The artist talks about the life and times of his ‘always on’ father Robert, who was laid to rest yesterday
Robert Rowen died of Covid at Connolly Hospital, Blanchardstown, just before midnight last Tuesday. Even before he got the virus, the 88-year-old had told his family: “I feel I am ready to go.”
The artist Guggi — the second eldest of Robert and wife Winifred’s 10 children — said: “He died with his Christian faith. It made him the person that he was. The frills and theatrics of religion didn’t interest him. Faith was everything to him. I think all of us would feel the same.
“He had very strong Christian beliefs. He exposed his children to those Christian beliefs in a very diligent way. And I am grateful that he did expose me to those Christian beliefs. My faith is the most important thing to me.”
Every Sunday, Robert would drive his family in a Volkswagen minibus to Christian Brethren meetings in Merrion Hall, now the Davenport Hotel, in Dublin city centre. He wanted his children to get the message from the gospels, the Bible, in its purest form.
“There were no frills. There were no candles. There were no robes worn by the preacher,” Guggi said. “It was Christian faith based on the Bible as they interpreted it. My father and his kids would attend a meeting in the basement of Merrion Hall from 10am to 11.30am.”
Winifred would stay home and cook the dinner for everyone’s return at 1pm. “Sunday dinner was always the best meal of the week.”
Robert would then take them back to Sunday school at Merrion Hall from 3pm to 4pm.
Afterwards, Guggi and some of his brothers would go to Bible study on Middle Abbey Street in the Boys’ Department of the YMCA. They would return to meet their father at Merrion Hall for the 7pm service. There would be a rush to get back to the YMCA for a meeting that was known as “the 8.30pm”, where a lot of hymns were sung.
Robert drove a minibus in which he would collect children from across Dublin who wanted to go to the Christian Brethren meetings on Tuesday evenings, called The Happy Hour. “He would collect loads of children,” Guggi said. “There were no seatbelts in the minibus back then. There were four rows of seats, and he would fit rakes and rakes of kids. He was very much in service. He did that for many, many years.”
Why did he do it?
“He was troubled in some ways. I think his faith was a place of sanctuary and a place of peace. He gave a lot to his children. He was adored and loved by his family and by all the many kids he brought to those meetings.”
On May 17, 1974, Robert was delivering goods to Parnell Street with his son Andy. At 5.28pm the van was rocked by a bomb. “My dad and my brother weren’t physically hurt, but the impact of what they saw had, I feel, a lasting effect on them and on our family.”
Bono, one of Guggi’s lifelong best friends, would later write a song for U2 about it, Raised by Wolves.
Born on July 26, 1933, Robert was brought up in Killester, Cabra and other parts of Dublin.
“He grew up hard, in not very privileged circumstances. He was a tough guy. He boxed for Guinness under-18s in town.”
In 1953, he married Winifred. They had a big family — Clive, Derek (Guggi), Trevor, Andrew, Gwynneth, Fred, Ruth, Jonny, Pete and Miriam — and lived at 5 Cedarwood Road in Finglas.
“They were tough times. He had a lot of mouths to feed.”
In the 1960s, he worked at Ever Ready batteries as a van salesman — he was the company’s number 1 salesman every year. Then he went out on his own and started selling electrical goods and bicycle accessories. In the early 1970s he went to Paris and returned with the agency for Peugeot Cycles in the Republic of Ireland. His passion was anything with wheels or an engine: bicycles, scooters, mopeds and cars.
“When it came time for him to replace his car, he was still so in love with the old one that he just couldn’t let it go. At one point there were 14 cars, some of which were parked in our small driveway, and the rest of them were parked up the street.”
Robert’s love of cars was matched by his love of sales. “He taught us all basic salesmanship. Most of the family worked for him for years. Coming up to Christmas, we would be out selling calendars around the doors. Then in potato season, when the new queens came out from the sandy soil of north Dublin, he would drive down with a huge trailer and load it up with as many potatoes as the car would pull, and we would sell them in streets and housing estates around Dublin.”
He also remembers his father coming home in September in the early 1970s and telling him he had two lovely turkeys for the Christmas dinner.
“We walked out to the van, and the turkeys were alive.”
The turkeys then legged it down Cedarwood Road with Robert and a few of the boys in pursuit.
“We caught them eventually. We kept them as pets until Christmas.”
In 1977, Guggi joined art-punk band the Virgin Prunes with neighbour Fionán Hanvey (who became Gavin Friday), Guggi’s brother Trevor (who became Strongman) and Dik Evans (the brother of U2 guitarist The Edge).
“I think the Virgin Prunes freaked him out. Gav [Friday] would sometimes call for me wearing a dress. He was intrigued by Gav,” Guggi said.
“I have known some unusual people, some of them my friends, and one of them my dad. He was very strong-willed and had a huge impact on all of us. He was ‘on’ the whole time. He was brilliant. If unpredictable.”
In the late 1980s, he was walking up the quays one day. It was lashing rain, so he stood in a doorway to shelter. He heard something going on in the background. He opened the door to see an auction going on.
“He just stood there watching when a house came up for sale in Robertstown. He liked the sound of Robert of Robertstown, so he bid on it until the house was his.”
Two weeks ago, Robert was taken to Connolly Hospital “where he left us, quietly and peacefully”, Guggi said. “My eldest brother Clive was with him when he went. We all got to spend time with him and that was very special. He wasn’t just loved by my brothers and sisters; he was adored.”
Robert Rowen’s funeral service was held yesterday morning at the Baptist Church on Grosvenor Road, Rathmines. He was buried afterwards in Glasnevin Cemetery.