Rory Cowan: AIDS, inequality and why he doesn't keep in touch with the Mrs Brown's Boys cast
In an emotional interview, Rory Cowan tells Barry Egan about friends who died of AIDS and others who died by suicide, because of the inequality they suffered as gay men in Ireland - plus leaving 'Mrs Brown's Boys'
Rory Cowan started going to The Hirschfeld Centre - the first lesbian and gay community venue in Ireland - in Temple Bar, when he was in his early twenties. "There would regularly be police in un-marked cars, taking pictures of everyone going in," he says. "There was nobody arrested. But a lot of gay people wouldn't go, because they thought, 'F**k, they'll take my picture'. I didn't give a s**te. But there was that type of intimidation; you just accepted it as being normal. Who could you complain to?" asks Rory, who became rich and famous as Mrs Brown's gay son, Rory, in the phenomenally popular TV series, Mrs Brown's Boys from 2011 to 2017.
The sense of inequality and injustice was further evidenced - tragically it transpired - when a friend of Rory's, Joe who had been in a relationship with another friend of Rory's, for some years, died...
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"They had a house and other properties together, all in Joe's name. When Joe died, his partner was entitled to nothing. The night he was due to move out, to go into council accommodation, he took loads of packets of paracetamol and took his own life, because he was legally entitled to nothing, even though he had been with Joe for 28 years. It was dreadful," Rory says, with sadness etched deep in his face, famous for laughing.
Just as dreadful, perhaps, as Rory growing up as a young gay man in a country where his sexuality meant gardai monitored him outside secret nightclubs, was the effect it had on him psychologically that HIV AIDS was portrayed as a gay plague from a homophobic God.
"I remember the first person I knew, who had HIV. I can't remember his name, but I knew him, just to say hello to. He was the 11th person that was diagnosed with HIV. That's how far back it was. And he died. It was a death sentence. As soon as they found out, they moved to London, because they didn't want family here to know. So, there was all that going on. Then the word would come back that they had cancer. They all had cancer, all these people in their twenties. They were after getting cancer care in England, somewhere, in Manchester or London. Sure, the joke was - it was a horrible joke, but it was doing the rounds - 'Why are you feeding them cream crackers? It's the only things we can slide under the door in the hospital.' That is the way it was then. Even the undertakers used to be in like space-suits. They wouldn't handle the bodies if they thought they died of AIDS."
Was all that getting in young Rory's head?
"It was getting in on my head very quick, because I started thinking, 'Oh, Jesus, if I get that'. I was in my twenties. That [AIDS] hit here in about 1984. I was 23, 24."
The eldest child of Esther and Rory, the future comic superstar was born in the old Coombe hospital on July 15, 1959. He has two siblings, Gerard and Maeve. Rory can remember being in his pram outside the house in Kylemore Drive in Ballyfermot, with his mother and his auntie "gooing and gaa-ing at me". He can also recall when he was a young child being in bed, and the milkman banging on the door.
"He was coming to tell my mother that her brother was dead. He had died the night before. Her brother was a milkman as well. He died on my brother's first birthday, February 2, 1962. I would have been two and a half." As you can see, Rory has a mind for dates. He loved history at school. "I remember there was a pub quiz and nobody could believe this. 'What year did Elizabeth I die?' I went, '1603'. It is useless information but I remember things like that."
The sense you get from reading Mrs Cowan's Boy, by Rory Cowan, his hugely entertaining, even rollicking, memoir is what a decent and charming fellow Rory is. (In person, as I discovered over lunch in House on Leeson Street last week, you get the same sense.) He laughs that people think, "I'm this dizzy queen, who is only interested in the insignificant things in life. I'm actually the strongest person I know, when it comes to principles, having a sense of what's right." His early youth in Ballyfermot was "fabulous. There were thousands of kids, everywhere." He lives in Kilmainham, "right around the corner from Brian Kennedy and Gary Kavanagh [of Peter Mark's]".
"I love living on my own," he says, adding, "You see, the thing is, when I lived in Ballyfermot I had a very happy childhood and then we moved to Athlone." His father worked in the Irish Transport & Workers' Union and he was offered a promotion to run the branch in Athlone. Rory was 10 years of age and didn't want to go. "I was happy in Ballyfermot. I couldn't understand why I was moving from everything I loved. It was a culture shock. Athlone was grand. Then two years later, we moved to Limerick. Then, two years after, we moved back to Dublin, to Dundrum. We kept moving! So, when I bought my own house in 1990, in Kilmainham, I was moving back towards where I was happiest. I remember thinking when I moved in, 'I don't have to move anywhere any more. This is mine.' It was very important to me that I had somewhere that I couldn't be moved away from. That's why I wanted the mortgage paid off as quickly as I could. I didn't want anyone, even a bank, saying: 'We are going to take your house'. It is a two-up, two-down. Now I have extended a bit out the back. It's lovely. I have it done lovely, because the money started coming, the big money from Mrs Brown's Boys, I was thinking, 'I could buy a bigger house'."
