Those whom the gods wish to smite, they first raise up to the back of a truck in Clara. Next week, it will be a year since Brian Cowen took over as Taoiseach. His status within Fianna Fáil was such that he was elevated to the post rather than elected.
Prior to assuming leadership, he was hailed as a tonic for the future. Commentators and wise sages concluded he was already in the running for greatness. It wasn't that he had achieved anything of major note in the various portfolios he had occupied since first being admitted to the cabinet by Albert Reynolds in 1992. It was just that everybody knew he was very bright, likeable, funny and straight talking. That seemed to be enough for those who profess to know these things.
The gods of fate, however, weren't being kept in the loop. In the 12 months since he assumed control, his administration has been subjected to a sustained assault on economic life, which is now tugging at the social fabric of the country. It has been an annus horribilis for the chosen one.
A large element of the problem was generated locally, principally through policies pursued by Cowen's predecessors as Taoiseach and minister for finance respectively. He also bears some responsibility for his role since he took over in finance in late 2004. He failed to rein in the worst excesses of the economy. He made no effort to deflate the bubble. He continued to focus on the central policy plank of reducing income taxes (reportedly against his better judgement) while the hurricanes gathered both onshore and off.
That record may have contributed to his appearance as a rabbit caught in the headlights in the first six months of his tenure at the top. He couldn't repudiate the past. He probably even believed nothing had been done wrong. We are all paying the price.
His capacity for leadership has undergone a serious re-evaluation in the last year.
His judgment has been repeatedly called into question. At party level, his status is no longer untouchable. In the last year, a historic low has been plumbed by the party, slipping behind Fine Gael in popularity for the first time since opinion polls began. Internally, there is some low level dissent.
Whatever about his own shortcomings, Cowen has also been a victim of fate. For instance, his predecessor Bertie Ahern was elected Taoiseach in 1997 when the economy was growing at 10% and unemployment plummeting.
Cowen's tenure began as the global financial architecture established over 30 years began to collapse. He couldn't be blamed for the sub-prime crisis that rippled across the Atlantic. The banking crisis was not of his making. He has been the main focus of justifiable anger among the populace that might more fairly be spread around others.
One year on, he's still in situ, most likely shaken, not yet stirred into reaching for the mantle required of leaders in these turbulent times.
Yet despite the year he has endured, nobody else has come to the fore to overshadow him. Within his party, nobody in their right mind would wish to displace him, even if there was serious discontent, which there isn't yet.
Among the opposition leaders, it is widely accepted that Enda Kenny still does not cut it with a large swathe of the population. Repeatedly in opinion polls, he has come up short, despite his party's achievement of new levels of support.
Eamon Gilmore has put down some first-class performances in the Dáil. He has the cut of a man who knows what he is about. Yet Labour doesn't seem to be pursuing a radically alternative solution to Fianna Fáil to the current crisis. For a while, the party appeared to be set on an Obama-type stimulus to inject life into the economy. That avenue is practically clogged up by bare coffers, but there doesn't seem to be any enthusiasm in borrowing to stimulate.
Without a radically different solution to hand, Labour can only offer itself as an appendage to Fine Gael, which neuters some of Gilmore's hard-earned credibility. In any event, no more than internally in Fianna Fáil, the question must be asked of the opposition leaders: Does anybody really want to take the scalding potato of stewardship from the hapless Cowen?
It was all so different a year ago, when the chosen one assumed the role for which he had long been tipped.
The fires were burning on approach roads to Clara on the night of 7 May. Their man was top of the heap. He arrived home and belted out a few numbers. The view from the back of the truck was bright and cheery and loaded with expectation.
His new cabinet brought a few surprises. Brian Lenihan in finance was a dark horse who outran the favourites, Micheál Martin and Dermot Ahern. Mary Coughlan was promoted to Tánaiste and the important Enterprise, Trade and Employment portfolio.
Mary Hanifin went in the opposite direction. Tom Kitt was given the bum's rush and sulked off to declare he was finished in politics.
A new tone was struck. Brian, Brian and Mary would be the triumvirate taking over from Ahern's lone-star walk.
He was out of the traps with a spurt. The Galway Tent was to be taken down. It had become an albatross around Fianna Fáil's neck. Cowen saw little value in continuing with it.
So much for optics. The first real item on his agenda was Lisbon. On the eve of his election, Cowen delivered a speech to his parliamentary party outlining the importance of Lisbon being passed. He went off-script and sought recourse in his passion to get the message across. Twenty-twenty vision can assume that the lads and lassies either didn't care about the issue, or were unimpressed at their leader's appeal.
