BY ARTHUR O’DEA
There are the tranquilised Fifties,
and I am forty. Ought I to regret my seedtime?
Robert Lowell, ‘Memories of West Street and Lepke’
Considering the circumstances of one’s own conception is a curious concern. Dispensing with the questions that are perhaps too crude to contemplate – where, when, and, the most dreaded of all, how – the possibility of ‘why?’ can, on occasion, generate some intriguing answers. Born in mid-March, 1991, a standard gestation would suggest my own ‘seedtime’ fell somewhere in or around June of the previous year. An incongruous month of boring, goal-stricken football for most, Italia ’90 cemented Ireland’s nationwide fascination with a sport whose appeal had been suitably whetted two years previously at Euro ’88. Subsequent displays of exuberance in New Jersey, Ibaraki, Poznan and Paris make it barely conceivable that Ireland has ever treated football as anything other than a national past-time. Buoyed still by Jack Charlton’s decree to ‘go and compete’, the initial incarnation of Irish football on a global stage left any lingering remnant of ‘green ignorance’ looking antiquated and foolish.
Subdued as it was under the yoke of British imperialism, the added element of Ireland’s relative closeness to Britain saw the introduction of football occur in the latter stages of the nineteenth-century (David Goldblatt, The Ball is Round (2006), p.101). It was not fortuitous timing. In delivering an essay on ‘The Necessity for de-Anglicising Ireland’ (1892) Douglas Hyde –a figure who shall be discussed in additional detail shortly – determined that if ‘the Irish nation [is to] produce its best… [it must] set its face against this constant running to England for our books, literature, music, games, fashions and ideas.’ Adhering to a line of rhetoric that was gaining momentum within Ireland’s cultural revival and subsequent quest for outright independence, the emergence of football came at “the very moment that a broad-based opposition to British rule… was being mobilised; sport and politics would become inseparable and the tenor of that politics would be a bitter struggle between the forces of imperialism and nationalism. Football would be aligned with the former. Gaelic games, as they came to be known, were aligned with the latter”. (2006, p.101)
Although the depth to which this divide manifested itself could be spoken about in great detail, one particular development will make do for now; the Gaelic Athletic Association’s Rule 27, ‘the ban’.
Enacted in 1902, eighteen years after the establishment of the G.A.A in 1884, Rule 27 prohibited any member of the association from playing or encouraging ‘in any way rugby, football, hockey, or any imported game which is calculated or injuriously affects our national pastimes.’ The penalty for those found to be in breach of this ruling? Suspension from the association. Enter once more Douglas Hyde, Ireland’s first President as of 1938. Owing to his attendance at an international football fixture between Ireland and Poland in Dublin just a few months after his inauguration, Hyde’s insubordination saw him unceremoniously removed from the association he had been a patron of for almost forty years. ‘The ban’, as Rule 27 came to be colloquially known, would remain in place until its agreed removal at the annual G.A.A. congress of 1971. How effective ‘the ban’ was in promoting Irish sports over a foreign equivalent I am uncertain. However, the astonishing manner in which it retained its validity for almost seventy years made more difficult the transition beyond the alternative, anti-English sentiment that equally underwrote its inception. Rule 27 encouraged a brand of nationalism that had ‘as much to do with hating some other country as loving your own.’ So wrote Con Houlihan, now read on.
Born into rural peasantry two years after the Irish civil war in 1925, Con Houlihan is ‘regarded as one of the greatest and the best-loved Irish sports journalist of all’ (Irish Times obituary). An enigmatic figure whose national presence only became known when – in his mid-forties – he began writing for the Irish Press, Houlihan provided the Irish answer to Brian Glanville’s question regarding the dearth of quality sports journalism in 1960s Britain; he was ‘read by intellectuals without shame and by working men without labour.’ Although this piece shall seek to concentrate on his progressive footballing opinions against the aforementioned nationalism fuelled by hatred of the ‘other’, it is briefly to horse racing that we shall turn in an effort to demonstrate Houlihan’s mastery of the medium of sports writing. Writing of Dawn Run’s 1986 Cheltenham Gold Cup success:
“When Arkle stormed up the hill to his first Gold Cup, few of his myriad admirers realised that nibs of snow had started to come with the wind; yesterday it was very cold in the Cotswolds but in retrospect most of those who were on Cheltenham’s racecourse will remember the time between about half past three and four o’clock as a fragment of Summer.
