Former Taoiseach looks back on 12-month recovery battle and says he has had ‘amazing fortune’
Brian Cowen did not mince his words when it came to discussing his recent illness and ongoing rehabilitation.
“I was a couple of weeks gone. I was unconscious. It wasn’t looking good,” he said with the singular directness of speech that was his calling card as Taoiseach.
Back when he was on the national stage, he was never afraid of a political fight – but the personal struggle that hit him three years ago was on a different level.
In his first interview since that battle for life, the former Taoiseach told the Irish Independent his road to recovery has been slow but he is now reclaiming some normality.
Mr Cowen (62) spent 12 months in hospital – including three months in St Vincent’s in Dublin, followed by nine months’ rehabilitation in the stroke unit at the Royal Hospital in Donnybrook.
Initially using a wheelchair, he now walks with the aid of a crutch and is fiercely determined to regain his full mobility.
“The way it works is that the first six or 12 months, you make the most part of your recovery, really, and after that it’s about constant rehabilitation to pick up the 25pc you’re short,” he said.
“I’m still at it. I’m doing physical rehabilitation – it’s all done at home. I’m also doing three days a week in the pool locally because the buoyancy in the water helps.
“The walking is good, but if I go a distance or if I’m going to a match I bring the chair.”
Legacy? No, no, no. I still think I’m too young to be thinking about legacy
As finance minister, he spearheaded a capital grant of €20m over a number of years that did much to secure the future of Comhaltas Ceoltóirí Éireann, the traditional music organisation, and to help promote the music among upcoming generations.
Yesterday, he made a rare public appearance at Fleadh Cheoil na hÉireann in Mullingar, Co Westmeath, where he was honoured for his long-standing support of Comhaltas. As he sat on the steps of the Cathedral of Christ the King, smiling and tapping to the rhythm, it was clear he had come a long way from July 2019 when he suffered his health setback.
Beforehand, he sat down with the Irish Independent for an exclusive interview in which he revealed what has happened over the past three years.
Mr Cowen considers it to be “amazing good fortune” that the haemorrhage in his brain happened while he was at the Beacon Hospital in Dublin undergoing a procedure so minor he cannot even remember what it was for.
“It was nothing too serious, anyway,” he said.
Earlier that same day, he had been at an Oireachtas Golf Society event in Lahinch.
He was already under anaesthetic when the haemorrhage occurred, he said, and so recalls nothing about it and was immediately referred to St Vincent’s, which specialises in treating brain bleeds.
“I was a couple of weeks gone. I was unconscious. It wasn’t looking good,” he said. “But whatever happened, I came out of it again.”
He said he does not remember much about this time. “It was very hazy. When you’re coming out of unconsciousness, you don’t say, ‘Here, I’m back’, it’s the people around you that are telling you, ‘You’re back’.
“You don’t know anything about it yourself because you’re not with the programme.”
His family were very distressed by the turn of events. “It was a big shock for everyone,” he said.
After his condition had improved, Mr Cowen was taken to the Royal Hospital in Donnybrook, part of which is now a stroke recovery unit, where he spent “the guts of nine months”.
“I was very well looked after and the recovery started there,” he said.
Nevertheless, he was delighted to leave hospital and get back to the family home outside Tullamore, Co Offaly, which had to be modified to his new circumstances.
“We did a bit of rearranging – we had to change the ground floor for accessibility and whatever. But I was glad to get home,” he recalled.
He turned philosophical as he spoke of how, at 62, life seems to be speeding up rather than slowing down.
“It’s gas how the time flies. It really does. Unfortunately, the older I get, the quicker it goes – I thought the thing would slow down and we would enjoy this retirement. But, anyway,” he said.
He has enjoyed a few big days out thanks to Offaly football, with the under-20s winning the All-Ireland last year, their first title since 1998. “We had that much enjoyment out of it,” he said.
He also enjoys going to the local park where he meets up with people that he “played football with years ago”.
“I’m enjoying life. Everything is good – there’s no reason to think otherwise. The family are good and the kids are all finished college and are working away so they’re happy. Everything is well on that side.”
His father, Ber, died at the age of 52 in 1984, a tragedy that led to Mr Cowen beginning his 27-year stint in the Dáil.
The loss of his mother, May, during Covid came as a blow to the family, but he was conscious that “everyone had their problems” during that period.
“We came through it. And everyone does. And life goes on and, thankfully, we’re able to enjoy life and for me I’ve learned a lot. When you have a period of sickness or whatever, hospitalisation, you’re grateful for small mercies. I’m glad I’m in good shape,” he said, adding that illness “changes you”.
Asked about his legacy, Mr Cowen replied: “Legacy? No, no, no. I still think I’m too young to be thinking about legacy.”
He has not left the country since his illness, but does hope to holiday “down west” at some stage this summer.
“I won’t be doing anything too wild. I haven’t gone anywhere foreign for a few years because of this. But I haven’t missed it. I was never a great man for that. I’d rather have a few days on a number of occasions during the year rather than two weeks somewhere.”
With much of his focus remaining on his ongoing rehabilitation, he is also “keeping his hand in” with positions on a number of boards, including the Simon Community, based in Athlone, Co Westmeath, as well as the Offaly Centre for Independent Living, which provides personal assistance for people with a physical or sensory disability.
“They were giving us a bit of a help out when I came home and then they asked me to come on the board, so I said I would,” he said.
He also pays close attention to events in his home county – and believes the “Just Transition” to change the activities of bogland is needed to secure the future of that environment.
Attending the Fleadh later with former TD and senator Donie Cassidy, Mr Cowen was in ebullient form.
Culture Minister Catherine Martin was presented with a plaque for her service to Comhaltas, while the former Taoiseach received the new Gradam na hÉigse award, honouring those who have made a particular contribution, from Comhaltas president Éamonn Ó hArgáin.
“I’d like to thank everyone involved in giving me this award – whether it was deserved or not, that remains to be seen, but it’s done now a nd I’m not giving it back,” Mr Cowen joked.
Mr Ó Hargáin describing him as “an anchor person” for Comhaltas, adding: “Having Brian back with us, and we know the challenges he has had, is just wonderful.”