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Monday 18 March 2019

Pride in heart of Cowen country

But the tens of thousands expected on the Offaly streets for a local lad made good didn't show, writes Jody Corcoran

Jody Corcoran

Jody Corcoran

Tullamore was quiet on Friday evening. We arrived at 9pm and headed for Clara, the Taoiseach's home, the last town in the county before you hit Westmeath.

It has not changed much from the town I knew: there is a new housing development on the left as you enter from Tullamore, but it is more or less the same place.

You swing right over the bridge and you are brought back in time; for me the memory is of playing tin whistle in the Fleadh Ceol 25 years ago.

I remember, too, the football field, opposite the swimming pool, where invariably we lost, especially if we faced Clara, who seemed to intimidate us at the time. They were regarded as the flash club of Offaly, with their white jerseys with black cuffs, and dashing left-footed players, always looking for the ball. That was at underage level, of course.

The town had a fresh feel on Friday, a sense of anticipation. Everybody, from the local taxi firm, to the biggest business in town, to ordinary families, seemed to have made an effort. I was reminded of the time my brother was ordained to the priesthood. People seemed in good mood; a celebration, any sort of celebration, enough to cheer them up, before they return to the routine of their lives.

Immediately, of course, we headed for Brian Cowen's home, the family pub run by his brother, Christy. It is located on River Street, on the right, the family home, a two-storey 1970s building, is attached. It is comfortable, but seems relatively modest for a man I have deemed elitist, a privileged politician. Perhaps I have got him wrong, but I doubt it. He wears his privilege lightly though. His mother, Mae, still lives here.

Inside the pub were just four people, two couples, and us. A funeral crowd had just left, we were told. On the walls was the paraphernalia of Brian Cowen's upbringing. An old car registration sign hung on the wall, BIR, a play on the patriarch. IR, you should know, denoted Offaly before OY. A formal looking portrait of Ber, Brian's father, hung shoulder high at the exit door.

The pub itself is dated, but comfortable. Inevitably, there are photographs of the successful All-Ireland teams from Offaly; on another wall is an election photograph of Jack Lynch, declaring "Progress with Stability".

Back in Tullamore, the town went about its business on Friday quieter than I had expected. As a local man said, they were saving themselves for the following night.

The local pubs, nearly all of them, had signs welcoming or congratulating or in some way lauding the new Taoiseach. I went to Eugene Kelly's, my local, at the Kilbeggan bridge, where I met a few mates who had just finished their five-a-side game. Eugene had flags a plenty, but did not have such a sign up, though that should not indicate anything other than he did not feel the need to shout his admiration for the local lad made good; Cowen is a regular here after football matches in nearby O'Connor Park. The lads told me that though there was a sense pride, certainly -- great pride, indeed -- there was also a feeling that a few people may be losing the run of themselves.

Comparing Cowen's elevation to an All-Ireland win, one of them said, was a bit mad.

"It's good, but it's not that good," is the general consensus. "At least it gives us something to shout about," another told me. A few local businesses and pubs are also thought to have jumped on the bandwagon, attaching themselves to Cowen this weekend. Several pubs ran buses to and from Clara last night, hoping to hold onto their customers.

Cowen has many locals, of course, but if you are looking for him on a quiet, wet evening, the place to go is Hugh Lynch's on Kilbride Street -- a Tudor building, discreet and, well, perfect: Fianna Fail to the hilt, of course.

Hugh Lynch's does not have glaring messages to Brian Cowen either. Rather, from its top floor windows fly three new tricolours; behind the bar are Che Cowen T-shirts which everybody is selling for €10 in aid of St Vincent de Paul.

In the morning we dropped around to have a look at Brian Cowen's house, in Ballard, on the road to Birr. His wife Mary was outside, a request for an early morning photograph of Mr Cowen politely turned down. We were also informed that he did not take kindly to his home being photographed, but, well, the people like to know where their Taoiseach lives. We can see him inside on the telephone. Three hours later his State car would take him to Edenderry, on the border with Kildare, where the homecoming celebrations would kick off in earnest.

We set off early, passing through my home town of Daingean, where they were getting around to hanging bunting. The FF national organisation had put up a few signs welcoming the new Taoiseach. I decide not to drop home for a cup of tea, instead heading on to Edenderry, to get there before the crowds. We need not have worried. The local organisers were expecting up to 20,000 people between Tullamore and Clara.

In Edenderry, at midday, about 300 people showed up, the lower-than-expected turnout perhaps because there was a Confirmation ceremony in the town yesterday.

An hour earlier, it seemed as if they would be lucky to get that number. It was not until the PA system cranked up that people began to gather.

When he arrived on schedule, the Taoiseach looked relaxed and comfortable; he looked well, like a man who has been off the beer for a few weeks.

Immediately the cameras surrounded him, microphones in his face. He took it in his stride, easing into the eloquent rhetoric with which we will become familiar. His sentences are rounded, completed. He uses, as they say, big words, but in the right place. It is easy to be almost hypnotised by him, his cadences, his tone. Sometimes you find yourself not listening to what he is saying.

