Mrs Cowan's boy - Rory Cowan from 'Mrs Brown's Boys'
He is Mrs Brown's gay son in the TV series. In an extraordinarily honest interview, Rory Cowan tells Barry Egan there's never been a love of his life, why he hasn't had sex in four years and how he has never been happier.
The conversation Rory Cowan and I had a few days ago was what you might call achingly Wildean. So much so that we could have been on the stage at The Gate and not in the bar at The Shelbourne Hotel. I ask him who was the love of his life. He doesn't hesitate.
"There never was a love of my life," he says, sipping his water.
"Never," he adds for emphasis.
Is he happy for it to remain ever thus?
"Yes. Seriously." I give him a look. "Very seriously."
I joke that he must be a secret slapper!
"I'm not a secret slapper!" he laughs. "Jaysus, if I was a slapper, it would be a great thing. It's not that I'm afraid."
He made a decision a few years ago. He used to go out on a Friday night hoping to meet somebody, "to go home with them or whatever, and if you didn't you'd say: 'Oh, that wasn't a successful night.' Then I decided: 'You know what? I'm getting too old for this shite! I'm not going to bother anymore.'"
"There was never anybody I ever met that I thought: 'I'd like to stay with them for the rest of my life.'"
I ask him has he never heard the phrase in relation to The One you fall in love with: 'The last person you think of before you go asleep and the first person you think of when you wake up.'
"That never happened to me," Rory answers, "I was always the last person I think of before I go asleep and the first person I think of when I wake up."
You don't have a romantic bone in your body, I say to him, and he smiles as if it is the greatest compliment ever paid to him: "Oh, I don't think so."
Be that as it may, Rory Cowan, one of the stars of Mrs Brown's Boys, is currently in the happiest period of his 55 years. He says that he loves going home to Kilmainham, where he has lived since 1990 "in a gorgeous house", and closing the doors and being on his own. Far from being lonely, he loves his own company. He says he was once thinking of getting a bigger house ("I have a lot of money in the bank") but upon reflection he thought there would be no point in rattling around a big house on his ownsome.
He says he never had a conversation with his parents Esther and Rory about his sexuality. "I just assumed my mother always knew," he says. Rory can remember his father, who died five years ago, having a party.
"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.' And my mother ate him!" Rory laughs.
"I never said to my mother I was gay, ever, even to this day. And then I was on The Miriam O'Callaghan Show a couple of years ago and 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.' "
"Then my mother rang me: 'I saw you on The Miriam O'Callaghan Show last night.' I said, 'Yeah.' She said, 'You were very good. You spoke very well.' And that was the end of the subject." He says his mother never mentioned it again. He reiterates that he has never been happier in his life.
This was in stark contrast to his school-days in Dublin when a certain Christian Brother left a painful impression on him as a young child. Many years later when Rory became famous as Mrs Brown's gay son in the phenomenally popular TV series, he recounted the story to Cliff Richard - who played a central role in the psychodrama. "He was a bollocks," Rory says of his former teacher.. "He used to batter us. I remember one time - and this is what I told Cliff. . ."
In April 6th, 1968, Cliff Richard performed Congratulations as the UK entry in the Eurovision Song Contest. On April 7th, 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. Over-brimming with youthful enthusiasm, Rory put up his little hand immediately. And then, instead of saying the name of the song when the teacher pointed at him, Rory sang the first line of the chorus instead: 'Congratulations. And jubilations. I want the world to know I'm happy as can be.'
Eight-year-old Rory 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 and it was like a tiny little dot that got bigger and bigger and then became circles," Rory says of his shaken state of near unconscious at the fists of the man who was supposed to be educating him.
"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.""
What was Cliff Richards' reaction when Rory told him what had happened?
"Oh, he was horrified. . ." Rory says that he then told the singer: "But you know what Cliff? Every time you're on the television singing, I'm thinking: 'It's great. Cliff's still here, I'm still here and that fucker is gone.'"
Rory recalls that when his tormentor eventually left the school he was delighted. Then a thought went through his young mind - because the teacher was going over to Africa to work in the missions: 'Jaysus, those poor black babies over there. It's terrible! They're starving to death and he's going over to batter them! They're not getting a break at all," Rory says with a wit that is nothing but infectious in that north Dublin style so beloved of Mrs Brown's Boys.
More happily, when Rory and his family moved to Athlone when he was ten, he had "the most amazing teacher, Brother Anthony. He put on school plays and he used to drive us all to Sligo," Rory recalls, "and put on plays in village halls all over the place. He was absolutely brilliant, and then when I went to Limerick, it was the Jesuits. They were great."
The eldest child of Esther and Rory, he was born in The old Coombe hospital on July 15th, 1959. He had his Christening in The Church of St Nicholas of Myra on Francis Street. "And now I'm going back to the Tivoli Theatre on Francis Street," he smiles, referring to his imminent turn as Barby the Ugly Sister opposite Alan Hughes as Sammy Sausages, Niamh Kavanagh as the wicked stepmother and Rob Murphy as Buffy in The Cheerios Panto Cinderella.
Rory says there are many differences between himself and the famous role he plays in Mrs Brown's Boys. "He wouldn't be that close to me. Brendan when he was writing Mrs Brown for the radio originally, he couldn't afford actors. He was writing parts for everybody that worked for him. And when I started working for him, the first question he said to me when he offered me the job as being his publicist," says Rory who had previously worked in PR quite successfully for EMI Records, "was: 'Are you gay?' I said yes. He said, 'You have the job.'"
