By John Scally
As a boy the first publication that captivated my attention was The Evening Press because of both Joe Sherwood’s regular feature ‘In the Soup’ and the column written by the peerless Con Houlihan. As a young student I shared a cheap flat in Rathmines which was less than salubrious. The only thing in its favour was that it was very close to a hostelry favoured by Con Houlihan.
One evening I almost literally bumped into him. I was in awe but in the following months we had a few chats. I listened spellbound as he told me about the wonders of Kerry: ‘As you come from Limerick into Kerry, the road starts to rise at Headley’s Bridge. After about three miles you reach the summit of the road in the townland of Gleannsharoon. Now you are looking down at a great valley ringed all around with hills and mountains. Geographers call it The Castle Island Gap: sensible people call it The Heart Of The Kingdom.
‘In the middle of the valley you can see an old town sloping from East to West. In the days when the Gaelic language prevailed, it was known as Oilean Chiarraigh, The Island Of Kerry. The island was a great outcropping of rock surrounded by marsh. Eventually the marsh land was drained for grazing and tillage. The Normans came and built a castle in the western end of the outcropping of rock. Trade followed the flag. Houses were created from the rock – and on both sides of it a town began to grow. It was an ideal location for fairs and markets: all around were small farmers and plot holders and labourers.’
Con was a very well-read man and drew on that treasure trove of knowledge in all his descriptions: ‘Thomas Wolfe, the brilliant half-forgotten novelist, used to say that the most evocative of all American sounds was the whistle of a distant train. For my generation in rural Ireland the most evocative of all sounds was the lowing of cattle being driven to the fair in what Thomas Hardy called the non-human hours.
Rounding up those same cattle was not quite as romantic as in the novels and the films about The Old West. The cowboys had horses and lassoes; we had our voices and wattles. Some cattle can spot a gap in a fence as quickly as Paddy McEntee can see a flaw in the case for the prosecution. And if you think that we enjoyed a Full Irish Breakfast, it wasn’t so. I don’t remember all that honey and soda farls, whatever they are. I remember mugs of tea and slices of bread and butter.
‘Nor were there sloe-eyed colleens fingering a harp and singing The Coolin or The Derry Air or She Moved Through The Fair. It was more than likely that some one of the womenfolk would be giving out “Hurry up or the fair will be over before you get there”.
‘The fair had its own rough charm: it was essentially a battle of wits between yourself and the jobbers. You could bargain and bargain and bargain and refuse to sell, knowing that if you had a good animal or animals, your opponent would come back. In the cattle mart you have only a few minutes to make up your mind. Like most of the changes brought about by The European Union, it is not friendly to the small man. Will we ever hear a sloe-eyed colleen singing She Moved Through The Mart?
‘The Fountain was the centre of our town, even though it is away down at the bottom of the street. It isn’t really a fountain: it is an ornamental pump with flat slabs at its base. For the time being it is not flowing; for generations it supplied all the people who had no indoor water. Most came from a collection of little houses called Pound Road, houses made from stone and mud and wood and corrugated iron and thatch.
I used to envy the women who sat around by the base of the fountain waiting for their buckets to fill. Most of them worked for the better-off people: they knew life upstairs and downstairs and no-stairs. I envied them because I felt they knew more about life than Freud or Adler or Jung.’
Con was a marvellous chronicler of the Ireland of yesteryear: ‘The people of Pound Road were proud and honest — above all they were survivors. The most famous citizen of that settlement was a man called Mikey Conway. He was the town bell man – he would be called a town crier in England. He performed many useful functions, such as announcing when the water would be cut off. He was born with weak sight and was barely able to read. Thus you could hear: “Tonight in The Carnegie Hall you can see the famous Greek play Oedipus The Wreck”. Like many people with little education, he was marvellously articulate.
‘One of his sons, Georgie, was in The Eighth Army when Montgomery and Rommel were head to head in The Battle Of El Alamein. It was a battle of enormous importance: the wirelesses were blazing out news of it every few minutes. One night in the street corner parliament at The Market House there was enormous speculation as the battle appeared to be reaching its climax.
‘When Mikey arrived, someone said to him: “You must be very worried about Georgie in the middle of all that fighting. . .” Mikey said: “He’s well able to look after himself. Before he went to England he spent three years working with the farmers.” The battle ended, Georgie came home on furlough. That night Mikey was down at the parliament. He said: “Our Georgie is a humble lad. All we had to-day for our dinner was spuds and mutton and turnips — he never complained — and last week he had his legs under Montgomery’s table.”
‘I would love to see a memorial to Mikey — a plaque perhaps on The Market House. It was people such as he who gave our town its flavour. Mikey contributed to the world far more than he got back.’
Con’s love for Kerry was only matched by his great love for his native Castleisland:
‘Castle Island was once described as a street amidst the fields — that was fair enough. It is a remarkable street: when all the outcropping stone had been quarried, a huge space remained. And so the citizens could boast that their town had the widest street in Ireland. ‘The famous street is as wide as ever but now there are trees down the middle – small birds are delighted.
In his heart Con was a poet: ‘Vincent Van Gogh said that you could see poetry in a furrow. Patrick Kavanagh spoke about the undying difference in a corner of a field.’ We will never see Con’s like again.