Rory also thought: "I'm going to be getting old and I'm going to be living on my own - I don't want to be rambling around a huge house on my own." Why was Rory so certain that he was going to be on his own?
"I've seen people in relationships and I just know that they are not for me." In series three of Mrs Brown's Boys, Rory Brown marries his boyfriend, Dino. "Gay couples, straight couples, married, unmarried, whatever they are," he says, "it's all about compromise. That's not for me." Rory says he doesn't want a partner to share his life, nor his house, with. "It's a battle of wills. I'd hate it, because I don't compromise on anything. I go home and I watch what I like on the telly. I go where I like on holidays. I eat when I want, and I eat what I like," Rory says over scampi in House on Leeson Street. "I go out when I want to. I stay in when I want to."
Does he get lonely?
"Never, I love going into my own house and just closing the door behind me." Can people call over? "They can if they tell me they're coming, but don't just arrive at the door. I hate that. I inherited that from my ma. She used to hate people just dropping in. I just don't drop in on people either."
Rory admits that, in his teens and early twenties, he had girlfriends and boyfriends. "I wasn't 'out' [as a gay man] and all my friends had girlfriends. So I did, too, so as not to cause any suspicion I was gay. But all that changed when I moved into bedsits and I was no longer living and socialising in a suburban bubble, where everyone knows your business. Then, the whole city was my playground, and I didn't have to hide the fact that I was gay. I also thought it wasn't fair on the girls. I was really only stringing them along and I felt really guilty about that. I was about 24 when I decided I was only ever going to be with guys in future."
Asked, did he have a love of his life? Rory says: "There was one guy who I was mad about, until he told me that he had been out the night before and 'I was with someone and it won't happen again'. I was like, 'That's grand. See you around. All the best.' I was mad about him, until the moment he told me he had been with somebody else."
Did that betrayal change you?
"No. As I got older, I sort of realised: 'C'mon, you were just young'. I had this idealistic thing of you meet somebody and you are going to be happy with them forever. Like my mother and father.' That's what I thought relationships should be."
So, did the fella Rory was mad about, wreck it for him when he was unfaithful?
"He didn't wreck it. I would do a good job of wrecking everything myself!" he laughs.
What was the longest Rory was in a relationship for? "It was with that guy, and it was for a year and a half. That is going back to the 1980s!" Surely when the fame with Mrs Brown's Boys happened, Rory could have been going out with whoever he liked every night of the week? "On the gay scene, now, it is a thing where you have to have a Brazilian boyfriend. I have no interest in younger people. I'm 60. I have no interest in anybody under 50. They're lovely to look at, but..."
What about a man his own age?
"Now if there is a man my own age who is available, there is something wrong!" he laughs.
What's wrong with Rory Cowan, then?
"I can't make a commitment. I don't know why. It is the way I was brought up. I was brought up to think, when you grow up, you are going to get a job and you are going to get married and have kids. Everything was about that."
In 2014, Rory told me in an interview that he never had a conversation with his parents, Esther and Rory, about his sexuality. "I just assumed my mother always knew," he said.
"Then on Saturday Night with Miriam a few years ago, Miriam said to me, 'You're a gay man...' I just went along with it. I knew my mother was watching it. I thought, 'She knows now. I didn't have to tell her.'
"My mother rang me: 'I saw you on the telly last night.' I said, 'Yeah'. She said, 'You were very good. You spoke very well.' And that was the end of the subject. She never mentioned it again," he says of Esther, who died last November, aged 85.
Rory continued, that his father, who died in 2009, once had a party where a 'friend of mine was there and he was as camp as could be, and my father said to my mother: 'I think he carries a handbag'.
"My father, God love him, didn't understand gay," Rory says now. "He came home one day and I was getting highlights in my hair by this friend of mine who also killed themselves. There are so many people I know who killed themselves. I was in my mother's dressing gown, her pink slippers, sitting there, with half my hair done with tinfoil wrapped around it; the next thing my dad walked in and I thought, 'He is going to f**king kill me, I'm done. I was only 14 or 15."
Instead of murdering his son, he simply looked at him and said: 'Getting ready to go out tonight, are you?' The fella, who was doing Rory's hair said, 'Howiya Mr Cowan! I'll have her looking fabulous!' "I was going, 'Shut up!' He kept referring to me as 'she'." Then my dad took out money and gave it to me and said, 'You make sure you don't get some girl into trouble'.
Looking back, Rory can remembering thinking with that comment from his father: 'He doesn't even see what's in front of him'.
What age was Rory when he first had a boyfriend? "17, 18. But it wasn't like a boyfriend. It was someone I used to see. It wasn't someone from where I lived. It was someone I met on the gay scene."
