane’s The Field. It will hardly stun anybody to know the said motion picture is the most especial one ever seen by the optical organ supplied by the Almighty. For a lot of people, the plot of the movie can go very close to the bone but at this point in time it’s stirring emotions from an entirely different reasons.

Again, Cavafe’s immortal lines say it best. This should be the best, most exciting and busiest time of the year for me. There should be livestock to be bought, silage or hay to be made and neighbouring farmers to be observed going about similar operations on a much bigger scale. Revolving around four green fields and a few fields of gold.

As if to emphasise that part of my life being over and completely put on a lid on it altogether, over the course of the two days I was bed ridden, the Clarke’s were mowing and lifting their first cut of silage. Traditionally my first ‘outing’ of the farming year. Thing is, even if not struck down ill or even if Corona wasn’t lurking around like a wasp you haven’t quite managed to splat against the window, the heart wasn’t there to make the trip up the road which both the wheelchair and its occupant could undertake blindfolded.

The fields of gold were a haven of peace for me

It seems, however, to my utmost and indescribable heartache, as if all that, for me is now in the past. Through no fault of anybody, just circumstance. If something looks too good to be true, it generally is. In some very special ways, the last seven years have been the best of my entire roadtrip on the planet. A lifetime’s dream come true. But one which was only doable due to the selfless generosity of Paul with his time and labour.

Am I happy? About as much so as a turkey on Christmas Eve. Emotions have fluctuated between anger and heartache and embarrassment and feeling like a failure. Regardless of my unerring ability to be excessively tough on oneself, the latter reaction wasn’t justified as it wasn’t my fault. Wasn’t anybody’s really. With the possible exception of a young wan named Corona.

It’s unquestionable though that the absence of sport from my life’s routine has compounded the fact that my beloved escape route to a cherished haven of peace is no more. Yes, of course I could go spotting the neighbours in what are only a handful of remaining viewing outposts. Right now, however, that would feel like going into a Chinese takeaway to be told they didn’t serve curry.

In one way, it probably shouldn’t come as too back a shock that in trying to derive a modicum of comfort at a time of disillusion – the level of which many would most likely struggle to fathom – I very much turned to a plan of going back to basics. Which in this case meant watching the documentary again.

It is of course the case that by now every second of Maurice O’Donoghue’s narration could be recited word for word. Yet, and this has been noted with various things which have been majorly impactful on me – every time it’s been viewed it’s felt as if it’s being gazed at through a different optical instrument. Thus, something different can be gleaned from it.

Farm Diversification

Most recently, it was actually the segment where the hero of the story was at the spuds which has been clung to. More than that, it has inspired me to, proverbially at least, grease my wheels and get the show back on the road. There have been tears – five gallon drum loads of them – but as the old saying goes, there’s more than one way to skin a cat.

FAMILY TRADITION

In the old footage, Con was seen digging out out drills. Whether it was for sowing or harvesting wasn’t clear but it certainly planted a seed in this corner. Back in my childhood, da always kept a wonderful vegetable garden. Until, it has to be said, accommodation to satisfy specific requirements, cough, was required. At that stage, he was only continuing a family tradition in keeping an extensive area of crops which used to feed not only our family and the four – as it was then – residents of the Corner House but a small sector of the parish as well.

The old vegetable plot at home with the late Prince on security duty

Looking at the above old snap puts another lump in the throat. Not only due to seeing my old pal, long gone to where the good doggies go, also seeing the old place the way it used to be. When life was simpler and, for now at least, it must be admitted, incalculably more enjoyable. In some ways at least. Seeing the old garden, and the two fields outside the paling. Judging by the weather, it must have been around hay making time too. What wouldn’t be given to have the homestead back as it once was. Even just for a day.

Of course, there’s as much hope of getting a suntan in a hurricane as there is of that happening. Unless inclinations or dreams or ambitions or longings to see are far away indeed greener become reality. And that seems highly unlikely. So, to keep even the sense of country blood flowing through these veins, vegetable farming of a sort has been my point of release and comfort over the course of the lockdown. Keeping up the family tradition in the process.

In fairness, Paul had been growing a nice variety of veg over the last couple of years before circumstances precluded that little sideline from continuing. No doubt you are now trying to figure out how somebody in my position can manage to be actively involved in something like vegetable growing. Thankfully, this one is easier to explain to the non-believers than the farming.

Boxes, the answer lies in boxes. Allow me to explain. Exactly one and a half years ago, I began attending the local RehabCare centre. Among the first things which caught my attention therein was the garden. Specifically, the vegetable section thereof. Naturally, it has to be set up to accommodate wheelchair users and those with different mobility requirements.

Meaning, rather than raised beds in the traditional sense, the vegetables, and indeed flowers, are growing in boxes – which were manufactured on site – affixed to tables, which are height specific to service users needs. For several reasons, it was something the lured me in like a magnet, and a crop of onions were brought to fruition that fed both those in Rehab and the folks at home.

Whether by fate or bad luck or whatever else one desires to title it, this year’s onion crop is unfortunately gone to its eternal reward. Another part of normality fallen victim to that scourge Corona.

With no sport and no Rehab – it would be unfair to mention purveyors of liquid nutrience due to my own self-imposed exile therefrom – and, most distressingly, no farming, something had to be done to avoid being totally engulfed under the black cloud without an umbrella.

Production of this series, which will be released in book form once the starting 15 has been finalised, has been an integral part of the survival battleplan. There was still a sense of looking for more to keep the wheels turning.

Yet again, my good lady did the needful by way of coming up with inventive ways of making the veg growing ambition become a reality. Which is where the boxes entered the equation. Luckily for me, there was an abundant supply of idle window boxes and tubs and buckets and seed trays lying around the yard, in sheds and under hedges!

Nearly all of which are now consumed with vegetables. Almost every species of same which exists. I’ll admit, greatest pride is undoubtedly in having two small crops of rooster spuds on their way. Hope would be to have a late crop sown as well which will, with a bit of luck, be ready for the Christmas dinner table.

Also in at the moment are scallions and lettuce and tomatoes and beans and radishes and bigger onions and peas and carrots and beetroot and sprouts. Every available spot – up to and including the window sill in my office which has become home to leeks, peppers, cucumbers and even more more onions – I have a problem!

Most of them will be due for transplanting in the days and weeks ahead. You can be sure you’ll see mention of their progress mingling with GAA and horse racing and soccer and Lord knows what else as the year progresses. Now read on…

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