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Saturday 19 August 2017

Childhood prize put me on road to a great life in journalism

Con Houlihan. Photo: Colin O'Riordan
Con Houlihan. Photo: Colin O'Riordan

NOW and then, people ask me how long I have been in journalism. There is no simple answer.

Definitely, there was a lot of scribbling done from an early stage. At about the age of 10, I won a prize in a famous comic, The Champion. The prize was 10 shillings for naming the four best boxing heavyweights of all time and giving my reasons. It was a fortune.

Many years later, I became a real journalist. I was teaching full-time, but was also editing a magazine called The Taxpayer's News. That was a brave little paper. The first ever to be published in my home town. It did well for about seven years and then, like the Titanic and the Lusitania, it was shot down – not by a submarine but by a libel action.

The Kerryman was where I spent the next 10 exciting and dangerous years.

Then I graduated to The Irish Press as a literary critic and was there for six years. I was also working with The Evening Press part time, until they took me over full time as a sportswriter, and literary critic and drama critic, and the occasional feature writer.

It was a good life. In my early days there, my home was in a small friendly hotel, The Waldorf. It was directly across the river from The Irish Press. And it was a great pleasure walking across O'Connell Street Bridge almost every morning. It gave me a sense of being in contact with Anna Livia Plurabelle. And, of course, I was. We were both doing our work.

I spent about 17 years there, as well as doing the occasional piece for small magazines and a monthly article for the Eircom staff paper. It was a good life. Too good to be true.

And it all came to an end on a Thursday afternoon in 1995. When a big majority in the National Union of Journalists voted to bring the whole group down. And thus three good papers – The Irish Press, The Sunday Press and The Evening Press – were no more seen on the streets. It was industrial history to see journalists voting themselves out of their jobs.

And it was industrial madness because that strike was the last strike, and hundreds of people never again got back to jobs of their own choosing.

As a group in The Evening Press, we were scattered to the four oceans and to all the winds. For all of us, it was a disaster. I got by. I was taken in by The Sunday World, where I am since, and by The Star for a shorter time.

Life has gone on but, of course, it hasn't been the same. Sometimes now, when meeting many of my old colleagues, I find some are driving taxis; others are working in security; others haven't any real work at all, but life has to go on. Three of my colleagues took their own lives. All this could hardly have been foreseen when that vote was taken. Among other things, it meant that three fine young people were lost to the world.

In my present work, I can't complain, but there is a difference between one piece a week and several pieces a week: there were times when I wrote seven pieces in the one week for The Evening Press.

A few years ago, I was invited by The Evening Herald to do one piece a week on a Wednesday, generally of my own choosing. So that is very enjoyable. When I worked for The Kerryman, it was a great place. The staff got on very well together but, after all, it was a weekly paper.

There was never any hurry there until Thursday mornings. And, by Thursday evening, the paper had "gone to bed". There was then an assembly in the nearest pub, where members of various status were free to speak their minds and criticise one another. It was truly a Liberty Hall and it was good for the paper.

I was very lucky in The Evening Press. Apart from the necessary piece on Monday, usually a report of some big sports event over the weekend, I was free to write about things of my own choosing on Wednesday and Friday and Saturday.

In-fighting

Strangely enough, in my years at The Kerryman, I never wrote a single paragraph about sport: that was in the good hands of John Barrett, God rest him, and John Barry and Eamon Horan. We got on very well.

And so when I went to Burgh Quay, I was really an innocent and expected the same cameraderie there, but soon found out life in Burgh Quay made you acquainted with a different kind of journalism.

You were dealing with infighting and outfighting and backstabbing and frontstabbing, and various other forms that one couldn't possibly have foreseen. As much as possible, I minded my own business, but it was good to know that you had people who were unfriendly to you and some who were genuinely hostile. The irony is that some of those people became my closest friends. You do not really know a person until you work with them. And you come to know him even better when you work with him out of home, especially on those long jobs we had following the Republic of Ireland soccer team. That was how I became friends with people whom I had known only casually.

Jimmy Meegan was an example. We had been casual acquaintances, but when we worked together in Italia 90, our work brought us together. We became very close friends indeed. Jimmy is no more – God rest him.

The loss of Burgh Quay meant that many fine journalists of both genders were lost. Most of them are working in their trade, but it is all the more galling that they could have been working with the three papers – especially The Evening Press. It was a good paper. It had many flaws, but they could all have been corrected. Above all, the relationship between the newsroom where the paper was put together and the caseroom where it was printed became friendly. That made life easy and I loved it.

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