Pat Phelan spent the 1990s in an alcoholic haze, for reasons he still doesn't understand. Fortunately his wife Carol never stopped believing in him and 13 years ago he dried out. Barry Egan talks to one of Ireland's top tech entrepreneurs
ALCOHOLISM untreated, John Waters wrote in his 2009 book Lapsed Agnostic, has but two outcomes: "Madness and literal, physical death." Top businessman Pat Phelan had accomplished the first one and was well on his way to the second. He believes the madness finally came to him on New Year's Eve 1999. He woke up on the couch at 4am after drinking a bottle of vodka. He could see the snow falling all around him in the living room of his house in Cork.
The roof hadn't flown off the top of the house. Pat's sanity had flown off instead.
He fell off the sofa and stumbled into the hallway. He looked up the stairs where his wife and two kids were sleeping and he could see the snow hanging down from the ceiling.
He remembers saying to himself: "Is it stalagmites or stalactites?" He recalled vaguely from his schooldays that it was the latter that come down. "Stalactites!" he announced in his drunken stupor, as the snow fell all around him. "I was lucid and I was telling myself: 'It is not really snowing in the house.' My feet made this noise like your feet make when they are walking on snow. It was mad. I said to myself: 'You've got to stop drinking'."
Pat – now an internationally successful Irish tech entrepreneur and CEO of Trustev – believes it was his subconscious telling him: stop or die. "It was also telling me, 'You're after damaging something here'."
I ask him what made him realise that night that he had to stop. How was it different from all the other times when he said he'd stop and didn't?
"I thought I had brain damage," Pat says. "It was quite selfish. I thought: 'You've done it now: your brain is gone.' I'd heard the phrase in AA – a 'wet brain' – and I thought I had a wet brain and I was never going to come back from this. I stopped. I was really sick and I went to the doctor the next day. I thought I had gone mad."
His analysis was not inaccurate. Pat Phelan's mind had clearly cracked, as had his marriage.
His wife, Carol, had left him at it on the couch with the vodka hours earlier and gone to bed – another New Year's Eve destroyed, and presumably she was not looking forward to another year of pain and anguish. She had given him every chance and every warning, and was at a dead end. She was allowing him to stay under the same roof as her only for the sake of the children. She loved Pat Phelan, but he was making it extremely difficult.
I ask Pat what dragged him finally out of the dark abyss he was disappearing into. "Maybe it was the man above who helped me. Maybe someone decided to open the gates of hell and let me out."
What does he think?
"The man above," he answers. "Someone decided to give me a break. My life was insane."
By 1999, Pat had been a drunk for a very long time. To understand just how insane Pat Phelan's life had been, he explains that on the same day in 1993 he got a barring order from his house in Blackrock in Cork and an application form to join the New York Police Department. "You couldn't make it up," he says. "My wife had enough of me."
"I was just being a pain in the hole," he clarifies. "I was never violent. She just had enough. Those were the days when you could just walk into a court house and say: 'Your man's being a prick', and he'd say 'Get him out'."
Carol couldn't cope any more with watching her husband drink himself to death. After the barring order, Pat moved into a bedsit: first in the Old Blackrock Road, and then the Western Road. He spent a year living a grim existence. "I had a black bag and I went to bedsits for nearly a year. My kids were one and 11. I was a raging alcoholic," he says.
He must have been riddled with guilt to be away from his kids like that.
"It was horrific, horrific," he says. "I don't know how I coped with it. But drink was the only thing that took away the guilt."
And how did he feel with a hangover when he woke up?
"You don't because you drink more. You drink immediately. You drink all day long. You keep yourself medicated so you never get the hangover and you never get the guilt."
And when he got home at night on his own to the bedsit, he must have had some dark thoughts in his head?
"Desperate. It is a horrific place to be. You are at the jumping point, but you don't know how to jump off. That was always the problem."
He says he was never suicidal. "No, no, but I always felt bad."
But he chose drink over his wife and young children?
"Yes, absolutely. I think she gave me so many chances and in the end she took me back because I just couldn't look after myself."
Carol thought there was more of a chance of Pat giving up drink if she looked after him, so she took him back in early 1994. "She always loved me. She used to say that she always knew the old Pat was in there," Pat says.
I ask Carol if she ever had doubts that the old Pat was still there.
"I was always 10,000 per cent sure – I always knew the old Pat was in there," she answers. "Just the alcohol had taken him away. When he put down the drink, his drive and determination was to succeed and put things right was frightening ... "
Pat and Carol Carey married in Lough Church in Cork on January 22, 1987. They had met in 1983 at a 21st party in The Windsor Hotel in Cork. Pat, born on May 22, 1965, and from Ballyphehane, says he and Carol started off with everything.
"We were amazing. Our first child arrived nine months and one day after the marriage. We were only kids when we got married, and we had the house and the mortgage and we loved each other. We still do."
He and Carol live in Blackrock in Cork. They have two children – Andrew, 26, and Scott, 19.
When they first married, Pat didn't drink at all. "I had no interest in drink; and she never drank or smoked. She is a teetotaller. I love her so much."
Pat Phelan knows he is lucky not to be six feet under: "I know 100 per cent that I would be dead if I hadn't stopped drinking." He says he didn't feel the drinking came about because he married and had a child so young. "No, I always felt guilty that I couldn't provide more. I couldn't give them the money that had to go on drink."
But he wasn't so guilty that he stopped.
"It took a while. Probably 10 years."
When Carol took him back into the house after a year in the bedsits, Pat didn't drink for about six months. He started drinking again by stealth – vodka into Diet Coke bottles. It was three weeks before Carol noticed again. He wasn't ready to quit. He went to AA. Then he stopped again. Then he started in earnest once more.
