‘I was unconscious for two weeks, it wasn’t looking good, but I came out of it’ – former Taoiseach Brian Cowen

Brian Cowen didn’t mince words when it came to opening up about his recent illness and ongoing rehabilitation.

I’ve been away for a few weeks. I was unconscious. It didn’t look good,” he said with the singular directness of speech that was his calling card as Taoiseach.

Stepping onto the national stage, he never feared a political struggle — but the personal struggle that befell him three years ago was on another level.

In his first interview since that battle for life, the former Taoiseach said so Irish Independent His road to recovery has been slow, but he’s regaining some normality now.

Mr Cowen, 62, spent 12 months in hospital – including three months at St Vincent in Dublin, followed by nine months of rehabilitation at the Royal Hospital’s stroke unit in Donnybrook.

Initially confined to a wheelchair, he now walks with the help of a crutch and is determined to regain full mobility.

“The way it works is that you really do get most of your recovery in the first six or 12 months, and after that it’s about constant rehabilitation to get that 25 percent that you’re missing,” he said.

“I’m still at it. I’m doing physical rehabilitation – it’s all done at home. I also do the local pool three days a week because the buoyancy in the water helps.

“Walking is good, but if I walk a distance or go to a game, I bring the chair with me.”

Heritage? No no no. I still think I’m too young to think about the legacy

As finance minister he oversaw a €20 million capital grant over a number of years which has done much to secure the future of Comhaltas Ceoltóirí Éireann, the traditional music organisation, and to promote music to generations to come.

Yesterday he made a rare public appearance at Fleadh Cheoil na hÉireann in Mullingar, Co. Westmeath where he was honored for his longstanding support of Comhaltas. As he sat on the steps of Christ the King’s Cathedral, smiling and tapping to the rhythm, it was clear he had come a long way since July 2019, when he suffered his health setback.

Before that he sat down with him Irish Independent for an exclusive interview in which he reveals what has happened in the last three years.

Mr Cowen says it’s “amazing luck” that the hemorrhage in his brain happened while he was undergoing a procedure at Dublin’s Beacon Hospital that was so minor he can’t even remember what it was for.

“It wasn’t anything serious anyway,” he said.

Earlier that day he was at an Oireachtas Golf Society event in Lahinch.

He was already under anesthesia when the bleeding started, he said, so he can’t remember anything, and was immediately referred to St Vincent’s, which specializes in treating cerebral hemorrhage.

“I’ve been away for a few weeks. I was unconscious. It didn’t look good,” he said. “But whatever happened, I got out.”

He said he doesn’t remember much from that time. “It was very hazy. When you come out of unconsciousness you don’t say “Here I’m back”, it’s the people around you telling you “You’re back”.

“You don’t know about it yourself because you’re not on the program.”

His family was devastated by the turn of events. “It was a big shock for everyone,” he said.

After his condition improved, Mr Cowen was taken to the Royal Hospital in Donnybrook, part of which is now a stroke rehabilitation unit, where he spent “the guts of nine months”.

“I was looked after very well and the recovery started there,” he said.

Nonetheless, he was pleased to leave the hospital and return to the family home outside of Tullamore, Co. Offaly, which had to be adapted to his new circumstances.

“We rearranged a bit – we had to change the ground floor for accessibility and whatever. But I was happy to come home,” he recalls.

He got philosophical talking about how life at 62 seems to be speeding up rather than slowing down.

“It’s gas how time flies. really does. Unfortunately, the older I get, the faster it goes – I thought things would slow down and we’d enjoy this retirement. But still,” he said.

He’s had a great few days out thanks to Offaly football, with the Under-20-year-old winning the All-Ireland last year, her first title since 1998. “We had so much fun doing it,” he said.

He also enjoys going to the local park, where he meets people he “played football with years ago.”

“I enjoy life. Everything is fine – there is no reason to think otherwise. The family is good and the kids are all out of college and working away so they are happy. Everything is fine on this side.”

His father, Ber, died in 1984 aged 52, a tragedy that led to Mr Cowen beginning his 27-year tenure at the Dáil.

The loss of his mother May during Covid was a blow to the family, but he was aware that “everyone had their issues” during that time.

“We got through it. And everyone does. And life goes on and luckily we can enjoy life and for me I’ve learned a lot. When you have a phase of illness or whatever, hospitalization, you are grateful for small graces. I’m glad I’m in good shape,” he said, adding that illness “changes you.”

When asked about his legacy, Mr Cowen replied: “Legacy? No no no. I still think I’m too young to think about a legacy.”

He hasn’t left the country since falling ill, but hopes to holiday ‘down west’ sometime this summer.

“I will not do anything too wild. I haven’t gone abroad for a few years because of this. But I didn’t miss it. I was never a big man for that. I’d rather have a few days several times a year than two weeks somewhere.”

Whilst primarily focusing on his ongoing rehabilitation he also holds his hand in positions on a number of bodies including the Simon Community based in Athlone, Co Westmeath as well as the Offaly Center for Independent Living. that provides personal assistance to people with a physical or sensory disability.

“They helped us out a bit when I got home and then they asked me to come on the board, so I said I would,” he said.

He is also keeping a close eye on events in his home country – and believes that the ‘just transition’ of changing Moorland’s activities is necessary to secure the future of this area.

When Mr. Cowen later attended the Fleadh with former TD and Senator Donie Cassidy, he was in effervescent form.

Culture Minister Catherine Martin was presented with a plaque for her services to Comhaltas, while the former Taoiseach received the new Gradam na hÉigse award from Comhaltas President Éamonn Ó hArgáin, honoring those who have made a special contribution.

“I’d like to thank everyone who was involved in giving me this award – whether it was deserved or not remains to be seen, but it’s done now and I’m not returning it,” joked Mr Cowen.

Mr Ó Hargáin described him as “an anchor person” for Comhaltas, adding: “To have Brian back with us and we know the challenges he’s had is just wonderful.” ‘I was unconscious for two weeks, it wasn’t looking good, but I came out of it’ – former Taoiseach Brian Cowen

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