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Triumph In Adversity
At a time when public disillusionment with politicians is arguably at an all-time high, Cork Fianna Fail MEP BRIAN CROWLEY continues to buck the national trend by commanding a huge personal vote. But then, this is not a man who fits easily into any obvious political mould. A former rock singer and still a passionate music fan, he has survived a near-fatal car crash and learned to live with a permanent disability resulting from an earlier life-changing accident in his teens. Here, the man many tip to be a future President of Ireland, talks candidly to JOE JACKSON about matters personal and political. Pics: COLM HENRY.
Joe Jackson, 18 Aug 1999
Brian Crowley recently broke all Irish European Parliament records by practically doubling his previous vote to an astounding 154,195 first preference votes. The highest personal vote ever, outside of a Presidential election, reported the Examiner newspaper.
Even so, tonight all this hugely popular politician seems to want to talk about is music. We re seated in the library of Cork s Kingsley Hotel and minutes after meeting he s pumping me for information on two gigs in Dublin the previous night. Nina Simone at the Point. Love her! Have her cassette in my car. And the Blind Boys Of Alabama in the same city on the same night? That must have been great.
And, be assured, this is no pose on Brian Crowley s behalf. Here is a man who spent his teenage years virtually living for the gigs that d take place in the Purty Loft in Dun Laoghaire, where he d see bands like In Tua Nua and Katmandu. Or the Sportsman s Inn, in Mount Merrion, a form of alternative church where many of us would travel every Sunday afternoon to see Stepaside. Likewise, the Community Centre in Sallynoggin, where Rocky DeValera and the Gravediggers would deliver their own politically-irreverent and post-modern version of Irish punk music.
That said, the obvious difference between Brian and the majority of people attending such gigs was the fact that he was, and is, confined to a wheelchair. Though born in Cork in 1964, by the early 80s Brian Crowley was living in Dublin primarily so he could attend a remedial clinic in order to help him come to terms with the paralysis of the lower limbs that resulted from a fall from a roof on which he, at the age of sixteen, had been playing rugby with some buddies.
Nevertheless, despite this disability, the passionate music fan went on to front his own band, Galaxy. Crowley may even have persisted at his choice of a career in rock were it not for the reduction of venues over a two-year period in the late 80s which reduced gig options from a potential 198 to just 26. Plus the fact that, soon afterwards, while studying law, Brian received a phone call from newly-appointed Taoiseach Albert Reynolds, asking if he would become a nominee for the Senate.
Thus began Brian Crowley s political career which, within a year, or so, would lead to him being elected as a Member of the European Parliament. More recently, President Mary McAleese appointed Brian Crowley to her Council of State up to the year 2004. Not only that, but Stewart Kenny, spokesman for Paddy Powers Bookies, responding to Crowley s recent European Parliament election success, gives him a 12-1 chance of actually becoming the next President of Ireland.
Whatever way you look at it, this surely is a long way from those days when Brian, while practising on guitar and piano at home, scribbled down his own songs, fired by the feeling that there couldn t be anything greater on this planet than to actually be his ultimate musical hero, Eric Clapton.
Joe Jackson: Despite all your electoral successes, something tells me part of you wishes this Hot Press interview was actually with Brian Crowley, rock star!
Brian Crowley: Absolutely! I even put ads in Hot Press for the band, but got no response from anyone at all! Even though forget James Brown! Galaxy were the hardest working band in the world . But we got no recognition from the media!
Maybe if your band had originally gone for the sympathy vote you guys could have become the next U2! After all, in your late teens, at a disco in Skibereen, you used to tell women that you were a singer hurt in an accident and who d been abandoned by his wife and two children!
(Laughs) That is true. And you re right! If the sympathy vote was that effective imagine what we could have done as a rock band! But, in the real world, sympathy is transient. In fact, it amazed me, during elections, how many people would actually say God, I never knew you were in a wheelchair! But if it was just sympathy you could milk it dry. Yet the truth is that I, myself, don t look for sympathy. As a singer, or as a politician. I want to be judged on my ability to do a job and that s it. And let s fact it: could, say, 154,000 people all be giving sympathy votes? I doubt it. It s too simplistic a reading of the whole situation.