It is his weekend, certainly, and he seems to be enjoying the moment. But already, around the country, there is an air of weariness with celebration; the long farewell to Bertie, this coronation of Cowen. Patriotic rhetoric won't cut any ice when people lose their jobs, perhaps even their homes. He has to cut taxes and spending. Whatever about spending, it seems taxes will remain where they are, though, or perhaps even increased.

But it seems this is not on Brian Cowen's mind, as he mingles easily with his public, recognising most of those present, young and old. The words come easily to him, the warmth from and for him is genuine. Mainly, it is local Fianna Fail activists to whom he is warmest.

We move off, back through Daingean, where I recognise many of the people waiting, outside the local hotel and further down the street, in the square. I expect the Taoiseach will give them a wave when he passes through, though I would not be surprised if he stopped. Daingean is Fianna Fail country. Back in Tullamore, a man in a van is working up a crowd; your Taoiseach is coming, he tells them. He will be here soon. As it turned out, he didn't need to whip them up. There were, perhaps, 5,000 waiting throughout the town when Cowen eventually arrived, smaller than expected, but still significant.

They put him on the back of a pick-up with his wife and daughters, flanked by a few TDs and senators, led by the county's councillors and behind the town band they set off up Harbour Street, William Street and towards O'Connor Square, where the full size of the crowd became apparent.

The Taoiseach and his family seemed genuinely moved by the warm welcome he received, even if it was anticipated. His daughters looked a little bemused. Brian seemed just a little embarrassed. They recognised many of those lining the streets, seemingly having a word for all, pointing, in the manner of a showband performer, towards people out of reach. "Good to see you here, Jody," he said to me as he disembarked and headed towards the stage. It was good to see him too, I said. And it was. Good to see him ready, willing to embrace the enormous challenge ahead.

Brian Cowen is unlike any other politician in that he does not come visibly prepared. He is probably the finest public speaker we have, not just in politics. He, as his handlers say, "speaks from the heart".

There were no scripts; a slow build-up, rhyming rhetoric, wave after wave of perfectly pitched words; a vision outlined -- articulate, inspiring, yes, certainly -- but for all that, just words. They don't mean anything, other than what they say.

"Temporary adjustments" he spoke of when referring to the economy, appealing to the people over the "commentariat". If these temporary adjustments come with pain attached, the Taoiseach will find his eloquent words are just that. But today, this weekend, he is allowed the fine words. It would be churlish to deny him this moment. Soon the celebrations will be over. Tomorrow, the work begins.

When he finished speaking, he sang, like Frank Sinatra, of how he had done it his way; the Offaly Rover also got a blast. The crowd loved it. Cowen moved on to a civic reception, and then Clara.

He arrived in Clara at around six, behind a pipe band, just an hour behind schedule. Quickly -- the event was well organised -- they got to the Fairgreen.

The evening was overcast, but warm. His children looked tired, but Cowen was still showing impressive energy.

He mounted another trailer, looking every inch a politician of the old school. He was among his own, but he could be anywhere. He looked comfortable, eager, hungry to get on with it -- not just the evening's events, but, it seemed, with running the country, with implementing his ideas.

There were a few warm-up acts, and, finally, he took the microphone for another barnstorming performance, full of the themes we will become used to -- a sense of community, of spirit: "It's not about how much is in your pocket, but how much is in your heart," he declared forcefully, fist clenched.

Bullshit, perhaps, but sweet smelling for all that.

At times, it seemed as if he was tilting at windmills, windmills of the 1980s, calling on people to have confidence, self-belief. He said it as if people didn't have it already. But they do.

Sometimes he comes across as a politician of another era -- of somebody 10, maybe 20 years after his time. But then, just as easily, he slips into political speak, with modern, fresh, new ideas tumbling from his lips, things we have not heard before, or have not heard expressed like this.

I have never known Brian Cowen, because I did not know he could perform like this. He was not as eloquent as earlier in the day in Tullamore. But he benefited from that. He can be mesmerising.

He is looking back to move forward, intent on bringing everybody with him. He speaks of a narrative with the people, a conversation with the country. Cowen is, in fact, the essence of Fianna Fail, the embodiment of it -- and therefore, potentially, of the country. He is a potent force indeed.

Before we had Bertie, with his own particular skills -- this weekend, though, Cowen became his own man, a leader with his own sense of destiny.

If he can reach out like this to the country, as he did to the people of Offaly on his return, without platitudes, then we may eventually speak of Cowenism, of a man with a policy and a vision which can be shared. It is heady stuff indeed.

Or maybe it is that I have been swept away in the moment. If I have, I make no apologies.

The next 18 months will be difficult, and it will test Brian Cowen to his limit. Somehow, strangely, in a green field in a pretty village in the heartland of Ireland, on the soil of my own place, I was left with a feeling that he might be special, that he might be great.

Either that, or he will burn in a pyre of his own rhetoric. The next few years will be fun -- if fun is the word -- to witness, to chronicle. Here's wishing him well.

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