Two weeks later, Cowen was asked on radio whether he had read the treaty. "I haven't read it from cover to cover," he said. But, he added, he had been involved in the negotiation to agree it. Big mistake. He was about to discover the problem with speaking the plain truth while in charge.
In the Dáil on 26 May, he remained the bruiser of old, getting down and dirty with Fine Gael's James Reilly, who was shouting to the top.
"For Deputy Reilly's attention, I can organise it so that every time his man [Enda Kenny] completes a sentence, I can have people roaring and shouting on this side if he wants." The bruiser was not for turning.
Going, going, gone. The slippage from a Yes to No vote on Lisbon had begun even before Cowen assumed power. At the outset, Bertie Ahern's government had been distracted by the money tales that grew taller with each telling.
Then there was the long goodbye, which kept everybody's mind off the boring business of selling the treaty to an electorate. There was little enthusiasm on the ground, many politicians from the main parties viewing the occasion as a chance to get their mugs on lamp posts.
There was also an uneasy feeling that Europe was not what it used to be, that somehow, we Celtic cubs could out-GDP the cheese surrendering monkeys to be found on the mainland. (Ah, those blissful days of total self-delusion, where have they gone?)
The result on 12 June was obvious before 2pm. Lisbon was gone. Cowen bore more responsibility than anybody else for its defeat. His stock took its first tumble. The word that would come to haunt his annus horribilis reared its head for the first time: leadership.
Two weeks after the defeat, he introduced the country to the concept of pain. In what was regarded as an important speech, he said adjustments were inevitable.
"The practical reality is, however, that unless necessary corrective action is taken promptly and appropriately, more painful adjustments, with less scope for sensible prioritisation, inevitably follow," he said, with what would turn out to be some prescience.
Can you feel the pain? Stick around. On
8 July, the two Brians winced their way through a press conference. It was to be the first instalment of what now appears to have been a piecemeal approach. Savings of €440m were earmarked.
Areas like public-relations spending, advertising and savings on the postponement of the latest pay awards for senior politicians and state employees were mentioned. By today's standard, it was Mickey Mouse stuff, but Cowen was treading wearily for he was treading on the delicate surface of self-delusion that still pertained. The problem was he appears to have been as deluded as the rest of us.
Figures from the Department of Finance showed that the projected shortfall in tax receipts for the year would be €3bn.
Hope sprang for him later in the month with the latest round of paytalks. In partnership we trust. His predecessor had been hailed as a genius for so often knocking together heads which had sworn never to meet. Would the new man be as slick? He remained on the sidelines as employers and unions trooped in and out of government buildings looking glum and foreboding.
The night of the long faces ended in the early hours of 2 August. Partnership was dead. It emerged afterwards that Cowen kept his distance through the dying hours, only putting in an appearance after the breakdown.
It wouldn't have happened in Bertie's time. Back then, in the land of the never, never, our hero would have come to the rescue just as talks were heading over a cliff. Doubts began to surface again. Where is that colossos they were all heralding last May?
Cowen called for a period of reflection. "I believe it is important to allow time to reflect on the relative merits of having a centralised agreement," he said.
The following week, he went on holidays. It would later emerge that he spent most of his break in a mobile home in Ballyconnelly in Connemara. He played the odd round of golf. When an intrepid reporter located him, he was visiting another caravan and dunking biscuits in his tea.
What should have been a portrait of a man of simple tastes, holidaying like no other leader in western Europe, turned out to be referenced as Cowen engaging in endless, demented golf, fiddling on the green, while the country burned. Truly, luck had taken one look at this guy and classified him a no-hoper.
He was back at work later in the
month when the sky turned dark. The latest figures had unemployment soaring to 5.1% (bring back those days!). The jobless rate was now the highest since 1999.
A few days later, Cowen sought refuge in song. At the Fleadh Ceoil in Offaly, he belted out a rendition of 'Paddy's Green Shamrock Shore'. Some interpreted his choice of number as a clarion call for foreign direct investment as the country sailed down the tubes.
What, another two billion? Just two months since the last estimate of how far into the do-do the country really is, finance came back with another figure: the projected shortfall in tax receipts is now €5bn. The country was advancing up that fabled creek without a paddle in sight. Plans were drawn up to bring the budget forward.
