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Drinking and bawdy jokes brought him popularity -- then his downfall

Brian Cowen has always insisted that hanging around bars is good for you.

"I was reared in a pub," he told Hot Press back in 2007.

"As a young fellow serving in the pub, I learnt far more there about human nature than I learnt in any university or school. I think it gave me a great insight into people."

Unfortunately, Cowen spent most of his three years as Taoiseach brooding in the last chance saloon.

Ever since the voters called closing time in February, his former colleagues have been dropping hints about just how dysfunctional his leadership really was.

Bit by bit, the truth is coming out -- and it reveals a man who never should have been allowed within a mile of the country's most important political office.

The latest revelations about Biffo come from the second part of TV3's documentary series on Fianna Fail, to be broadcast on Monday night.

Former junior minister John McGuinness claims that Cowen spent far too much time listening to his drinking buddies, some of them old friends of his father, whose premature death had launched Brian's career. Ex-chief whip Tom Kitt confirms that the 'bar lobby' was seen as an exclusive group who believed they ran FF and alienated the rest of the parliamentary party in the process.

Rumours about Cowen's drinking have followed him around for decades. He once recalled that, as a student in UCD, he would often drop into the Dail and ask his TD father for a few quid.

Liquid lunches

"The food in the flat wouldn't have been great," he explained. "One had other uses for disposable income at that time -- more liquid lunches than anything else."

His drinking reportedly increased during the 1990s when he was depressed by FF's temporary loss of power.

Inevitably, his dishevelled appearance and grumpy demeanour fuelled speculation that he was spending more time in the Dail bar than was good for him.

Despite this, he also became one of the most popular TDs around -- partly because of his reputation as a man who always stood his round and had an endless supply of bawdy jokes.

On the same day Cowen was elected Taoiseach in 2008, RTE's Sean O'Rourke asked him delicately if he intended to "change his lifestyle".

The new leader admitted that there were "a few things I have to reshape" but also insisted that rumours of his alcoholic intake were totally exaggerated.

As Cowen should have realised, however, those rumours just wouldn't go away. He was happy to be photographed sinking pints of Guinness during his triumphant homecoming to Offaly. Shortly afterwards, it was claimed that he had designated Wednesday evenings as "drinking nights" because he didn't have to go into the Dail on Thursdays.

Almost exactly a year ago, Cowen finally gave the rumour-mongers all the evidence they needed.

On a Morning Ireland interview at FF's annual think-in, he sounded so tired and hoarse that people wondered if he had actually been to bed yet.

The truth quickly emerged -- the Taoiseach had been knocking back pints, doing Micheal O Muircheartaigh impressions and belting out Paul Brady songs just five hours before he was due to address half a million people on the country's most listened-to radio programme.

At best, Cowen's behaviour was totally unprofessional.

At worst, it suggested a contempt for the public that they quickly returned with interest. For his ministerial colleagues, the whole experience was completely mortifying.

As FF's hangover continues, the party is full of sore heads looking around for someone to blame. Not surprisingly, Cowen is top of their list. After all, a top academic recently claimed that he and Bertie Ahern wrecked the economy "like intoxicated joyriders".

It would be nice to hear Cowen's side of the story, but for now he seems to have vanished.

Until then, his enemies will continue to twist the knife -- cementing the reputation of a man who must wish he'd had enough sense to leave the party early.