If seems that you have a wonderful ability to laugh at your disability, as in telling that tale of the night you had a serious car crash, and said to Bill Saich, the AA worker who was pulling you out of the wreck, I m paralysed! And he, not knowing your circumstances, said, don t worry, you ll be grand .
You have to joke about it. Like the way we carried on in Skibereen. People say that s escapism, unreal. It may be. But I can honestly say I have never been bitter about my accident. I m not saying I don t get angry, or frustrated. I do. But bitter, no. And, to me, to be at peace with yourself really is ecstasy.
As for that car crash, I was being serious at that time! But Bill Saich s attitude was so Irish ! It was sure-you re-okay-even-if-your-head-is-hanging off! highlighting the man s care and compassion, because he was only trying to make me feel relaxed. But I was really saying Jaysus lads, for fuck s sake, I m going to need the wheelchair to go home tonight so pull it out of the wreck, too!
That said, you seem to reject the premise put forward by one of your friends, John Hurley, that becoming a rock singer following the original accident, became your way of discharging your deepest frustrations. John says: When he is singing out his heart and soul, I think he forgets everything else. It s escapism.
No. It s ego. It s adulation, admittedly, on a minor scale, compared to U2 or the Corrs. But there definitely is the same buzz, even if you are only playing in the back of a local bar. To know the gig is right and that you have the audience in the palm of your hands and can shape where they go and what they feel, is to me, exactly what you described earlier about that guy from the Blind Boys Of Alabama moving through the crowd in that HQ gig and not letting go until he turned the people inside out, singing If I Had A Hammer.
But what did that process trigger off in you? Say, when Brian Crowley, apparently a Paul Rogers sound-alike, was singing the Free song All Right Now ? Did you get the sense of transcendence that, by all accounts, the Blind Boys from Alabama get?
Yes. Because it showed that once you were doing that you were top of the world: there was nobody else could do it like you. And, in my opinion, the stuff I did, no one could do better than me. A lot of it might have been covers but that s not the point. I remember we were doing a gig in Tralee on the back of a truck during the Rose of Tralee Festival and we were actually singing All Right Now and, as our truck was approaching them, the hands were going up like this (raises fist in air). Just that feeling was so powerful, so good. I ll never forget it!
You wrote one song, She s My Woman and actually submitted it to the National Song Contest.
Yeah! And I wrote a lot of stuff and recorded some as demos but they never went further than that. In fact I found it easy to write lyrics. And one of my favourite lyricists is Jimmy MacCarthy. Mystic Lipstick to me, is Ireland. It s also one of my favourite songs. But it would be more a blues guitarist like B.B King, as opposed to a singer-songwriter, like even Jimmy MacCarthy, that d actually move me. In fact, I d buy up to six CDs a week and my tastes are extremely wide-ranging.
For example, since I went to the European Parliament, I started buying French music, Belgian music, Italian music. Mostly for the emotion it touches in me, even if I don t fully understand what they are singing! But the bands I was into, before I started playing music, were mostly blues-based. How I got into music was playing poker on a Friday night in a friend s house, while we were all in school and listening to all his older brother s records. Early Joni Mitchell. Early Dylan. Bad Company. The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band. Eric Clapton. 461 Ocean Boulevard was the one that really got to me.
After that first accident, you apparently became more religious. Would you have tuned into, say, U2 s music at that level? Or Van Morrison?
No. I got all that more from the blues. The blues is a very spiritual music, based in gospel music, so I would have gotten more of that spiritual charge from, say, Eric Clapton particularly Sometimes I Feel Like A Motherless Child than I would ever have gotten from the likes of Van Morrison or U2, neither of whom really impressed me that much. I ve seen U2 live seven times and they blow me away at that level, but, emotionally, to me, Clapton really was the man. But, that said, even though, yes, religion did become more important to me after the accident, it is a very personal thing to me.
But in what way? Religion, it s said, definitely did give you consolation after you became paralysed.