Pat has now been sober for 13 years, since the time of the snowing incident. On January 17, 2000, his wife drove him to an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting in Cork. He had been to AA for the first time in 1997, and other times afterwards, without success. "I just wasn't ready. It was kind of a reconnaissance mission. I went and saw what these guys were about and thought: 'These boys are the God Squad.' It was not for me. And when I went back, further down the line and the same guys were there, still smiling." Pat went again that January in 2000 (and has been going ever since; he is in New York next week for business and has arranged to go to a meeting when he is there.)
Pat says now that he couldn't have done it without AA. He had to get help, he says. "That last year I was drinking against my will. That means I really didn't want to drink, but I had to. You know when you see people who give up heroin and then they fall back into it and everything is destroyed? Nobody wants to do that to themselves. It is the exact same with alcohol. That last 12 months I can guarantee you I did not want to drink. There was no fun. I knew I was hurting people and there was so much sorrow around me," he says.
"It wasn't normal drinking, drinking a bottle of vodka. It's an addiction. I wasn't drinking a bottle of vodka because I wanted to. If a guy has cancer it is not because he wants to have cancer; and I believe alcoholism and addiction is in the exact same category."
When he finally stopped drinking for good, Pat Phelan suddenly "had all these feelings. Suddenly, I wasn't waking up drunk on the couch any more after drinking a bottle of vodka. I could have proper conversations with my kids. I was bursting into tears. I had to rebuild my relationship with my wife and children.
"And after I got sober, quite quickly what happened was I started to make money," he says. (Pat has won various innovation awards – the 2008 IIA & Enterprise Ireland Net Visionary Award, Ireland's most beautiful website from The Irish Web awards and 2007 Emerging company of the year from IT@Cork among many others.)
"For the couple of years, I started to buy loads of stuff for the kids to make up. We have a great relationship now."
Pat Phelan is now one of the most esteemed Irish entrepreneurs globally. He and his wife travel abroad regularly and have a wonderful, loving life together.
It is hard to believe that not that long ago he was virtually one step away from living rough in Cork. He says living in the bedsits wasn't that far from living on the street. "I mean, you are living in a bedsit and you are pissing in the sink. There was no toilet."
I ask him what he thought about when he was drunk in the bedsit.
"I thought about myself. I was selfish. You don't think about anybody but yourself. I was sitting in the bedsit drinking vodka.
"I didn't want to be the prick I was, but I didn't know how to stop. I couldn't hardly afford to go to the pub. I was doing chef work, odd jobs, anything I could get, filling petrol. I was resourceful..."
He had always been resourceful. From 12 to 15, he worked in the English Market in Cork, "scrubbing the butcher's block and cleaning the shop". He got a full apprenticeship when he was 15, but when the work dried up, he went and worked in his late teens at his father's pub, The Harp in Ballyphehane. But it wasn't because of working in a pub that he drank – he barely drank at all until he was 22.
He says he can't explain where his alcoholism came from. "I just got a taste for it," he says sipping tea in the Shelbourne hotel in Dublin. "The problem with it is that it is insidious. You don't see it creeping up. I had read somewhere that you can't smell vodka. So I started drinking vodka. That's all I ever drank. Just double vodkas and coke.
"You never get to figure out what caused it. Maybe it was always there. Because I know in school I was shy and introverted and I always felt out of place. And the drinking at the start made me feel less out of place."
Pat Phelan has finally found his place in the world, albeit it took a while and was quite a bumpy journey to a sort of sober salvation; even when he got there, it was a struggle dealing with people's view of him. "After getting sober," he remembers, "there were a lot of doors closed to me. I had burned many, many bridges in the city. I was told 'No' many times. I just wouldn't accept it and still don't. You find a few people who carry you when you can't carry yourself and just get going. I just got going. I still hate the word 'No'.
"Everything can be done," he adds, "it's just finding the right way."
You can say that again. Ever since he started going to AA 13 years ago and hit the drink on the head, Pat Phelan has certainly found the right way. Something of a visionary, the bottle-of-vodka-a-day lost soul has gone from working in a petrol station and part-time in bars to opening a hospitality recruitment company. It staffed restaurants all over Ireland with people mostly from Asia, Bangladesh, Pakistan and India. "They all wanted email, so I opened an internet cafe in Cork called Talkworld," he says.
He soon opened two more and then turned it into a group called Fonehome. Before long, he had opened a prepaid phone card company with operations in five countries. Pat sold everything in 2007 and started roam4free to bring about the end of roaming. He raised €1.5m from a third party. "I changed holding company and then changed the name to Cubic Telecom and raised further funds," he says of the company he set up in October 2005 "to provide innovative and cost-effective services to the rapidly growing global market for mobile communications on the move."
He also founded Twitterfone Inc in 2008. "I was one of the first Irish users of Twitter," says Phelan. "I created a new brand named Maxroam as a global retail brand of Cubic." Then last December, he sold Cubic to other shareholders.
In December of 2012, after two years of prep work completed by his partner Chris Kennedy – Pat's first hire at roam4free – he co-founded Trustev with Chris: it "puts the who and not just the how back into the online payment equation through real-time, online identity verification ... " he explains.
Asked where his business brain come from, Pat says: "That part is a mystery, but all throughout these businesses, my wife has been by my side and with total faith. We are ordinary people. We live in an ordinary house and have no huge requirements. This, I think, is the key: when you have had nothing, having something is a huge bonus."
So is he a millionaire by now?
"Absolutely not," he laughs, "my holdings in Trustev will be worth many millions, but to get Trustev started has taken an incredible amount of funds. We have 10 world-class engineers here alone and we are pre-revenue. We haven't raised substantial sums yet and are building value in a global business; this is the big one. I have risked everything a number of times and this is the biggest risk of all.
"If all comes to all," he chortles, "I'm sure people need chefs ... "