Brian Cowan didn’t mince words when it came to discussing his recent illness and ongoing rehab.
I was gone for a couple of weeks. I was unconscious. It didn’t look good,” he said with the unusual directness of speech that was his hallmark as Taoiseach.
When he was on the national stage, he was never afraid of political struggle, but the personal struggle that struck him three years ago was on a different level.
In his first interview since that battle for life, the former Taoiseach said Irish independent his road to recovery has been slow, but he is now back to normal.
Mr Cowan (62) spent 12 months in the hospital, including three months at St Vincent’s Hospital in Dublin followed by nine months of rehabilitation at the stroke unit at the Royal Hospital in Donnybrook.
Initially confined to a wheelchair, he now walks with the help of a crutch and is determined to regain his full mobility.
“The way it works is that the first six or 12 months you really do make the most of your recovery, and after that you have to constantly recover to get the 25% that you are missing,” he said.
“I’m still in it. I do physical rehabilitation – it’s all done at home. I also work out at the local pool three days a week because my buoyancy in the water helps.
“Walking is fine, but if I’m walking a distance or a match, I take a chair with me.”
Heritage? No no no. I still think that I’m too young to think about legacy
As Minister of Finance, he oversaw a €20 million capital grant for several years, which did much to secure the future of the Comhaltas Ceoltóirí Éireann, a traditional music organization, and contributed to the popularization of music among future generations.
He made a rare public appearance yesterday at Fleadh Cheoil na hÉireann in Mullingar, County Westmeath, where he was honored for his many years of support for Comhaltas. As he sat on the steps of the Cathedral of Christ the King, smiling and tapping to the beat, it was clear he had come a long way since July 2019, when his health faltered.
He first sat down with Irish independent for an exclusive interview in which he reveals what has happened over the past three years.
Mr Cowan considers it “amazing luck” that he had a brain hemorrhage while he was at Beacon Hospital in Dublin undergoing a procedure so minor he couldn’t even remember what it was for.
“Nothing serious, anyway,” he said.
Earlier in the day, he was at an Oireachtas golf society event in Lahinch.
According to him, he was already under anesthesia when the bleeding occurred, and therefore does not remember anything about it, and he was immediately sent to St. Vincent’s Hospital, which specializes in the treatment of cerebral hemorrhages.
“I was gone for a couple of weeks. I was unconscious. It didn’t look good,” he said. “But whatever happened, I got out of it again.”
He said he didn’t remember much about that time. “It was very foggy. When you come out of unconsciousness, you don’t say, “Here, I’m back,” it’s the people around you who tell you, “You’re back.”
“You don’t know anything about it yourself because you’re not in the program.”
His family was very upset by this turn of events. “It was a big shock for everyone,” he said.
After his condition improved, Mr Cowan was taken to the Royal Hospital in Donnybrook, part of which is now a stroke rehabilitation unit, where he spent “nine months”.
“I was very well taken care of and recovery started there,” he said.
However, he was happy to leave the hospital and return to the family home near Tullamore, County Offaly, which had to be refurbished to suit his new circumstances.
“We did a little redevelopment – we had to change the first floor for accessibility and other things. But I was glad to be back home,” he recalled.
He began to philosophize, saying that at 62, life seems to be speeding up rather than slowing down.
“It’s gas, how time flies. It really is. Unfortunately, the older I get, the faster this happens – I thought it would slow down and we would enjoy this retirement. But still, he said.
He had some big days thanks to Offaly football when the under-20s won the All-Ireland last year, their first title since 1998. “We enjoyed it immensely,” he said.
He also enjoys going to the local park where he meets people he “played football with years ago”.
“Enjoying life. Everything is good – no reason to think otherwise. The family is good, the children graduated from college and are working, so they are happy. Everything is fine on that side.”
His father, Behr, died at the age of 52 in 1984, and this tragedy led Mr. Cowan to begin his 27-year career with the Dáil.
The loss of his mother May during Covid was a blow to the family, but he was aware that “everyone had their problems” during that period.
“We got through it. And everyone does it. And life goes on and luckily we can enjoy life and I have learned a lot. When you’re in a period of sickness or something like that, hospitalization, you’re thankful for little favors. I’m glad I’m in good shape,” he said, adding that the illness “changes you.”
Asked about his legacy, Mr Cowan replied: “Legacy? No no no. I still think I’m too young to think about legacy.”
He has not left the country since his illness, but hopes to take a holiday “in the west” this summer.
“I won’t do anything too wild. Because of this, I have not traveled anywhere for several years. But I didn’t miss it. I have never been a great person for this. I’d rather have a few days a few times a year than two weeks somewhere.”
With most of his attention still focused on his ongoing rehabilitation, he also has his finger on the pulse with positions on a number of boards including the Simon Community based in Athlone, County Westmeath as well as the Offaly Independent Living Center. which provides personal assistance to people with physical or sensory disabilities.
“They helped us a bit when I got home and then asked me to come on the board, so I said I would,” he said.
He also pays close attention to developments in his home county and believes that a Just Transition aimed at changing the activities of the swamps is necessary to ensure the future of this environment.
Visiting Fleed later with former TD and Senator Dawny Cassidy, Mr. Cowan was in ebullient form.
Culture Minister Katherine Martin was presented with a plaque for her services to Comhaltas, and the former Taoiseach received a new Gradam na hÉigse award, given to those who have made a special contribution, from Comhaltas president Eamonn O Hargain.
“I’d like to thank everyone involved in giving me this award – whether it was deserved or not is yet to be seen, but it’s done now and I’m not returning it,” Mr. Cowan joked.
Mr. O Hargain describes him as “a leading man” for Comhaltas, adding: “It’s great to have Brian back with us and we’re aware of the challenges he’s faced.”