Today, August 4th 2021 is the anniversary of the death of the great and still oft quoted Con Houlihan – December 6th 1925 – August 4th 2012)
The shy and gentle giant of stature and of his chosen profession lived long enough to see at first hand what he meant to all on hill and valley around here on that never-to-be-forgotten day on which the cloth was lifted off his likeness in bronze.
Crowds thronged the town on that day in January 2004 and traffic came to a standstill – but with patience and understanding once they realised the reason for the delay.
Lorry drivers leaned out the windows of their cabs and lifted fists skyward – not in anger but in fleeting celebration as they caught a glimpse of the great man making his way from the River Island Hotel across to the site of the unveiling.
Con’s love of his native town was always beyond doubt and his Evening Press columns were read and poured over, discussed and cut out and sent abroad from the local Post Office in envelopes – many with airmail stamps and sealed with kisses by loving mothers.
First Time on Television
Of all the pieces he wrote about life in Castleisland, I think the one about the day he saw his name on television for the first time is the one.
The subtly evocative piece has all the atmosphere one could humanly wrap into a piece of writing and the fact that it was on a fair day just piles it on.
Con Houlihan takes up the story in a scene-setting kind of way as he settled himself on his favourite bar-stool at Tom McCarthy’s to watch his first piece of script-writing being screened on RTÉ Television on a fair day in the early 1960s.
Making a Great Impression
“It is as if it happened this afternoon. And you would feel the same: it was my debut as a writer on television and as the hour approached it made me sick with apprehension — it might go well or it might be a total disaster.
Being present at the final cutting was a bit confusing and my fear was that it would be even more so to the audience.
All this happened in the early days in Irish television. Sean Ó Mordha was very much involved in Teilifis Scoile and he asked me to do a piece about An Gearrscéal.
We set about the work with the enthusiasm of Christopher Columbus and his crew as they started out to find a new world. Television was then very much a new world to us.
I loved French writing and Guy de Maupassant excelled in the short story and my plan was to write my piece around him.
Then I loved Impressionist painting and hoped that the pieces by de Maupassant and by some of the Impressionists would go well together.
It was a fair day in Castle Island and by midday most people, including myself, had their work done.
The programme was timed for noon. Believe me or not, I had told nobody about it and intended to watch it on my own in Tom McCarthy’s pub which had one of the few television sets in the town.
By about 11.45, I was ensconced in my favourite seat and, even though it was a busy fair, I was surprised to see so many people in the pub. Little did I know — the word had got around and my debut was to have a big audience.
I didn’t know whether to be pleased or embarrassed.
The minutes moved slowly to midday and then for the first time ever I saw my name on the screen — An Gearrsceal le Con Houlihan. There was an audience of about 100 people. They were nearly all young men and there were a few girls.
The script was in Irish but almost all of them weren’t long out of secondary school and they had a fair knowledge of the old language. And for good measure I had written a very simple script. I still do — it’s the only way I know.
You write as if talking to a few friends and thus the mighty film came across.
All the people present understood almost every word but that wasn’t the real merit of the little film. It was illustrated by many Impressionist paintings. Many of the audience, through no fault of their own, were seeing good paintings for the first time.
There was a gasp of delight and astonishment when Van Gogh’s painting of Paris at night from a terrace high up in Montmartre came into our vision.
It is a wonderful painting and Vincent, God rest him, found an appreciative audience in a little town in the south west of Ireland. Then there was Utrillo’s paintings of the roofs of Paris. It was a simple thing but it made the houses almost familiar. Manet’s Girl In The Bar Of The Olympia is one of my great favourites: as well as being a superb painting, it evokes all kinds of thoughts about the mentality of the people it portrays.
All this was new to most of my audience and it was new to me in the sense that I had never before seen those paintings so well represented as on Teilifis Eireann’s screen.
It was a new sensation and it confirmed my belief that on television the images should be the more important. The words should be an accompaniment.
And it made me feel like a pioneer who was spreading a new gospel.
At the end there was an ovation that couldn’t have been greater if I had scored a goal for Kerry to win an All-Ireland.
It was a day that I will long remember. My next appearance on television was an attempt to capture something of the atmosphere and character of the country around Castle Island.
In the meantime, I had often been on radio working with a congenial spirit, Aindreas O’Gallchoir.
We worked together on a radio programme called The Heart of the Kingdom.
It was a neat job of work and went down very well. Then I made a television film with a director called Pat O’Connor, who was on the brink of going to great fame.
He was a very easy man to work with. The film was called The Wheels Of The World: it showed a fair day in Castle Island. We were all pleased with it.
Those jobs of work were only about 20 minutes in length. Since then there has been work on long documentaries, and I was not always happy with the finished work because when you are working with a director, he may have his own intuitions and they may not coincide with yours.
That is life. Nobody is infallible and we have to listen to other people’s concepts and intuitions.
That morning in Castle Island when the documentary was shown will always stay with me because all our concepts had been illustrated. The film was only partly about the short story. It said far more about Impressionist painting.
It would be wonderful to get a free hand at attempting to express the essence of life in my own town.
To do that is nearly impossible. There are always colleagues who like to go their own way. It would fulfill a dream to make an evocation of life in that town in the course of one day.
My endeavour would be to make it far more honest than Ulysses and it would possibly make me immortal, kind of.”
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