It gave me a sense of self-acceptance, rather than consolation. It helped me to accept what had happened and get on with life. But then so did my family, friends. It was everything together, rather than any one thing, that kept me centred at a time when, I know, I could have gone off the rails. But there s no doubt my religion did become more personalised after the accident. I lived it, rather than being told what to do. I made a personal choice.
In fact, I remember the night I fell off that roof and was lapsing in and out of consciousness here in Cork University Hospital and seeing all these drips-in and drips-out and heart machines and monitors and I was wondering: Am I dreaming? Then I pinched my leg and realised I had no feeling in it. Then I pinched my arm and realised I had feeling in that. And then I asked the doctor: what s the story? Am I paralysed? not even knowing what the word paralysed really meant. He said well, you are, for the moment. Then my parents came in and I said to them: I am paralysed, but don t worry about it. And the yardstick I used then is at least I m alive. Obviously, not realising the difficulties that were ahead.
So what made you refuse to give up?
The bottom line, for me, was and still is a desire to live, to keep on living. To use every single day as best you can. Of course there are other days, when I just want to lie down in bed and just not move. But, other days most days I feel I could change the world. And music was part of that maturing process in my late teens, after the accident. At a time when I was hit with a need to face a double dose of maturity: puberty itself, as everyone does, and the accident. But that s what made it all so invigorating at the time. In fact, I remember standing in that community hall in Sallynoggin and watching Rocky De Valera and feeling the energy there and thinking this is where s it s at. This is what it s all about!
You once had to put up with a teenage girl rejecting you at a disco, saying sure you can t do that anyway and you can t get it up. Surely experiences like that must have broken your heart?
Your heart gets broken a lot of times. And, yes, it was difficult to deal with. But, again, what you have to do is rationalise the situation, and say what can you do? Nothing.
Did comments like that make you feel like less of a man?
Even though a young, obviously crass woman was saying you can t get it up?
Her loss. And that s not me being big-headed. Because there s more to it than just the sexual act itself, though that is, of course, part of it all. Which, I hasten to add, makes it more difficult to have a relationship.
I have read your quote: There are more ways of sexually gratifying someone than through sexual intercourse alone how many books and videos are there, at the moment, about massage and the art of erotic massage . But that sounds, to me, like the adult you are now applying a very specific rationale that might not have applied when you were sixteen.
No. That was my attitude at the time. I was lucky that there was a guy who told me, back when I was in hospital in Dublin and we were talking about this whole sex thing : Always remember that the most sexually active organ in your body is your mind. He told me that just a year after the accident.
So have you totally accepted this aspect of your sexuality?
Even the question of not being able to have children?
Well, you can. But it has to be by artificial means, IVF, whatever.
Una O Sullivan, one of the first great loves of your life, has said this particular question was central to her perception of the relationship she had with you. In fact, the night of your car crash she sat by your hospital bed and swore, to herself, she d marry you. But later she backed off, having found someone else. It was, obviously, a serious relationship.
It was very serious, yeah. And there was a lot of hurt involved, definitely. But the hardest thing was losing the friendship we d had. More so than any other aspect of the relationship. Una was someone I could sit down and talk with and say whatever I wanted to say. Because men don t always say to other men the kind of things they say to women. That s how it was for Una and I. And losing that really is what hurt me.
And you re right, she did make that decision on the night of the accident. But then any near-death experience like that would bring any couple closer together. Even if then, almost inevitably, one, or the other, would draw back from that. But and this I don t mean in a nasty way a month after we broke up I was back-on-the-road, in that sense! But I did lose a friendship and that s what I missed most of all. I still meet her occasionally and though I wouldn t have the feelings that were there ten years ago, we still talk and so on.
But Una says that nowadays, you are far removed from the laid back guy she first fancied while he was playing with Galaxy. That you re totally obsessed with your role as an MEP, meaning maybe, that you ve sublimated all your energy, and your desire for a woman and children, into the job. Any truth to that?
I don t think so. I leave myself open to any opportunity that might arise! Yet, at the same time, I don t feel that there is some great aspect of my life missing, which is what I meant earlier, when I talked about being content with myself. But this whole area of the question of sex, obviously, was a big part of what I, originally, had to come to terms with. And, to tell you the truth, it wasn t something that was discussed as part of our therapy. It was something you had to discover for yourself. But then it is very personal, something you do, at first, have to confront in yourself. And then, maybe, seek the help of a group or therapist, whatever. Because everyone is going to deal in a different way with the question of sex and being disabled.