“Such was the enormous outburst of emotion that for a little while the thin wind seemed not to matter. And no doubt there are decent men and women who will dip into their imaginations at some distant date and say that they were there – and they will be right.
“They may have been away down in the bottom of Kerry taking a break from setting the spuds or on a brief furlough from a factory in Tallaght – but they were at what was probably the greatest ever running of the Gold Cup”.
Demonstrating a style of writing that appeared in keeping with the exemplary American alternative, Houlihan, like Grantland Rice or Red Smith before him, composed articles with an essence equalling that of a miniature short story. This in turn incentivised the development of a devoted readership. Of Ireland’s more detached regions where certain newspapers would not arrive until the evening of their publication, ‘waiting for Con’ became as much a compulsion as it was habit.
It is not an exaggeration to suggest that many of Houlihan’s contemporary Irish men and women harboured thoughts on nationalism that differed greatly from his own. Although such petty discrimination against ‘the Brits’ has long since lost its aggressive undertone, Houlihan’s characteristic openness was somewhat rare. Of another writer whose relationship with the coloniser was equally intriguing, the Trinidadian writer C.L.R. James recognised the importance of his ‘introduction [to England coming by way of] the working people of the North, and not to the overheated atmosphere of London.’ These were a people he could relate to. Houlihan, emerging as he did in a small town in County Kerry, found similar consolation in first encountering Britain via the mines of Wales. His father having worked there, Houlihan came to regard ‘the welsh miner [as his] brother’ – and the rest of Britain as a growing extension of this ‘family’. He held this belief from a young age.
A keen rugby player in his youth, an early estimation of his fondness for football came via an article which recollected his movements on ‘that marvellous day long ago when England played West Germany in the final of the World Cup.’ The first World Cup to be broadcast in Ireland, Houlihan insisted that ‘we have never been the same since.’ Demonstrating his humour, Houlihan would later remark ‘the proliferation of soccer in this island [to be] the best thing that happened to us since the arrival of the potato.’ Upon watching what he considered to be ‘the second-greatest game of association football that [he] ever saw’, the conclusion of the 1966 World Cup generated one helpless, devastating question that determined the degree to which Houlihan and his cohorts had enjoyed it: ‘What will we do for the rest of the year?’ Uttered by a friend but supported by Houlihan, such a question ‘had said it all; it had been a great tournament and it brought a new dimension into our lives. And, of course, it hastened the end of the infamous Ban, the epitome of Green ignorance and prejudice.’ A retrospective starting-point for what would become Houlihan’s wonderful written relationship with football, let us now carouse through some of the more memorable pieces in which Houlihan, inspired perhaps by the effect of 1966, helped to definitively destroy such ‘ignorance and prejudice.’
Injury and suspension ensured Liam Brady would play no part for Ireland at Euro ’88. That he had played such a vital role for Ireland throughout qualification for the tournament in West Germany cannot have offered much by way of consolation. Consideration of Brady, Houlihan and Ireland’s sporting past reveals much of what was so chronically abhorrent about the manner of the latter’s development. ‘Expelled from school for captaining Ireland Schoolboys’ reads the opening line of Brady’s autobiographical So Far So Good (1981). The conflicting schedule which saw St. Aidan’s Christian Brothers School play a Gaelic football challenge match on the same day as the Irish Schoolboys visited Wales resulted in expulsion for a teenage Brady who decided on accepting the international call-up. Such determination on Brady’s part enabled a footballer to develop that Houlihan would esteem as evidence of ‘that rare Irishman [who] made the most of his gifts.’ Drawing a comparison between the professional footballer and the professional writer, Houlihan understood himself and Brady to share the required expectation of them to entertain, and the burden of being two insatiable perfectionists on top of this. In truth, Houlihan’s worldly outlook and broad range of literary/cultural reference points only serves to enhance this correlation with Brady. A freewheeling sports journalist who seemingly adapted to whichever locale he found himself in, Brady’s own gumption to go and play – and be a success – with Juventus displayed a set of characteristics that even in the modern day would be rare for an Irish footballer of his talents. If Brady appeared, as Houlihan suggests, to ‘lay the foundations of his craft on a Brazilian beach rather than in the playing fields of Dublin’, so too did Houlihan inhabit that degree of ‘otherness’ which made him seem something beyond what he so obviously was; another Irishman making good on his gifts.
