'The Lakes of Ponchartrain' is a haunting ballad replete with themes of displacement and unrequited love. When Brian Cowen rose to belt out a few bars of it sometime before 3am last Tuesday, he may have thought it an appropriate swansong.
"Whisht up," he is reported to have told the gathering of politicians and media personnel. "This is a classic." And off he went, lamenting the plight of the kind stranger and the Creole girl, as the clock ticked ominously towards a scheduled interview before 450,000 citizens, who are fretting about the future.
There are varying reports of how much the Taoiseach drank at the Fianna Fáil think-in on Monday night/Tuesday morning at the Ardilaun Hotel in Galway. Some say he was nursing slow pints. Others suggest he put away at least a gallon on top of a few glasses of wine. There are reports that he smoked a number of cigarettes. Between the booze, the fags and the renditions of the 'Lakes' as well as impersonations of Mícheál Ó Muircheartaigh and Philip Walton, his vocal chords took a bit of a hammering. No big deal on a standard night out, as long as you don't have to address a fretful nation the morning after.
By all accounts, he was a star turn during the evening's revelry. Seán Lemass, cited by Cowen as his political hero, gave up his beloved passion of attending race meetings when he was elected Taoiseach. He thought the public expression of the office demanded no less. Cowen, a highly regarded mimic, is not burdened by such lofty notions.
Cathal Mac Coille introduced the Taoiseach at 8.45am, thanking him for doing the interview before he even had breakfast. Out across the state, breakfast was already a fading memory for those of us who still have jobs.
Immediately, it was apparent that Cowen was not in the best of nick. His voice carried the night before. In different circumstances, it would have been perfectly believable that his ailment was not self-inflicted. But this was the morning after at a party think-in. A few years ago, when Fianna Fáil was blowing the arse out of the bubble, Conor Lenihan fell asleep on the phone while being interviewed on the morning after a think-in night before.
At 8.55am, while the interview was still progressing, somebody posted a comment on the Politics.ie website. "He sounds ... like he has a cold or/and last night was a heavy night on the sauce. What do you think? Any reports of the Taoiseach catching cold?"
Other posts and tweets were also coming online. By the time the interview concluded, the social media was hopping. Back in radioland, the listeners had heard Cowen sound like he was being dragged backwards through a dodgy Daniel O'Donnell record. At one stage, he nearly confused the Croke Park and Good Friday agreements.
Tweeting and posting were well underway by 9.16am when Simon Coveney tweeted that the Taoiseach had "sounded half-way between drunk and hungover". At 11am, Cowen was doorstepped by TV3's Ursula Halligan with the news that the web was alive with talk of him being drunk or hungover. "That's uncalled for," Cowen replied. And off went the hare, out across the world. 'Irish Prime Minister Denies Being Drunk.' Or, as most would have read between the lines, 'Irish Prime Minister conforms to hackneyed national stereotype as feckless country goes down the tubes.'
Over the following 24 hours the denial was carried in more than 400 publications in 26 countries. Opinion offshore, a constant and driving theme of government policy, digested the news.
Back home, Bertieitis set in among his cabinet colleagues. This condition, first recognised when word was leaking out about Ahern's wads of cash, prompts cabinet ministers to parrot that people must not believe what is before their eyes.
Noel Dempsey: "I am absolutely astounded that they are commenting on the tone of voice rather than the content. The Taoiseach was hoarse on radio. I have a frog in my throat most mornings. Is that a problem?"
Dermot Ahern diagnosed nasal congestion. "To take a massive leap and say the man was drunk or had a hangover is grossly unfair because it's well known that the man suffers from some nasal congestion."
Mícheál Martin: "Have you ever been hoarse?"
Tony Killeen: "People mightn't realise, the [radio] studio was in the corner of the kitchen…[there was] clattering of knives and teacups."
Mary Hanafin: "The voice wasn't clear but the mind was clear. He was definitely not hung-over". Hanafin, a woman well known for her modest personal habits, didn't elaborate on how she knew for a fact that her leader was definitely not hung over.
Junior minister Seán Haughey had another diagnosis. "I understand he has a cold," said Seán. Brian Lenihan kept the head down. No point in injuring the dignity of his office as well.