"Then he started doing Mrs Brown's Boys soon after that, and he wrote in this gay character called Rory. He said to me, you'll play that. So everything about Rory Brown, Brendan O'Carroll writes."
So, is Rory Brown Brendan O'Carroll's definition of a gay man? Rory's answer is emphatically no. "Because when Brendan said to me he wanted to do it," he says, "and that I was going to play the part of the gay son. 'How should I do it?' I said make him as outrageously camp as you can get. I said I don't want it to be a surprise to anyone, or you have to explain to anyone that this is a gay character. I want them to know from the get-go that this a gay character. So everyone knows. And I always thought it was very important to do it like that. Brendan totally agreed with that."
He adds that some people ("usually straight people") say that Rory Brown is a stereotype of a gay man. His reaction to that is simple: "Fuck off. That's what I wanted. I wanted everyone to know it was a gay character. And he is a likeable character. I am not nearly as likeable as Rory Brown," Rory Cowan says.
I ask him to explain that comment. "Well, I'm not as likeable as him. I wouldn't be. I'm very argumentative. I've got my opinions on stuff and I'm not afraid to let them out there."
Rory adds that he meets men in Dublin gay bars like The George and The Dragon - "they'd be more camp than Rory Brown. But yet there is an idea that gay characters have to be the boy-next-door or the man-next-door; and there is loads of them as well. But when you look at people like Julian Clary. They are fabulous. I think someone like Boy George did more for gay rights than anybody. I love him. I love that type of camp." Is he camp?
"Oh, yeah!" Rory laughs. "But yet I didn't come out until I was 27. It was completely different times."
Prior to coming out, Rory had girlfriends. "I had sex with girls loads of times," he says.
He enjoyed a colourful time when he DJ-ed three nights a week in The Pink Elephant nightclub in Dublin for four years in the early 1980s.
"I don't think I ever went home with the same person twice," he says."
Did he feel guilty when he had sex with men?
"No, because I always thought I was trying to find out what I liked best. I never felt guilty about it at all. The only thing was, in school I was terrified anyone would find out. I remember people used to get battered in school for being accused of being gay - and they were never gay at all. I was thinking, 'Jaysus! If they find out about me!'"
Rory says he was 14 or 15 when he had more than an inkling that he was gay. But he never acted upon it? "Oh, I did. I was with men first before I was with women. I was 14. When I say men, I mean guys around the same age as me."
That said, Rory was, he says, "afraid of being found out but the thing I was doing," he says meaning the sexual act, "I loved it. I really had no problem at all. And I never felt guilty after having sex," he continues. "Never. I absolutely loved it."
Despite his television mammy Agnes Brown initially being concerned that her son "never has any luck with women", in series 3 of Mrs Brown's Boys, Rory Brown marries his boyfriend Dino. As Rory Cowan alluded to earlier, that is unlikely ever to happen for him in real life. He believes the fame, courtesy of the show, is the predominant reason why he can't meet anyone romantically. There are perhaps other, deeper psychological reasons why he is permanently single . ..
"When I was going out with guys, the relationships always ran their course - be it a few weeks or a few months or whatever," he explains. "I think it goes back to the time when I was younger, and maybe it was something inside me where it was illegal and it wasn't to be talked about and no one was to know about it. Even on the gay scene now when someone says, 'This is my husband', I cringe. I go: 'Oh, fuck off!' Even though I am all for gay marriage!"
What is his longest relationship?
"With a man? About a year and a half. And that was about a year too long!" he laughs.
What does he think that says about him? "I don't know. I'm not really the settling down type. You see, that's why I am so different to my character in Mrs Brown's Boys. Relationships are a lot of give and take. That is not my life. I live my life exactly the way I want it. If you have to think, 'Oh, maybe he won't like that' - straight away I will resent him. I want to do what I want to do."
Isn't that what relationships are essentially about - compromise? "Yeah but I don't. And that's why I am so different to Rory Brown. I don't compromise on anything."
So does that mean Rory Cowan has a lot of partners but not really relationships?
"No. I have not had a partner in years. In about four years. I haven't been with anyone in about four years. Once Mrs Brown hit the screen, it is impossible."
"What is impossible about it," he begins, "Just say, for instance, that you were gay and I was on a date with you and we went to a bar or a restaurant. People would come over to talk to me and they would actually stand in front of you and totally ignore you. Nobody would put up with that. "
Go to London, I say.
"It's worse there." He adds that he went to see Kate Bush in concert a few weeks ago and he was "mobbed" going through the bars in Soho en route to the gig.
"Living in Dublin, if I go out I know that the whole night is going to be me signing autographs and smiling for photographs for people that I don't know, and talking to people that I don't know about Mrs Brown. Which is brilliant."
But it is also your life as well, Rory, I say to him. You're telling me that you haven't had a lover in four years. . .
"Yeah. But I don't have a chance to chat anybody up or get to know anybody. Men come up to me, but they all want to talk about is Mrs Brown. They actually think they're talking to Rory Brown!"
The Cheerios Panto 'Cinderella' runs from December 10th at The Tivoli Theatre, 138 Francis Street, Dublin. www.panto.ie