'The reading was so high I could easily have died': How carbon monoxide almost killed Mrs Brown's Rory Cowan
Actor Rory Cowan's home became toxic, due to a carbon monoxide leak. He tells our reporter that he is determined to spread awareness about the importance of having good safety standards in the home and workplace
It's a little known fact, but not so long ago, Mrs Brown very nearly lost one of her precious sons.
Your man - the gay wan - Rory. Nearly got choked to death by wan o' dem yokes, what-do-ya-call-it? Yeah, a feckin' boiler, dat's it, a boiler. Can you believe it? Jaysus.
It happened late in 2014. At the time, Rory Cowan (aka Rory Brown) was happily ensconced in his recently renovated home in Kilmainham. Some months previously, he had instructed his building crew to chuck out everything, with the exception of his comfortable bed, his television set and a favourite painting. When it came to installing a new boiler downstairs, there were technical difficulties. So it ended up in the spare bedroom upstairs. After that, Rory gave it very little thought, although he did switch it on and off on a regular basis.
Nine months later, Avri Citron, Rory's PA, cameraman, friend and publicist, went up to the spare bedroom for something and came back perplexed. "There's a heavy, dead smell in that room," he told Rory. "It's like there's no air." He thought it might be carbon monoxide (CO), and if that was so, it would be poisonous. He knew about that sort of thing; he'd been in the Civil Defence. Rory was sceptical; after all, the boiler was less than a year old. But he phoned Bord Gais anyway.
When they heard about the "fumes", they responded immediately. As soon as the technician walked into the house, what Rory took to be a loud bleeper went off. He thought, "Typical bloody Irish workman. He's only just arrived, and now he's off somewhere else, and I won't see him for months". But it was actually the technician's personal CO alarm sounding. "The reading was so high, I was told I could easily have died," explains Rory. "There was a leak in one of the flue connections and CO was being fed back into the house. I was only saved because the boiler was isolated upstairs. And if it hadn't been for Avri, I might never have copped on."
Looking back, Rory can see there were some tell-tale signs. For example, he was getting bad headaches and wasn't feeling well, but he ascribed these symptoms to working hard. Then there was Ructions, the cat. He was a frequent visitor to the house, and Rory used to make him roast chicken. Ructions also loved to kip on the sofa. But one day he refused to come in. Rory thought the cat was being snotty. "Fine," he said. "Have it your own way." But the famous actor now believes the cat knew instinctively that danger lurked inside the house.
So how did Rory become a member of the mad, crazy but lovable Brown family? One that has been catapulted into international stardom, with fans from Canada to New Zealand and hundreds of places in between?
It began humbly enough. Rory and his brother and sister were reared by their trade-union activist parents in Dublin, Athlone and Limerick. In the early 70s, while living in Athlone, Rory was taught by Brother Anthony, a member of the Marist order, who used to put on plays twice a year. He'd then take them on tour, around town halls. Even though he was only 10 years old, Rory loved every second on stage.
When he did his Leaving, his mum wanted him to get a "good" job in the bank, but Rory had other ideas. So even though he was a naturally talented mathematician, he botched the maths paper on purpose, and ended up working in a record shop owned by EMI. Seven years later, he had risen through the ranks to become marketing manager of the holding company in Ireland.
Soon after, Rory met Brendan O'Carroll, who was doing stand-up comedy in pubs and clubs, and he applied to become his PA. When Brendan asked Rory why he should hire him, the latter replied that he would make sure Brendan's name appeared in the media every single day. Then came a time when Rory was completely stumped, until he was inspired to call someone on a newspaper who compiled the crossword. He suggested they use Brendan as a clue. And they did.
The inimitable Mrs Brown was born in 1992, when she first appeared during five-minute slots on the radio. "It became massive," says Rory. "Taxi drivers would pull over and refuse to take passengers while they listened," he recalls. Then Mrs Brown went travelling, appearing in small venues all over the place. But her meteoric rise to real stardom was mostly thanks to Gay Byrne. "Brendan was only supposed to be on the Late Late for seven minutes," Rory remembers. "But Gaybo is such a fantastic interviewer - he just sat back and let Brendan shine."
After that, there was no stopping the Brown family, as they travelled the world causing mayhem and much laughter. Rory wasn't a member of the original cast. Sure, he had appeared in the early radio slots, while Mrs Brown's gay son had, indeed, been based on him. But Rory didn't see himself as an actor. He was the logistics man; he got the bookings, and got the show on the road. But then one day, the actor who was playing Rory at the time decided to leave at short notice. So Brendan inveigled Rory Cowan onto the stage. Rory wondered how he might put his personal stamp on the character. He bleached his hair, wore gaudy clothes and went for the stereotypical camp thing. And the audience loved it. The real Rory Brown had finally been born. Soon after, a critic wrote, "The only person who is as outrageous as Mrs Brown is her gay son."
Though he will deny it vehemently, Rory Cowan is almost as wacky and just as likeable as the character he plays. So we can be doubly grateful that CO poisoning didn't put an end to his acting career.
Every year in Ireland on average, six people die from CO-related issues, while many more fall ill. And for this reason Rory has agreed to become an ambassador for Carbon Monoxide Awareness Week, which begins next week, on September 26.
Rory says: "CO is a poisonous, colourless and odourless gas, making it difficult to detect, so it is known as the 'silent killer'. It can be produced by any fuel that burns, including coal, turf, oil, gas or wood." He advises all householders to install a carbon monoxide alarm - unfortunately, his had been chucked out during the renovations. And he urges them to have their boilers and other appliances serviced regularly, and to ensure that rooms are properly ventilated.
"All it takes is a tiny little leak," warns Mrs Brown's lad.
If you suspect you have a leak, contact Gas Networks Ireland, tel: (1850) 79-79-79. For more information, see carbonmonoxide.ie
Sunday Indo Life Magazine