At what age did he lose his virginity "That was young. I was 14. That was the times. Oh, I enjoyed it. I couldn't wait to do it again. It wasn't like a relationship. I fancied him, but there was no way a relationship was happening. I still see loads of people that I met when I went into Bartley Dunne's [pub], I was only 13, 14 when I went there first."
Because Rory worked in the music industry for EMI Records, Rory had, as he says, "a charmed life". He worked with and met the likes of Paul McCartney, Tina Turner, The Pet Shop Boys, David Bowie. Rory was a huge fan of Bowie, until he met him through his job as marketing managing at EMI. "He was hard-work."
After being laid off by EMI in 1992, Carol Hanna invited him to see an Irish comedian in a pub in Ranelagh. Rory said, politely, that he didn't feel like it. Then his neighbour, Gary Kavanagh, rang and said Carol had rung him, too, and he was going. So he went with Gary.
That night changed his life. He thought Brendan O'Carroll was "the funniest comedian he had ever seen. And I had seen Billy Connolly and loads of comedians. But when I saw Brendan O'Carroll, I actually thought I was going to throw up, I was laughing so much. I had never seen anything like it. He was just telling stories, but it was his way of telling stories was so funny."
Rory had started promoting small shows for Mr Pussy Christy Dignam) at The Bottom of The Hill pub in Finglas. The shows went so well that the owner of the pub asked Rory if he knew any other good acts. Rory thought of a fella who made him laugh so hard he wanted to "throw up". That's how Rory started working with Brendan O'Carroll. "That was that. Things always work out for me."
Why is that? "I think because I always follow my own path. I never take advice from anybody."
Why did he always follow his own path?
"Because nobody ever gives me the advice that I want, for work. My mother said, 'Get a job in the bank'. I deliberately failed maths so I wouldn't get a job at the bank! And I was great at maths. But I couldn't think of a job I would hate more than working in a bank!"
Whatever about working in a bank for some faceless boss, in June 2017, after decades of working on Mrs Brown's Boys, Rory gave his charismatic mentor Brendan O'Carroll his notice, and quit the world-famous show; literally world famous as he was in Australia on tour with Brendan when he told him his heart wasn't in it any more and he was sick of doing the same show, the same routine, the same gags, in the same venues all around the world.
His mother was very ill and he wanted to be with Mrs Esther Cowan, not Mrs Agnes Brown. It was also the right time to move on.
"Mrs Brown's Boys changed my life in so many ways," says national treasure Rory, who has just started another cockle-warming gig as John Bosco Walsh in RTE soap opera Fair City. "Mrs Brown's Boys actually turned my life on its head, in a very good way. Financially, I was secure. It also gave me amazing confidence to do my business."
Does he stay in touch with Brendan and the gang at Mrs Brown's Boys?
"I don't keep in touch with the people I worked with on Mrs Brown's Boys. Not because I left on bad terms. It's like anybody who changes jobs. You leave and you just don't see the old work mates you used to work with. I got lovely texts from all at Mrs Brown's Boys when my mother died and I get texts from Brendan every few months saying there are repeat fees from the TV series going into my account, but that's it really. But I wish them all the best and I'd imagine they wish the same for me. But we don't see each other anymore. That's the same in any job really."
How would his life had changed had he not met Brendan O'Carroll?
"If I hadn't met Brendan, I would have been doing something different in entertainment. God knows where my career would have been but it would have been enjoyable, but it wouldn't have been as fabulous."
'Mrs Cowan's Boy' by Rory Cowan will be published on Friday, September 27 (Gill Books, €22.99). Rory will be signing copies of 'Mrs Cowan's Boy' in Eason Dundrum at 3pm, on Saturday, September 28.
No Congratulations from the Christian Brothers
"The Christian Brother was the only teacher in all my years in school I had a problem with. For the year he taught me - 2nd class, aged eight - I used to go to school every day with a sick feeling in the pit of my stomach. I had a sense of dread.
"On April 6, 1968, Cliff Richard performed Congratulations as the UK entry in the Eurovision Song Contest. On April 7, in school, the teacher asked the class, did anyone see the Eurovision Song Contest the night before? Everyone raised their hands. The teacher pointed out that Cliff was beaten by one point, before asking the boys to name the song. I put up my hand immediately.
"And then, instead of saying the name of the song when the teacher pointed at me. I sang the first line of the chorus instead: 'Congratulations. And jubilations. I want the world to know I'm happy as can be.' I had hardly got the words out when I got a punch in the face from him.
"It threw me right across the classroom. It was the only time that I was ever hit that I could actually see stars. Everything went black. I know it was a cold day because when I was getting up off the floor, I was holding the radiator and it was hot. I couldn't see. I was climbing up the radiator. He said to me: 'How dare you sing a song that represented Britain in the Eurovision song Contest! You should be singing the Irish one!' That's the one memory I have - being battered for singing Congratulations."
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