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Declan Lynch: Cowensy -- the last real man


Last Sunday, it escaped the attention of the political reporters that Brian Cowen started his news conference at half-time during the Super Sunday match between Spurs and Man Utd.

Like any busy man these days, he was juggling his priorities, needing to get it done before the Six One News, but keenly aware that his followers would want at least the first half of the match under their belts before resuming the struggle for Fianna Fail.

As he walked onstage moments after they walked off at White Hart Lane, his timing just right for a change, it seemed that he hadn't lost his touch after all. And if any pol corr is scoffing at the notion that the Taoiseach would never allow a mere football match to enter his thoughts at a time like this, they do not know Brian Cowen.

Nor do they understand that his week had the structure, not of a political narrative, but of a heavy night's drinking. It started with the release of tension when he won the vote of confidence -- that lovely first pint hitting the spot, as it were. And it was all bonhomie as he cracked jokes in the Dail -- that point of perfect happiness that we reach with the third or fourth pint.

And it didn't get any better after that. Indeed, it all started to turn a bit ugly, as it always tends to do when you've stayed at the party too long, and you realise the old demons haven't gone away after all. By the end of the week -- or the morning after, as it were -- the sweet release of those early rounds was just a bitter memory, a twisted mirage. Now for the old familiar horrors, the remorse, the explanations, the denials and finally yesterday, the surrender. We've all been there -- well, I've been there, anyway.

So, for a long time, I have tended to view the Taoiseach's movements through this prism of my own experiences with alcohol, a view reinforced by stories that his Wednesday nights used to be ringfenced for drinking, his weekends had a lively social dimension too, and there would always be the odd "think-in" in Galway. From such a commitment, basic patterns start to emerge, even on those dry days, or even weeks, when you're on the fizzy water.

When all the political "issues" have been batted around like ping-pong balls, perhaps this is the true nature of his tragedy, the fact that he is a drinking man, with all that comes with that, at a time when the world does not approve of drinking men any more -- indeed, it takes an increasingly dim view of men, full stop.

The drinking, the smoking, the cursing, the golfing and the backing horses, the ballad-singing and the late-night impersonating of sports commentators, the no-hugging and the no-learning, until a few years ago all of these things would have been regarded as quite normal.

They were just things men did because . . . well, because they were men.

Sean Lemass, for example, was a man. Lemass played golf during the day and played poker long into the night, getting on with the affairs of state in a low-key style, rarely pausing to give a great big hug to some passing member of the general public, or just to empathise. We have almost no image in our minds of Lemass making an emotional speech or getting in touch with his feminine side or doing anything that might remotely be described as holistic.

It comes as no surprise that Brian Cowen has a deep admiration for Lemass.

So they say that Cowensy is pathologically defensive, which indeed he is. This is a common accusation levelled at men in these intolerant times by the stop-relaxing brigade. And yet there is a logical explanation for it, especially if you're Brian Cowen, who could say that it is not unreasonable to be defensive if you are constantly under attack -- is it?

They will further contend that, being a man, he only gets in touch with his feelings when he is being belligerent, at which point no one wants to listen. It is the belligerence of a man who has just ordered a pint, which the landlord hands to him, and then tells him in a brusque manner to finish it up quickly, because it's closing time.

Yes, it is only at the 11th hour that these feelings emerge, or in Cowen's case the 12th hour, or the 13th hour, maybe even on to the 14th, 15th and 16th hours.

So even when he shows his feelings, apparently they are the wrong feelings.

Yet he had his fleeting moment of victory last week. And it was partly due to the nature of his opponent -- is there a more potent figurehead of the stop-relaxing tendency than Micheal Martin, architect of the smoking ban and thus the tormentor of the poor ould fellas, tormentor of all men?

Last September, while poor Cowensy was on the defensive yet again on the morning after that Galway drink-a-thon, I thought I saw Micheal Martin in the background of the TV picture, carrying an apple for his elevenses.

Any drinking man would raise his game if Martin was on the other side, but Cowen in particular was all business last Saturday and on Super Sunday, as if to say, "Look at me, not downing pints at the weekend." He arrived into the early-morning radio studios like a man possessed, as if to say, "Look at me, fresh as a daisy, sober as a judge."

Yes, when a man is up against his natural enemy, when they're about to put him away, he can find hitherto unknown energies within himself.

And he could also argue that the men who used to run this country didn't actually do a bad job, all things considered. Men like Lemass, and all the other poor ould fellas who had no feelings for anything except the game of cards, managed to set up the State and sort-of kept it going for most of the 20th century.

It wasn't until the arrival of the early-morning joggers with their outgoing personalities and their positive attitudes, their blue-sky thinking and their turn-key solutions, their low-hanging fruit and their units of alcohol, that it all went wallop.

And because he couldn't say "enough", they brought old Cowensy down with them, the last man in Ireland, maybe the last man in Europe.

There was a report recently that Cowen is the only Taoiseach who hasn't had an official portrait painted. And this is good, because he belongs, not in some oil painting on a wall of Leinster House, but in the Natural History Museum.

Sunday Independent