On 15 September, distant rumblings grabbed the headlines. Lehman Brothers filed for bankruptcy in the USA. In the land of the free, home of the brave, there was no question of intervening in the scared market and saving the bank. Big mistake. The problems began rippling through other banks, and took flight across the Atlantic.
Share prices headed south and when it looked like they were going to hit a hard rock, the top dogs of Bank of Ireland and AIB trooped into government buildings with their hands held out.
Cowen and Lenihan have since received constant criticism from issuing the bank guarantee on the night of 30 September. Hindsight doesn't have to deal in the moment. Anglo Irish appeared to be on the brink. Right now, we can all wish it had been let go to hell in a handbasket, but in the immediate shadow of the Lehman's fiasco, it might have appeared like a gamble bordering on the reckless.
The two Brians mortgaged the country's future. The initial reaction was positive. Is that leadership we see before us?
September's bright idea was an October budget. On the 14th day of the month, Brian Lenihan walked into the Dáil leaving a trail of timebombs. The 1% income levy was to apply to all earners, even those on the minimum wage. A much bigger explosion was delivered with news the medical card for over 70s was to be scrapped.
It took less than 24 hours for the storm to take hold. Talk to Joe? The pensioners weren't just talking, they were screaming blue murder, and with some justification.
This was a watermark for Fianna Fáil under Cowen. It was the reversal of a classically populist measure, brought in as a cynical vote-catching exercise. Once a decision was made to reverse it, a communication strategy should have been expertly laid out. The threshold for qualification for a card should have been properly arrived at. Troops should have been put on alert. None of these things were done.
The pensioners hit the streets. Cowen hit the bunker. Within a week, he emerged declaring peace in our time.
"We regret the anxiety that was caused by the failure to properly communicate the fact that over 70% of pensioners over 70 would have been completely unaffected by the original proposal," he said. He added that people not affected believed they were going to lose the medical card. "That was never the government's intention, so I very much regret that and apologise for it," he added.
For good measure, the income levy was readjusted to exempt those earning under €15,000. The leader was shaken. His authority took a hit. Nobody told him there would be days like these.
A Red C opinion poll at the end of the month applied salt to the wound. Fine Gael had overtaken Fianna Fáil for the first time in the history of polling. The Blueshirts support was at 33% compared to Fianna Fáil's 26%.
The month dawned with further woe. By now, Cowen must have felt not unlike Colonel Kurtz, the half-crazed character in Apocalypse Now, brooding in his jungle, contemplating what awfulness life has delivered into his lap. The horror! The horror!
Exchequer figures for the first 10 months of the year showed the budget deficit
was now at €11bn. Unemployment had leaped to 7.7%. The only chance of salvation was to make it to Christmas in one piece.
Later in the month, the long-running saga of Fás moved centre stage. Roddy Molloy reacted to news of the €600,000 in expenses notched up by the agency by appearing on Pat Kenny's radio show. He told Pat all about his entitlements.
The country was long past worrying about the entitlements of people like Molloy. Cowen was asked about his fellow Offaly man. He said he knew Molloy to be an excellent public servant.
"I have every confidence in him," Cowen said. Molloy resigned two days later.
Under pressure from all quarters, he reverted to type by launching an attack designed to deflect from his own stewardship. Fine Gael, he said, were sabotaging the economy with all their talk of doom and gloom.
"We have all heard the spurious argument that we blew the boom but the reality is up to this year, when the Irish economy was growing year on year, we saw hundreds of thousands of jobs created," he told a party gathering in Tullamore. The song remained the same. Denial is not a river in Egypt.
The month dawned for Cowen with a celebration. Five hundred guests turned out in Tullamore to celebrate his elevation to Taoiseach. In the year of living dangerously that he was enduring, it might have been more fitting at that stage to commiserate with him on his appointment.
He gave an upbeat speech and joined singer Simon Casey for a duet of 'The Town I Loved So Well'. A more appropriate number for the occasion might have been Damien Dempsey's 'Negative Vibes', in which he sang: "I'll never let your negative vibes and comments get through to my psyche and cripple me."
Later in the month, he launched Building Ireland's Smart Economy to much fanfare in Dublin Castle. The plan was a plan about planning what to do when the time comes to put a plan in place in order to plan for the future.
It was full of great stuff about innovation and going forward and hi-tech jobs.
"When this is over there will be a new economic order and I want Ireland to be positioned to take full advantage of the opportunities that will be presented," he told the assembled guests.