It would be unfair to limit this exposure of Houlihan’s football writing to Irish figures that would naturally appeal to a domestic readership however. When necessary, Houlihan wrote splendidly on whatsoever happened to be occurring within ‘the global affliction.’ He felt no great compulsion to continually accredit Ireland, its fans or its players where it was not due; a habit all too frequent amongst some of his weaker contemporaries. Disappointing though it may be to fervent Irish fans of English football clubs, Houlihan had no problem asserting – correctly I believe – that it is a different ‘kind of devotion’, a more profound experience that the English equivalent has for the same set of clubs. Incapable of placidly agreeing with the well-worn array of acceptable footballing icons, Houlihan’s reluctance to necessarily placate his readership encouraged the prospect of debate and discussion. Unlike perhaps one such contemporary of his, Eamonn Dunphy, there was never a sense of self-publicity in Houlihan’s often inflammatory remarks. Notoriety, if it could be avoided, always was. Education was a far closer motivation to Houlihan’s heart. As he was prone to do, Houlihan would seamlessly insert a literary reference perhaps French, American or British in origin when discussing the latest sporting event he was set to cover. A cohort of Houlihan’s during his days with the Irish Press has since revealed the debt of gratitude that a portion of Houlihan’s readership felt and demonstrated with their letters to the paper. One such letter-writer thanked Houlihan for providing him with his third-level education.
The substance of Houlihan’s work was therefore where it would ultimately rise and, perhaps occasionally fall. His immediate ability to translate the grand global events of football in terms that suggested the goings on of a kick-about with friends contributed to his lasting impact. This phenomenon worked both ways. He could readily instil the prosaic dealings of daily life with worldly significance. Whatever was up for discussion, Houlihan always managed to find a suitable compromise that highlighted the best of both. Blatantly aware of Ireland’s own conception of itself as the perennial underdog, the 2002 World Cup final saw Houlihan illustrate a barely believable narrative that Brazil, too, had pulled off some unexpected act of redemption that the Irish people could relate to; the key to this theory was Ronaldo himself. In the wake of Brazil’s final loss of 1998, ‘the hero became the anti-hero.’ In very few words Houlihan managed to capture the extent to which the next World Cup final became Ronaldo’s in the manner 1998 ought to have been. Yet, whilst conjuring the images of ‘the celebrations in Rio de Janeiro and Nova Brasilia’, Houlihan shifts gear and once more demonstrates a degree of humanity that underwrites what had been perhaps the most global of football World Cups to date. Behind the Brazil of Joga Bonito and carnival lies the ‘people of the rainforests [who] were economically secure for countless generations, mainly through hunting and fishing.’ Their life under relentless threat at the hands of an unsentimental capitalism, victory in 2002 meant ‘more to those good people than we in this country can understand.’ And with that, Con Houlihan betrays any such illusion we may have of him as a sports journalist in the traditional sense. He was not a peacemaker, a revolutionary or a martyr. Yet, in a sense that includes his subtle distinction of the stupidity behind ultra-nationalism in the Irish situation, Houlihan consistently managed to reduce sport back to its humblest roots; excluding none, whilst ensuring the presence of those for whom football, and sport in general, was a reason for communal gathering, not segregation.
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