Do you have a girlfriend at the moment?
Not at the moment, no.
Have you had a girlfriend since the end of that period in your life covered by Breda Joy s book Against The Odds?
I d have a few since then, yes. But nothing very serious. Nobody has hit me, yet, with that kind of force that leads to a sharp intake of breath and you saying, y know, this is it !
Maybe, like many of us, Brian, you are simply too romantic!
What s that line? Romantic Ireland s dead and gone/It s with O Leary in the grave ? No, it s not. It s still there in, happily, the hearts of so many of us!
In terms of your disability, did you ever take dope as a form of medicinal relief?
Never. I was offered it but it became known I didn t take it. But I do know many people, here in Ireland, who say they get great help from marijuana, in terms of medical problems. And if a method can be found to make it available to people who need it and if its benefits can be proven then it should be made available to them. My only experience with drugs is with prescription. Antibiotics or painkillers, whatever.
But the worst experience of my life, the most fearful, was getting morphine after the car crash. In terms of hallucinations and withdrawal symptoms. The hallucinations went on for three days. And what I felt was absolute paranoia, the sense that they were trying to kill me in the hospital. Not sleeping, not eating, not drinking because I really did believe everything they were giving me was poison. I don t know where all that came from. As a patient, I am normally so relaxed, but fear just took over and this was a battle for survival.
In fact, you did nearly die while waiting in that car to be rescued and then you were on a life support machine, hovering between life and death.
If I had not been discovered when I was, I would now be dead. But that wasn t what I was hallucinating about. At least, not at a conscious level. I couldn t even rationalise why I was in the hospital. It s hard to describe. And the change happened in an instant. From being comatose to being awake and the paranoia. For example, they came in to do a chest x-ray on me and I knew the girl who was doing the x-ray so I said look the doctor will be along in a minute, I ll hang on to the x-ray. And I hid it! Because I was absolutely sure they were going to switch that x-ray with someone else s, so they could say of me this is how he died. But what amazed me, more than anything else, was the height of perception I had, for every single detail. It was so clear, so precise.
But isn t that exactly why, say, poets, going back as far as Byron and Keats, believed in mind-enhancing drugs? To get that effect?
Yes. But what I realised at that point is that there is a very thin line between actually having a vision and going mad. And Byron did end up quite mad. Look at Hendrix. But then long before I had that experience I was into control and wanted to know exactly what I was doing at any time, so that doesn t take away from that sense of self-protection I have within myself. And people I know, who did smoke dope, accepted that in making the decision not to use drugs myself I wasn t passing a judgement on them. That was their life and if they wanted to do it, so be it. I don t even drink. I could always enjoy myself without all that.
Someone you knew did die as a result of heroin?
I ve had friends who died, yes, as a result of drugs overdoses. And alcohol. Relatively young. In their early 30s. One person in particular was close to me.
Moving onto politics: like your father, who supported the Haughey/Blaney/Boland send arms up North faction, you would be perceived, within Fianna Fail, as republican, wouldn t you?
Very republican. I m a total believer in a united Ireland and the nationalist cause. And, yes, my father did believe in helping, in any way, those people in Northern Ireland who were being ethnically cleansed, as is now the popular term. Though genocide it was called in the 60s.
And nowadays? You chaired the Edmund Rice National Youth Conference on Reconciliation with Dr. Mo Mowlam. Are you glad she has held onto her job?
Definitely. She is the most amazing woman I ever met. And she s suffered, on a personal level, so seize-the-day is her attitude. Like, if you re meant to go into the Maze to speak to the Loyalist prisoners, it s: I ll do it, leave the begrudgers to talk about it afterwards. And she s right to work that way. Surely the greatest gift you can give is saving human life? Even one life. That s why I honest-to-God cannot understand the apathy that is involved, in relation to some people, when it comes to what is needed, right now, to bring a lasting peace to Northern Ireland.