The opposition played the story well. There was no need to push something that was gathering speed on its own momentum. Michael Noonan did deliver one line that resonated with many. "The game is up," he said.
Later, at the concluding press conference of the think-in, Cowen came out fighting. Fine Gael, he said, had sunk to a "real new low in Irish politics". The TDs and senators who had gathered around the room applauded the statement. This assembled mob also laughed or hissed disapproval in all the right places. The whole thing resonated with the dying days of Bertie, when the same mob surrounded their leader and decried the hounding of an innocent man.
By the following morning, every newspaper had it on the front page. Details of the night's revelry were parlayed in minute detail. On a personal level, it was possible to have sympathy for a man who comes across as innately decent. But the affair brought to a head all the questions that have dogged his premiership. Wrong man in the wrong job, labouring under too much bubble baggage, and possessing few of the communication tools required for modern leadership.
Later that day, he apologised to his cabinet colleagues for his radio performance. Word came back that the apology was accepted, and loyalty reaffirmed.
Then, Micheál Martin was interviewed on Newstalk and declared: "Lessons must be learnt" from the affair. A wobble in the ranks. By six o'clock, Cowen was trotting out of Government Buildings to tell David Davin Power he was sorry. "I just want to make it very clear there was no basis for the assertions that were made by political opponents about it," he said. So what was he sorry for? Shipping a medical ailment? That doesn't require an apology. If he wasn't, as Coveney asserted, halfway between drunk and hungover, was he just hungover? Once more, Cowen's message was incoherent, although in this instance maybe conveniently so.
Notably, the support of the cabinet was not replicated on the backbenches, out there where seats are tottering on the abyss of electoral Armageddon.
On Thursday morning Mícheál Ó Muircheartaigh announced that he was retiring. His decision had nothing to do with reports that the Taoiseach had been impersonating him. Philip Walton wasn't as forgiving. He was reported to have written to the government expressing displeasure on his family's behalf at the impersonations. Walton has a high-pitched voice about which he is understandably sensitive. The letter was one more flesh wound on the dignity of the highest office.
By Friday, Cowen was busy trying to push the genie back in. He told reporters that he didn't mean to diss poor Philip Walton. "I was engaged in something which I hope would not be regarded as hurtful," he said. "That's not my style."
And the lessons to be learnt by an adult at this late stage of his political career? "The lesson is not to find oneself in that position again," he said. "The issue is I will try to make sure that while enjoying conviviality, I will leave sooner."
It may well be sooner than he thinks. Whether or not he manages to limp on past the budget, it's difficult to see things getting any better for the beleaguered Taoiseach. The incident may well turn out to have been a tipping point. In a week top-heavy with soundbytes and tweets, Michael Noonan just about got it right. The game is up.
Press Coverage - What the journalists saw and wrote
Wagging a finger at the journalists – also enjoying a drink and enjoying the show – he cautioned them not to get him into trouble by reporting his performance. He then did an extremely funny impersonation of former Ryder Cup captain Philip Walton who had a rather high-pitched voice, and his then team captain, the gruff Scotsman Bernard Gallacher. He swung an imaginary club as he spoke, then exhaled to give the impression of a ball flying through the air. It was very good
Mostly drinking pints of beer it wasn't long before the Taoiseach – who turned out to be the evening's star turn – was up telling yarns and impersonating legendary GAA commentator Mícheál Ó Muircheartaigh
The pints kept coming. At one point Mr Cowen was leaning against the jam of the door, with part of his shirt hanging over his trousers, when he was approached and escorted back to the table. At around 3.40am the Taoiseach finally decided to call it a night
Irish Daily Mail
Nobody seemed to notice that RTÉ presenter Cathal Mac Coille had slipped off to bed at 11pm. But it was heading for 4am when Brian Cowen hit the sack – giving him just four hours' sleep before his appearance on 'Morning Ireland'
Irish daily mirror
Mr Cowen was never without a pint during the evening – spanning seven hours from the start of the meal to bed time. An evening that length would see many an average Irishman skull at least 10 pints. … With so much singing, it is no wonder there were hoarse voices in the hotel yesterday. Mix this with a feed of pints and a few cigarettes, it is a wonder Cowen had any voice left at all.