Thursday 22 August 2019

Spot the next Taoiseach

Gemma O'Doherty

As a schoolboy, Brian Cowen vowed that he would never become a politician. The son of a TD, he watched the profession consume his father Ber's life and was determined not to follow in his footsteps.

But at the age of 12, within weeks of entering the cloistered walls of Tipperary's Mount St Joseph Abbey as a boarder, the mould was cast for the making of a man who would one day hold the highest office in the land.

A breeding ground for young politicians, the Trappist monastery run by the Cistercians in Roscrea has produced a disproportionate number of statesmen through the years, including three consecutive Ministers for Foreign Affairs: Dick Spring, David Andrews and Brian Cowen. The Taoiseach-elect also shared a classroom with Fianna Fail MEP Eoin Ryan.

It was there during the early Seventies, a long-haired, short-tempered young student started to emerge as a force to be reckoned with, particularly during school debates.

"Brian was such a gifted public speaker at school be it in English or Irish," recalls Fr Kevin Daly, the monastery's Abbot who was Dean during the politician's school years.

"He was Captain of the debating team and could whip out a killer line to demolish his opponent just at the exact moment it was needed.

"I remember one particular night we had more or less a trial by jury of the Government of the day. Brian excelled that night but the poor chairman was frightened that things were getting so hot, he thought he would have to call security. He had a terrible time trying to call order.

"Brian always had his facts ready but he spoke from the heart. Usually one of the team would be the researcher, but he always went off and did his own research."

Former teachers remember a "skinny boy" with a "razor sharp intellect" and an "extraordinary power of mimicry."

"He could take off all the staff," says Fr Daly, "but never in front of them or in a way that was hurtful. But he was by far the best mimic in the school.

"Boys here have always been allowed that freedom to be themselves. They are given the space to do that."

Although the leader of Fianna Fail may not have had ambitions of high office as a boy, every day on his way to morning prayer he passed the words of the school motto on the wall: "Insideat coelis animo sed corpore terries" which may have had some influence on his character.

"Translated loosely, it means while our minds soar to the heavens, we keep our feet firmly planted on the ground," says Dean of Students, Seamus Hennessy. "It's the first thing that greets students every morning. If you reflect back on past political students like Dick Spring, David Andrews and Brian Cowen, you get that sense of level-headedness from them. They all had a great sense of humour and a high value system. They were happy young men but they kept their feet on the ground.

"The goal here is the pursuit of excellence; for each boy to be the best he can be, not only to take their place in the Ireland of today but to make a difference and help to transform the country. That has been the philosophy of the school since it was founded in 1905."

As a student, Cowen got involved in every aspect of school life and was a keen sportsman: "a nimble full-back on the senior rugby team and an equally strong wielder of the camán" according to one former teacher.

But the school's contemplative lifestyle may also have rubbed off on the future Taoiseach. His uncle Andrew, a monk and teacher at the Abbey, had an enormous influence on him, and died just days before the announcement was made that Cowen would soon be leader of the State.

As the only Cistercian school run by Trappist monks in the world, where yearly fees cost €10,000, Mount St Joseph is unique.

Its brothers, who require special permission to teach in the school, lead a very simple, strict way of life, rising at 3.45 every morning for the first of seven prayer gatherings each day.

"The presence of the monks has always had a very stabilising influence on the boys," says Hennessy.

"It's a very calm place to be but we also have a coordinated regime 24-7. It's lights out at 10.30 every night in dorms. Even though the boys can hear the first bell of the morning and go straight back to sleep, they are living in a spiritual, contemplative place which helps to form who they are as adults."

But the school that shaped the future Taoiseach also produced a young man with a sense of adventure and a rebellious streak. In an interview with Hot Press, he once spoke of his days studying law in UCD, and admitted smoking the occasional cannabis joint in the college bar.

"There was a couple of occasions where marijuana was passed around and unlike President Clinton, I did inhale," he said, later confessing to getting "more enjoyment out of a few pints".

Cowen has always had a healthy disregard for fashion too, and has no hang-ups about being caught on camera with his shirt tucked out and his collar open. "You have to remember he was part of a very questioning generation in the Sixties and Seventies, who were not prepared to blindly accept what they were told by the adult world," says Fr Daly.

"Even their long hairstyles, as evidenced by the class photos back then, became more challenging to parents and school authorities at the time.

"On the whole we are pretty casual in school on dress. We encourage our boys to get muck on their boots. Brian mightn't be over-conscious of his image but he has the highest respect for the position of Taoiseach and he will be well able to hold his own on the world stage."

'As a boy, he was very principled, and continues to be so today. He doesn't buy into the anything goes philosophy and has always stuck to what he believes in."

This week, it was business as usual at the Abbey, where the school's 300 students from 24 different counties in Ireland are gearing up for their summer exams.

The sound of animated young voices pierced the old school walls as another heated debate got underway. Topics up for discussion this week included "Is the Pope more famous than U2" and "Is it time America had a woman President?"

But on Wednesday, when Bertie Ahern hands over the reins of power to his deputy, the excitement will be even more palpable as pupils gather to watch their predecessor take on the country's top job. And maybe in their midst, another young man from the Tipperary abbey will be inspired to follow in his footsteps in the years to come.

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