It was surreal theatre, thinking two steps ahead without knowing how to make the leap that far. The country was still en route down the tubes and these boys were wishing for a brighter, brand new day.
The week before Christmas it was announced that the main banks will have to be recapitalised, costing somewhere in the region of €7bn. With each passing week, the billions are disappearing, and none of it reflecting well on the leader.
A new year dawned and the deficit hit €8bn. More cuts on the way. This time around, Cowen looked for €2bn and got the social partners to knock heads together once more.
Anglo Irish Bank hit rock bottom. While Cowen is in Japan, trying to drum up trade, the baddest bank in whole darn town got nationalised.
When Cowen took over as finance minister in 2004, Anglo Irish Bank was portrayed as possessing the Celtic Tiger's teeth, if not its hide. It was symbolic of this great little country punching above its weight. It typified the accumulation of wealth.
When Cowen took over as Taoiseach, one of his first engagements was a private dinner hosted by Seanie Fitzpatrick and other board members of the bank. The captains and the king were meeting to discuss the confluence of their interests with that of the state.
Now, Seanie was in disgrace, his bank was kaput and Cowen was treading water.
Towards the end of the month, a rare nugget of good news appeared on the horizon. The social partners were on the cusp of agreeing to €2bn in cuts in public spending.
Once again into the breach, dear social partners. Another all nighter, another disaster. No go. Without agreement between the social partners, Cowen decides to go ahead with the pension levy for public-service workers.
The failure to reach agreement was another personal blow. For nearly two months he had invested in the social partners, hoping the unions would be willing to sell the levy to their members in the national interest.
The latest figures showed the goddamn deficit up to €9bn.
A couple of days later, on Friday 6 February, the country woke up to hear there had been a coup d'état of sorts. The leader formerly known as Brian Cowen had transmogrified into a cross between Barack Obama and Winston Churchill. At a dinner for the Dublin Chamber of Commerce, the man himself had tore up his script and talked from the heart about community, country and the future. Everybody was blown away. One intrepid RTÉ reporter had been present and captured the speech for posterity.
For days after, every word, every pause, every round of applause, was parsed and analysed. After nine months of a nation asking would the real Brian Cowen please stand up please, he had finally leaped to his feet.
Can we fix it? Yes we can. We'll meet this crisis on the beaches and in the air and on the back of a lorry. Can you hear me? Yes we can. Can we do the can can? Can we what?
Earth soon beckoned with the curse of Anglo Irish Bank. News broke about the golden 10 and their €300m loans. Immediately the air was heavy with rumours somebody close to Cowen was involved. He came out fighting in the Dáil. The smear was unfair, but the undercurrent was still there. Fianna Fáil plus property bubble equals mates in the banking and building sectors. As William Faulkner might have put it if he had been chronicling Cowen's travails, the past isn't dead, it isn't even past.
More billions gone south, time to go back to the well. Cowen announced there would be a supplementary budget to root around for an extra €4.5bn to plug one of the holes in the dike.
Respite presented itself in the annual jaunt to the White House for St Patrick's Day. The couple of days does him the world of good. Mr Yes We Can is the finest host and Cowen is the toast of the place as he hits it off with his fellow Offalyman.
Back home, the ides of March are blighted by prospects for the latest budget.
Problems of a more manageable yet more serious nature erupt in the north when two soldiers and a policeman are murdered by dissident republicans.
Another budget. The explosives are avoided this time around. There is nothing in it to send people onto the streets. Mostly, middle earners have been hit hardest and they don't take to the streets that often.
Closer to home, there is the resolution to do away with five junior ministers and cut pensions and allowances in the Oireachtas. This is finally a sign that Cowen and those closest to him realise how much trouble the country is in and what is expected of them.
When the time to cull the juniors comes around, Cowen wields the axe judiciously. The only controversial move is to get rid of the turbulent Cat, John McGuinness. He may in time provide the small but growing band of disaffected troops with a rallying standard.
For Cowen, it doesn't get any easier. Twelve months ago, he was being hailed as a messiah of sorts. These days, he is more likely to be caricatured than praised. He has endured terrible luck, and been subjected to a global hurricane that is still moving at pace. But he must also take responsibility for some poor judgement, bad communications, and hesitancy in reacting to events. It was one hell of a year.
There is no reason to believe the coming one will be any less turbulent. Provided, of course, he makes it through the next six months as leader of his party and of the country.