Saturday 23 March 2019

Cowen drink-in: the inside story

Taoiseach left bar just five hours before controversial interview

Taoiseach Brian Cowen takes a drink of water during the final day of the think-in at the Ardilaun Hotel in Salthill, Galway, yesterday. Photo: Steve Humphreys
Taoiseach Brian Cowen is questioned about his drinking by TV3' s Ursula Halligan at the Ardilaun Hotel yesterday. Photo: Steve Humphreys
Taoiseach Brian Cowen clears his throat during the media conference yesterday. Photo: Steve Humphreys
Taoiseach Brian Cowen stands in for the party photograph. Photo: Steve Humphreys

Fiach Kelly in Galway

TAOISEACH Brian Cowen's now infamous early morning interview came five-and-a-quarter hours after he left The Blazers Bar in the Ardilaun Hotel following a night of drinking, singing and telling yarns.

It was a night typical of any party gathering, enjoyed by TDs, senators and assembled journalists.

At the time, no one could have foreseen the political storm that would envelop the Taoiseach in what would become one of the most damaging episodes of his political career.

By 9am, a flood of texts and emails to the media sparked a day-long frenzy over his manner and ability to lead the country.

Five-and-a-quarter hours earlier, the first day of his party's think-in in Galway was winding down in a relaxed fashion.

Mr Cowen had addressed the Fianna Fail ranks on the economy and the Government's plans to pull the country out of recession.

The sedate gathering was given a bit of life when Finance Minister Brian Lenihan said the Government could look for more than €3bn in cuts in December's Budget.

It gave everyone something to chew over -- along with the beef, seabass and seafood vol-au-vents -- at the five-course presidential dinner hosted by Mr Cowen, where most availed of the red and white wine on offer.

Before dinner, The Blazers Bar was heaving as people chatted over pre-meal drinks between 7.30pm and 8.30pm. Mr Cowen was working the room, but was drinking a glass of water.

When dinner was called, all went into the Connacht Room, the main function room in the hotel.

Mr Cowen was sitting at the top table with, amongst others, Mr Lenihan, Tanaiste Mary Coughlan and Chief Whip John Curran.


The Taoiseach, who was drinking beer at the dinner, did not give a speech.

Parliamentary party chairman John Browne shared the honours with former GAA president and All-Ireland winning Galway hurling captain Joe McDonagh.

After a lengthy speech, Mr McDonagh roused the hall with a rendition of 'The West's Awake', the song he famously belted from the Hogan Stand in Croke Park when Galway won the All-Ireland in 1980.

After dinner, Mr Cowen stayed around the function room and was chatting and drinking with Mr Lenihan before he mingled with other members of the party in the lobby and then back in the bar.

A sing-song started at about 12.30am, with Pronsias Kitt, brother of TDs Tom Kitt and Aine Brady, holding court with songs and skits of musicians such as Van Morrison, Daniel O'Donnell and Tommy Makem.

The bar was packed. And when Mr Kitt told a tale about a Connemara man who goes to New York and brings his bike, there wasn't a person not laughing and enjoying themselves.

During this time, Mr Cowen stood on his own by the door leading into the hotel lobby, but was soon asked by Mr Curran to join others such as Enterprise Minister Batt O'Keeffe and Limerick TD John Cregan at the far side of the bar.

Mostly drinking pints of beer, it wasn't long before the Taoiseach -- who turned out to be the evening's star turn -- was up telling yarns and impersonating legendary GAA commentator Micheal O Muircheartaigh.

It was the side of Cowen often spoken about by his friends but never seen by the public.

But there was one major problem -- he had an interview on the country's most-listened-to radio programme first thing the next morning.


It was 2am at this stage, and Mr Cowen continued telling stories, with just over a hundred people wedged into the bar enjoying the Taoiseach's yarns.

Mr Cowen told two stories about a famous Irish golfer, one of which featured the golfer showing tourists around a local club.

After Mr Cowen stepped off the stage to applause from the whole bar, the songs continued, with MEP and presidential hopeful Brian Crowley tinkling the ivories and singing Billy Joel's 'Piano Man'.

Also among the singers were Junior Minister Sean Connick, who sang Bagatelle's 'Summer in Dublin', TDs Ms Brady, Bobby Aylward, Darragh O'Brien and Mr Cregan, who sang 'Raglan Road'.

But the Taoiseach was back on his feet at about 3am, leading the bar in a rendition of the classic ballad 'The Lakes of Ponchartrain'.

After relaxing for a while longer, and listening to more songs, Mr Cowen left the bar at about 3.30am, with Mr Lenihan and Mr O'Keeffe deep in conversation and about 20 people, including TDs, left behind.

The 'Morning Ireland' crew were down in Galway on Monday night, in preparation for yesterday's interview.

Presenter Cathal Mac Coille was at the dinner but went to bed soon after.

'Morning Ireland' interviews with the leaders of all the political parties are normally done at think-ins, and Mr Cowen's had been arranged weeks in advance. He was scheduled to go live on air at 8.45am, which is not the prime slot on 'Morning Ireland'.

The interview took place in the hotel, with the clatter of plates clearly audible in the background.

Mr Cowen was hoarse and slurred his words, but friends pointed out that he wasn't a morning person. But it didn't matter.

Word filtered out that the session in the hotel had stretched well into the early morning.

The public's image of Mr Cowen, of a man who enjoys a pint, was enough to allow angry callers to radio shows draw their own conclusions.

His political opponents were quick to jump on the bandwagon.

Fine Gael's Simon Coveney tweeted online that Mr Cowen "sounded half-way between drunk and hungover", a claim the Taoiseach later rejected as a "new low in Irish politics".

But by this time the damage was done.

Irish Independent

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