It was behind the bar of his family’s pub, Christy Cowen, that the taoiseach believes he learned many of the people skills that got him where he is today.
A frequent sight at UCD’s bar as a student, he regularly returned home to his native Clara in Co. Offaly to work at his Fianna Fáil TD father Ber’s pub.
He claims it taught him more about human nature than he ever learned at school or university, that it made him street-wise, and gave him a practical intelligence that a college education cannot alone guarantee.
Many of those he met there are said to have influenced his thinking about life.
In particular, he learned, according to his recollections in Brian Cowen: the Path to Power by Irish Mail on Sunday writer Jason O’toole, that a sense of contentment is far more important than mere success or material wealth.
Cowen loved serving ‘great characters’ and listening to their stories – especially the elderly regulars.
‘I got very interested in their times,’ he has said. ‘I think this might be down to the fact that my mother’s father, Tommy Weir, had served in the war and was actually injured. He died in 1964 and I have very few memories of him.’
Like his father, who died in 1984, Cowen enjoyed the craic a busy bar environment fostered – and clearly still does.
For him, the bar, which is now run by his older brother Christopher, was a place where he could unwind, escape the daily routine of politics and have light-hearted conversation, listening to the lads telling yarns.
Cowen, who became a TD at the age of 24 after inheriting his father’s seat, is famed among his circle of friends for having a dry sense of humour.
With that comes a sharp mind that is always quick with a retort.
Both these attributes – and his skills as a raconteur – he says were developed during this time, as was his reputation as an accomplished mimic, a talent he inherited from his father.
When he was working behind the bar, Cowen would enjoy going home and retelling stories or describing encounters with the many characters he served.
‘The real wit and humour I enjoy is recounting actual things that happened. You know, the innocence of people and the way they’d look at something,’ he told O’toole.
The Taoiseach says his childhood home was filled with ‘wit and mimicry and a sense of humour, a sense of life and gaiety and an interest in music and games and sport – and mixing that with work and trying to get ahead’.
Although he had always been close to his father, his bond with Ber strengthened considerably during his student years in Dublin.
‘There was a natural inclination to call into the Dáil pretty regularly, anyway, if only to get a decent bit of grub,’ he said.
‘The food in the flat wouldn’t have been great.
‘One had other uses for disposable income at that time as a young fellow – more liquid lunches than anything else.’
But was on a parliamentary trip to the Middle east in 1975, that Ber contracted malaria – a development which precipitated a marked decline in his health.
As a result, the gregarious and highly sociable Ber was forced drastically to alter his lifestyle.
‘He didn’t drink for the rest of his life, I would say. He’d have a glass of wine or something on a social occasion,’ Cowen recalled.
But the Taoiseach’s links to the pub trade are not restricted to his father and brother. Indeed, his formidable wife Mary Molloy is the daughter of another Fianna Fáil publican.
Cowen has always been keen to play down his own drinking – despite his fondness for talking of his favourite watering holes in Dublin or Offaly.
The taoiseach – habitually a Guinness drinker – has spoken of how the Dáil bar allows him escape the ‘battlefield’ of politics.
It certainly provides refuge from the sort of instances that propelled him, and his drinking, back into the headlines. In October 2007, when he was already Fianna Fáil leader in waiting, he and Willie O’Dea spent a Saturday evening drinking in a Limerick pub.
Seeing the then finance minister propping up the bar with the defence minister was startling enough. But then there was the fact that the drinking session ended in O’Dea’s infamous exchange of words with a number of Shannon Airport workers.
In a November 2008 interview with Hot Press, Cowen admitted taking an hour with the ‘Dáil Bar Lobby Gang’ was an invaluable way to deal with the tension of the job.
While Albert Reynolds’s political buddies were refereed to as the Country and Western Gang, Cowen’s ever-decreasing group of trusted pals have been dubbed the Dáil Bar Lobby gang.
He told the music magazine: ‘At the end of a long day, whether it’s there or somewhere else, you sit down with friends and relax and talk about everything – except politics.
‘You don’t talk about politics when you’re socialising.
‘It’s part of what you do to deal with the heavy workload. Also, you have friendships that span political parties.
‘I enjoy socialising. I enjoy relaxing with colleagues and the banter. A lot of it is relief of tension – take it handy for an hour and relax.
‘Don’t take yourself too seriously. It’s a good tonic. You can just sit down as individuals and chat about each other’s families and how things are going.
‘It doesn’t have to be this characterisation of a battlefield all the time.’ Cowen is also an accomplished and self-confessed mimic – although he has always been shy about naming who his favourite targets are. Indeed, he has always denied calling up a colleague one night pretending to be Charles Haughey.
He said: ‘It never happened but it shows you how stories can get legs. there are a lot of anecdotes, but I just feel that the Dáil bar is the only private bar in the country that you can go into as a members’ bar.
‘I find that we have heavy exposure, in terms of everybody knowing everything about us, so we should try to keep something sacrosanct.
‘What goes on in there, in terms of craic and anecdotes, is for there, and for the members.’ Just how much he indulges in mimicry of others these days is anybody’s guess. But he has since clearly grown tired of other people’s mimicry of him.
In March last year, it emerged that he had become less than impressed with Oliver Callan’s impersonation of him and his portrayal of him as a boorish drunk.
As a result the nob nation satirist was asked by the Gerry Ryan Show producer Siobhan Hough to tone his act down.
But the recent furore over his drinking is just the latest in a series of public comments on the issue.
In February this year, Gay Byrne attacked him over his drinking, questioning whether a bar stool in a local pub was any place for the head of government.
The former Late Late Show host said: ‘I question whether you can be Taoiseach and still sit up and have a pint in the local pub. You have to dignify the office.’
Like comments before and after, Cowen is believed to have regarded Byrne’s as a ‘low blow’.
Indeed, he appears to equate drinking as an integral part of characters and the colourful types he says Ireland needs.
But as he contemplates the reasons he was finally forced to apologise over Morning Ireland last night, only time will tell if he realises it’s more than colourful characters this country so desperately needs.