Look at it this way I accept this whole process requires changes in our party and from me, personally in terms of people in Northern Ireland. We have to move away from a stereotypical attitude to loyalists. In fact, one of the most powerful people I ve met in all this, is David Ervine. He s been through it all, too. Likewise, Martin McGuinness, Gerry Adams. These are the guys preaching moderation. These are the guys that have their hands dirty but they recognise what has to be done now.
So do you think David Trimble should resign?
I certainly don t think he should be called First Minister Designate. It s a total misnomer. Because (1) he s not giving any political leadership. And (2) he s making a farce of what democracy is about, by holding onto an office that doesn t actually exist because it doesn t have the support of the Assembly or the people.
But I do, honestly, believe the people of Northern Ireland and the Irish republic want to see peace and history will judge very badly those people who prevent that from happening. But, more than that, the souls of the people who will be killed because of the lack of reaction from people like David Trimble will curse and damn them for life. But I am hopeful. People have tasted freedom and want it. They will not let things slip back. But they need assistance from the political parties to make that leap forward.
As I say, there has been a sea change in terms of people like Martin McGuinness and Gerry Adams and David Ervine. And the point is that these people run bigger risks than anyone else. David Trimble might lose the leadership of the Ulster Unionist Party but they could lose their lives.
Then again, as you say, you as a republican, also need to shift your life-long position in order to recognise the suffering many unionists and Protestants have endured.
Absolutely. And maybe it will take generations for that hurt and bitterness to erode on both sides, for each to become fully aware of what the other side has gone through. But unless we are willing to make the first step now it will never happen. Yet, the point is that if there was to be a United Ireland in the morning, with a system of proportional representation in Government, the only party guaranteed to be in power would be a unionist party of some kind, because of the amount of votes they would have. That would give them more power and influence over the day-to-day running of the areas in which they now live than they will ever have under a Westminster Government. Or under a devolved assembly in Northern Ireland. So, if unionists were really talking about democracy and empowerment of the people that s the best way to get it! Democracy has to be sacrosanct. Bad and all as it is it is still the best form we have, because it is the most representative.
You at one point totally undermined the democratic process in Irish politics by taking a bribe from Charles Haughey, didn t you?
(laughs) I did! Ten Pence. One of the first decimal coins!
Don t you think you should give it back now poor Charlie may need it!
Maybe! But, seriously, nobody was more surprised than me to hear things coming out about Charlie Haughey, in the Tribunals. I d heard things but thought they were just rumours and innuendo. I always thought Charlie was a shrewd businessman who bought and sold property at the right time. That, I imagined, was the full extent of it. So I was really shocked at what was coming out and not being challenged. By him. That s what was most shocking. Up to the last minute I believed Charlie would say look, here s the story. It s all lies.
So, as a Fianna Fail man, do you feel disillusioned by the Haughey revelations?
Disappointed. For all those people who put their necks on the line for the man. Everyday Fianna Fail supporters who defended their leader. And party. Their faith had been let down.
Do you think Fianna Fail should demand back from Charles Haughey and Ray Burke the money they apparently received for party funds but never passed on to the party?
I was stunned to hear how much money Ray Burke was getting! I know elections are expensive to run but to say you have #100,000 still, in a political fund, defies belief. And, yes, the party has every right to ask for that money, now. When you have ordinary Fianna Fail members out taking collections outside masses or going door-to-door and then it comes out that someone has #100,000 they got in campaign money for the party then, yes, in my opinion, the party should go after that money.
When Albert Reynolds first phoned you, he said he wanted you to go into the Senate to give a voice to people who don t have a voice. But, in a way you could be said to have failed at this level because although, for example, you didn t oppose the bill to decriminalise homosexuality brought before the Senate in 1993, you do, apparently, oppose the right of gays to marry or to adopt children.
People should be given every opportunity to live their lives as they wish to live them. But in every democracy we devolve certain of our own individual rights to a central authority to make rights for the common good and so on. And I am a great believer in the fact that there is the common good. And that there are standards and rules that must be applied for the common good.
