Seán Creedon pays tribute to the ‘gentle giant’ of Castle Island who had a fantastic way with words

It’s four years since the great Kerryman Con Houlihan left us, but it is never too late to pay tribute to the gentle giant from Castle Island.

Now, when I was a young lad Castleisland was one word, but Con always said the proper way to spell the name of his home town was with two words. Con had a roundabout named after him when Castle Island was bypassed a few years back and there is a statute to the great man in the town. Thanks to publican Charlie Chawke there is also a statue to Con in Charlie’s Bank pub in Dame Street and a bust of Con in another of Charlie’s pubs, the Dropping Well in Milltown.
After getting First Class honors in English, Latin and History in UCC, Con taught in local national schools for a while.
He did his share of turf-cutting and fishing and also spent a few years in England. But it was as a journalist with the now defunct Evening Press that he is best remembered.

After the Press publication in 1995 Con worked for other publications, including the Sunday World and the Evening Herald.

Con passed away in St James’s Hospital on August 4th, 2012 at the age of 86 and his funeral Mass at St Kevin’s Church, Harrington Street was on August 8th, a few hours before Katie Taylor won her boxing semi-final at the London Olympics. Con worked right up to his death, and forecast that Katie would win gold in London.

He was a lover of all sports, and a big supporter of his native Kerry and the League of Ireland club St Patrick’s Athletic. Many’s the Sunday afternoon Con could be seen ‘shuffling’ his giant frame around the perimeter fence on the Camac side of Richmond Park.

Con would always call to a few pubs on the way to and from a game. He used to joke that his visits to pubs were for ‘research purposes’. And while the great man enjoyed a drink, there is no doubt that he was also able to gauge the mood of the people from his visits to the most colourful of watering holes around the city of Dublin and elsewhere.
Con wrote about everything: Gaelic football, hurling, soccer, rugby, boxing, athletics, horse racing. He also did theatre reviews. He wrote a sports column three times a week in the Evening Press when the Dublin-Kerry Gaelic football rivalry was at its keenest in the 1970s and 1980s.

If there was one thing that made Con stand out, apart from his poetic style of writing, it was that he was very approachable.

No matter where he was covering a game, supporters would engage with the Kerryman for a chat and many of those conversations ended up in a ‘Fógra’ at the bottom of his column. Or if it was very important news it could be a ‘Fógra Spesialta’.

Con’s favourite place to witness a game was on the terraces alongside the supporters; except when he was at the old Lansdowne Road stadium. There he sat in the press box in the upper deck of the West Stand. In Croke Park, he was a recognisable figure at the Canal End.

At his funeral, long-time friend Ray Hennessy said, ‘‘Con could paint a picture with words.’’ Another friend remarked that he would ‘‘write about nothing and make it interesting”.

Few sportswriters have the sort of talent, but Con had. He was different in the way he attended games, reported on them, and even the way he wrote. With his huge hands too large to fit on the keys of a typewriter, he wrote his articles in long-hand on plain sheets of paper, one paragraph per page.
Con’s handwriting was not the best and his long time ‘friend-girl’ Harriet Duffin, was one of the few who could read it.
Harriet transcribed Con’s ‘copy’ and then Con checked it and made any corrections necessary. The article was then posted to the relevant editor or in latter days collected by courier.

When Con worked in the Evening Press, sports editor Tom O’Shea was the expert at deciphering Con’s hand-writing.
When I edited a staff paper for Eircom, Con wrote a column for us and one of my most pleasant tasks each month was the short walk from our office in St Stephen’s Green to Con’s House in Martin Street in the Jewish quarter, just off the South Circular Road.

At that stage Con’s movements were restricted, as he had never fully recovered from breaking his hip in a fall on the street in Cheltenham in 2007. He would always greet me with the words, “Put the kettle on.”

He was a shy man and it was difficult to engage in conversation with him whenever he covered his mouth with his hand, but at home he was more relaxed and if you listened closely you would pick up a few nuggets of information.
Con’s columns on sport proved to be hugely popular throughout his career. But it was his ‘Tributaries’ column in the Evening Press that really broadened his appeal.

He admitted that one of his proudest days was when he received a letter from a reader, who wrote that he had never attended college, but that he got his third-level education from ‘Tributaries’, which encompassed many subjects, including politics and the arts.

Always a perfectionist, Con often said that, ‘‘Anybody who misplaces an apostrophe is capable of doing anything.’’
He had a fantastic way with words, often switching them around without ever compromising their meaning.
 I will leave you with one of my favourite one-liners from Con, ‘‘Who said the bystander was innocent?’’