ONE of 22 siblings who grew up in Cork’s northside, Con Hurley has had a rollercoaster life.
The downs included becoming addicted to both alcohol and gambling, which cost him one marriage and almost a second.
But he has just celebrated one of his ups — writing a book on his life about how he tackled his addictions. And Con wrote the book, called 'Shadows On My Shoulder', despite being dyslexic.
He was born in 1961 into an exceptionally large family of brothers and sisters; some of whom died in childbirth. Times were tough but he and the Hurley family survived and thrived.
“My mother, who married at 19 and who died age 52, suffered tough times rearing a very large family,” says Con.
“Invaluable life experience was gleaned from the school of hard knocks, for which there is no substitute,” adds Con, who started work at the age of 10 selling newspapers around the city, before joining the army at 17.
However, after leaving the army he fell into a life of addiction which saw his life spiral out of control.
“My mind was fixated on the excitement of gambling and nothing could drag me away from it,” says Con.
“Many was the time I had the opportunity to quit the habit, but I resisted.”
We start by going back to his humble roots.
“The nuns were very good to us,” says Con. “My sister Kim was sent to the convent to get bread and milk.
“Both the nuns and the priests took pity on us. Some of our neighbours were very kind to us.
“Mum made a big pot of stew on Mondays and made it last for days. To make the milk last, it was diluted with water. On weekends we had rabbit stew and other days chicken if we were lucky!
“Some residents had toilet tissue, but we had to settle for undignified newspaper! This was cut into squares and placed on steel hangers on a block of wood alongside the toilet!”
Was there any bit of fun for the Hurley siblings?
“When mum and dad, who was in the army, went out, I was left minding the twins,” says Con, who is himself is a twin.
“I would take them out of bed and sit them on the steps on the stairs, and get covers from the pots and we would sing our hearts out.
“Our favourite song was A Spoonful Of Sugar from the Mary Poppins movie. We sang songs and played a variety of games. Then we’d head down to the sunbeam pond, and to Nash’s Boreen.
“During the summer months we’d bring our jam-jars and buckets with us to collect blackberries.”
After-school treats were a cream cake or a bag of Taytos on a Friday evening.
Con was among a bunch of 10 year-olds who would sell Echo newspapers in Cork city. Nearly all of them went to the North Cathedral School.
“Eventually, being an Echo boy, I got my own pitch selling newspapers at the junction of North Main Street and South Main Streets. One of my favourite spots was South Mall where I got tips from customers who earned well.”
Con was a hard grafter, bringing home the bacon.
“Every penny I earned I brought home to my mother, who had so many mouths to feed. At 16, I worked delivering bread too. I remember my legs dangling out the back of the bread van. Our motto was ‘drop, knock, and run’! I told my pals I had a crumby job loafing around!”
Con joined the army at 17, his main duty being as a chef in the kitchen. He met his first love in Curragh camp.
“She was pregnant and even though I wanted to do the right thing, her parents didn’t see it that way.”
Con got his marching orders — although he was united with his son many years later — and found love thereafter with Irene. And he lost his mother.
“You only have one mother,” says Con.
Moving to Cork, Con and Irene should have been on the up and up, looking forward to a fresh start together.
“We were both very happy, until I started to drink and gamble,” says Con.
“At the time we were living in a small but nice house in Wellington Road. One day I arrived home and found Irene had left. She’d had enough of my twin vices.
“I managed to track her down and ask for one more chance. She agreed. After that we moved to Gardiners Hill where my daughter, Carol-Ann, was born.” Kim-Marie arrived in the summer of 1987.
Unfortunately, when Con had to return to Dublin for army duty during the bin strike in late 1987, the family was separated and the marital relationship failed.
“It was a sad time,” says Con.
Times were hard, but he was resilient. He met Trisha, had two more children, and moved back to Cork from Dublin in 1995.
“It seemed like life was good,” says Con.
However, he didn’t bargain on the scourge of the twin vices, alcohol and addiction, returning to haunt him.
“When Trisha went to work, I’d clean the house, do the ironing, and prepare the dinner so that she’d think I was great,” says Con.
“Then I’d make a beeline for the slot machines, telling myself that this was my own personal time. Three hours of gambling turned into six and more. I became engrossed in it. It took me over. After each visit I’d be planning the next.”
His personality changed.
“I began a process of lying to cover my tracks. I became an expert in broken promises and covering my tracks.”
What drove him to gamble with the nice life he had carved for himself after striving so hard for happiness?
“I was in my element,” says Con. “Gripped by the buzz, the adrenaline, anticipating my next big win. Sometimes I wouldn’t bother with tea or food. I was drinking heavily. Sometimes there was no food in the fridge. Debts were mounting.”
He reassured Trisha with half-truths that things would change. He got a computer for their children, Brook and Greg, but he ended up playing poker on it in the spare room all night.
“I lost concept of time or even what day it was. I was led back to the slot machines day in day out.”
Trisha wanted to see the back of him.
“I had messed up the love, respect and the trust of my wife and family. I had to go.”
But there was a way back, a ray of hope.
“I took the giant step and joined an organisation called Gamblers Anonymous,” says Con. He learned about the Red Book of Twelve Reforming Traditions. He was a diligent student.
“I attended all the Gamblers Anonymous meetings, fully participating in sessions with counsellors and stayed in their good books to get my life back on track.
“They were wonderful and taught me when I went to Arbour House about dealing with day-to-day living.”
Arbour House is a Cork city based rehabilitation treatment centre and community service dedicated to curing addictions.
Con eventually exorcised the twin demons of gambling and addiction.
“The addictions had almost destroyed my life,” he admits.
Today, life is good for Con. He lives in Mallow, and helps recovering addicts on the road to recovery. He is reunited with Trisha and he has great relationships with all of his children and his grandchildren.
He survived the school of hard knocks. Now he is thriving.
In 2017, Con graduated with a diploma in drug and alcohol addiction from the University of Limerick.
“I’m grateful to everyone who facilitated my recovery,” says Con, who took early retirement from the army.
“Not least to that mystical higher power which rekindled me in a faith that helped me climb over each obstacle, and find my way back to happiness.”
Shadows On My Shoulder, by Con Hurley, is available in Spar, Farranree, the Post Office and Stop Shop, Poppins Road, Farranree, Blackpool Shopping Centre, outlets in Kanturk and Mallow. It costs €12, with €2 from each copy of the book being donated to Cork Penny Dinners.