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Former CEO Neil Horgan's tales from the dark side


Storyteller Neil Horgan at The Powerscourt Town House.

Storyteller Neil Horgan at The Powerscourt Town House.

Storyteller Neil Horgan at The Powerscourt Town House.

HE was the high-flying boss of a major travel company who scoffed at art and was into making money. But these days, Neil Horgan, the former managing director of Abbey Travel, is more likely to be backpacking in India than enjoying the bling of Dubai.

The reason for this dramatic lifestyle change is not a mid-life crisis but a redemptive tale of a successful businessman brought to his knees by alcoholism and depression, but who has emerged the other side, a changed man.

The former travel company boss has renounced the corporate life to become a storyteller, drawing on dark tales from his past to shock and regale his audiences.

His stories span the boardroom, the school room and his lost alcoholic years, along with tales from his travels, and fables with a twist. They are funny and inspiring but, most importantly, true.

"It's not showmanship. The stories connect with people," he says. "Name me a family in Ireland that hasn't been affected by alcohol or depression."

He certainly isn't short of material. A middle-class boy from Dundrum in south Dublin, he started drinking when he was just 12 years old and continued drinking throughout his teenage years.

Neil was expelled from his private school, Gonzaga College. By 17 he was in a psychiatric hospital and by his early twenties he had dropped out of university.

His twenties were drowned in the "horrors" of drinking, although he did hold down a job on the front desk of the family company selling holidays.

When he stopped drinking at 29, his life began to turn around. He went on to become managing director of Abbey Travel, with a beautiful house and a convertible Jaguar in the driveway.

But without alcohol to dull his senses, depression struck with a vengeance. "I lost three months of every year to this depression. I was just wiped out. It usually came on in the summer or autumn. I was terrified before it came on and afterwards, it would take months to recover from it," he says.

One of the stories he tells in his show is edge-of-the-seat stuff about how his world irrevocably changed as the recession took hold. A ticket broker dropped into his office wearing Gucci shoes and promising a sure fire deal to get the company out of the recession. All he needed was €180,000 cash. Under stress and desperate, Neil went along with it.

Without giving away the plot, what happened next was the catalyst that pushed Neil over the edge.

He stood down from the business and descended into a breakdown that lasted for 25 months.

"My whole life was ripped away. My 20-year career was gone. I resigned from my job and I went into a terrible spiral of mental illness. I thought it was all over," he says.

But he got through it. He walked the Camino pilgrims' route in Spain, and regaled his fellow walkers with tales from the dark side.

One of them urged him to sign up for the School of Storytelling in the UK. He'd never heard of it. His pals thought he was mad. But something "pulled" him, he says.

He graduated late last year and went to India with a rucksack, where he practiced on backpackers. "I figured nobody knows me here. If I'm terrible, no one will ever find out," he says. As it turned out, he wasn't terrible.

He has performed across Ireland, most recently at Powerscourt Theatre in Dublin where he takes the stage again on Thursday, September 18, for an extended evening show, called The Story Show.

No one seems more surprised than he is at how his life has turned out.

"I was a businessman making money. That was my world. Art and creativity were things I scoffed at," he laughs. Now he credits getting in touch with his creative side with turning his life around. He hasn't had a depressive episode in three years.

Sharing his own personal struggles with total strangers is just the start. Neil is so convinced of the therapeutic powers of "biographical storytelling" he wants to start a group in Ireland and plans to host regular "open mike" storytelling sessions.

"Ireland has too many secrets," he says, which in his book means no shortage of material for a bit of cleansing, restorative story telling.

Contact Neil at storieswithneil@hotmail.com

Sunday Independent