So on the question of the decriminalisation of homosexuality, it was an anomaly in modern society that consenting adults in the privacy of their own homes, doing certain things, should, then, be open to conviction or imprisonment. But I m not homosexual, so I can t relate to that experience. But on the question of the common good I think the right of homosexuals to marry or adopt children is a step too far. There is a belief that the common good is best served by maintaining the family unit as the basic building block of society. I agree with that belief. And I don t see how society would be served by allowing for same sex couples to adopt children.
Do you think a child would be morally or spiritually damaged in such a familial setting?
I honestly don t know. But these are some of the hard judgement calls you have to make as a politician. That s why I could go down the road of accepting the decriminalisation of homosexuality, without unfolding the full panalopy of rights.
But did you have to ask yourself some serious moral questions even going as far as you did?
Yes. It was the most difficult decision I had to take in the Senate. Because homosexuality moves against everything I ve grown up believing in, in terms of my own social mores and my family background. I get on very well with, say, David Norris and I ve nothing against him, personally. In fact that s part of how I was able to rationalise it in my own mind. By realising that what David Norris or anyone else does in their private life is their own business and that there should not be laws against that, but I couldn t go any further than that.
You also publicly opposed a quota for the employment of women, arguing it can reinforce discrimination. Likewise you took a stand against divorce and are pro-life all unpopular positions among so-called liberals.
I know! And I got hissed and booed by the Cork Women s Political Association for articulating, at one of their meetings, that particular belief about the employment quota. But I don t think it is my role to go out and court popularity all the time. Now and then I do have to take a stance that will make me unpopular. But I think people will respect you if you can, honestly, hold onto your beliefs. As for abortion, I oppose it because I just don t agree with the taking of human life.
It s been said that if you strip away the long hair, the leather jacket, and the background in rock music you will find that Brian Crowley is right-wing in many ways. Maybe even decidedly Dana-esque.
I was there before Dana!
But you didn t win the Eurovision!
That s right! Couldn t even get into the National Song Contest! But I hear what you are saying. Yet the bottom line for me is that I have never hidden my beliefs. And I m willing to engage anybody in argument on these issues and, likewise, willing to be shown I m wrong. I m not so closed, in my own mind, that if someone proves, to me, otherwise I won t say sorry, I was wrong.
You have been criticised by at least one representative of disabled people for not focusing more single-mindedly on the issue of disability.
You ll very rarely hear disabled people criticise me. But, yes, you will hear representatives of disabled people representatives who may not be disabled themselves criticise what I m doing because they have their view of what the disability issue should be. I have mine.
I, as a disabled person, worry about things everyone else worries about. My mortgage, peace in Kosovo, as well as access for disabled, equality of opportunity for disabled and so on. But I m not just worried about the question of disability. Because decisions that are taken at a local or European level impact on disabled people as much as they impact on everybody else. So being accused of not doing what I can for disabled people annoys me. Surely the best example I m giving is showing that I can actually do what I m doing, at the broadest possible level.
Is the next stop for Brian Crowley, the Presidency of Ireland or the top gig in the European Parliament? Or does the gratification come more from the day-to-day work you do at the moment?
The day-to-day work is where it s happening for me, honestly. Because life is so unpredictable. If someone had said to me, seven years ago, Brian, in 1999 you re going to be an MEP after heading the poll for the second time in an election I d have said bring in the guys with the white coats! That s why I can t say in five years time , whatever. I ll take it as it comes and deal with it. My political ambition, as it stands, is simply to be re-elected in five years time. So I m going to work for the next five years towards that goal. Though that doesn t mean something won t come up in the next five years that won t take me away from all this. Or, I could die. And, in saying that, I m not being fatalistic. Just realistic. Because that s just the way I am.
It has been said about you that having come so close to death you have become doubly-aware of the true worth of life. Wasn t it James Joyce who once said an awareness of death makes for a life that is all the more voluptuous?
Yes. And as Beckett says, in Endgame : He stood outside his own life. He saw it turning around and realised at once, he must live it for it is there to be found. And that is what I believe.
At the end of the day, the real point, to me, is that it s how you deal with something like a disability that actually makes it a gift or otherwise. All I know is that, even from the beginning, I decided I d never let it break my spirit. It hasn t this far. And, I suspect, it won t, ever. n