Reflections on Con Houlihan
“The pony express always comes through,” Con Houlihan would often say with a wry smile after we finished a newspaper column.
I unwittingly joined the pony express in Martin Street in the Winter of 2007. I was 24 when I walked through the door of Con’s house for the first time in Portobello with my laptop and Frank Greally to do some work and potentially get some tips on writing.
If truth be told, I didn’t really know too much about Con other than he was a good writer. I was in the old junior school in Belvedere College when The Press went under so my knowledge was fairly limited.
Con captured my imagination on that first visit. He didn’t say too much but there was something comforting about this massive man planted in his chair surrounded by books and paintings.
Despite being 58 years older than me, and from distinctly different backgrounds, we made an instant connection. “Feidhlim,” Con would say, “It doesn’t matter, the age gap between people. It’s all about the mental connect.”
I was in the second year of a PE and Biology degree in DCU when I met Con but I was lacking direction and felt empty. He gave me a purpose.
Stepping inside the door of number 2 Martin Street in Portobello I felt free from the troubles of the world. I didn’t have to be anybody. I didn’t have to live up to any expectations and Con never told me what I should be doing with my life.
All that was expected of me was to bring my laptop and to type the copy – weekly columns for The Evening Herald and The Sunday World – when he was ready to work. I would then email it to Harriet Duffin.
Our record for a column from start to finish in Martin Street was an hour. That consisted of the typing, word counts and re-reading. Con didn’t know much and cared less about computers, but referred to my laptop as the “lapdog.”
The delivery of the columns was very ritualistic. Before he started his dictation, Con would say “give me time to think” to gather himself and then “I’m ready.”
Con is famous for the white sheets of paper with one sentence written on each page. I never saw much of that. He dictated all of his copy to me straight from his head. I was always mesmerised that he could dictate 1,000 words plus straight from memory.
If we did the copy in the evening, I would open a bottle of red wine – a bottle a night was staple diet for Con in Martin Street.
On one such evening he admitted that he had a drink problem. “I have a drink problem,” he declared with my ears perking up to a potential revelation into his inner feelings. “We all do – the price of it.”
Con’s village in Martin Street came to an end on a Wednesday morning in the Summer of 2010. He was gravely ill and I was at his bed side. Before he could be convinced to go to hospital by Harriet he insisted that I must take down another column. Con had remarkable willpower and pride.
We went in the ambulance together and in the months that followed I visited Con regularly in St James’s Hospital to do the work. It was never the same though. At times I felt like we were sitting in the middle of a scene of One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest in the ward as we tried to get the copy completed. Harriet Duffin did her utmost to arrange the best times to visit and for a time Con had his own room in the hospital.
There should have been one extra column. I went into St James’s on the Wednesday before I went to London for the Olympics. I always got ahead of schedule as much as possible if I was going to be away.
Lying in the bed Con was more like an emaciated marathon runner with his big collar bones protruding through his shirt, rather than the big friendly giant who sat on his high chair in Martin Street in 2007 on our first encounter.
Visibly tired and sore he told me he wasn’t going to work . “Leave me alone to die”, he said. Holding back my tears I held his hand for a while and sat by his side – he gave my hand one final squeeze and turned away. It was to be the last time we met.
Con spoke and wrote often about The Evening Press and referred to it as the good big ship. It broke his heart when it went under. When Harriet rang me early on that Saturday morning in London I knew my very own big good ship had sunk. My heart was broken. I’ve been holding in the tears ever since.
Fogra: I was only one member of Con’s village. Others of that gallant crew included Dolores and Richard Kelly, Ray Hennessy, Jimmy Burke, Eileen and Sean Callan, his Romanian friends Adriana and Kristina, Pat O’Mahony, Vinnie Reddin, Colin Costello and many more.
Featured in the final edition of the 5 part magazine series on Con Houlihan in the Irish Independent.