WHY IS EVERYONE SO MEAN TO COWEN? Brian Does Not Drink Too Much, Insists Geraldine Feeney, the FF Senator with an Eye on the Aras.And He's a Great Man for a joke.What People Don't See Is How Much Those Claims Hurt - or How Kind He and Mary Were after My Husband's Death

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Byline: THE JASON O'TOOLEsINTERVIEW

SHE was a mother of four young children whose world fell apart after her 39-year-old husband suddenly died back in 1998. But, against all odds, a devastated Geraldine Feeney somehow managed to find the inner strength to single-handedly raise her young family and simultaneously go on to carve out a distinguished political career.

And the 52-year-old senator, who until now has never spoken publicly about her family's painful ordeal, reveals that it was third cousin Mary Cowen who played a major role in helping her to overcome the grief of losing her husband, Frank.

'I'm one of 11 children and I had wonderful siblings. I had the most wonderful friends -- none better than Brian and Mary Cowen, and very close friends in Sligo -- who really saw me through the difficult, very lonely, dark, upsetting days. But we've come out the other end.' Such was their close bond, Mary Cowen went to stay with Geraldine at her Sligo home for a while after the funeral to comfort her cousin.

'Mary would have been up and down to me all the time. And on Frank's anniversary, she would have spent all of that time with me. She visited for (the anniversaries) as long as I can remember, it only recently stopped.'

And it was the Taoiseach's wife, who is widely credited with spearheading the grassroots canvassing for her husband's general elections, who Geraldine turned to for guidance when she was putting together her own last two Seanad campaigns.

Mary's extended visits to be with Geraldine during her husband's anniversary usually coincided with the Seanad elections, as both events occurred in the month of June.

'So, we were on the road. We toured the country in June and, I have to say, she's a great canvasser. There's no doubt about it. She's a mighty canvasser.

'For a woman who keeps herself away from the media and doesn't want a public image for her or the children, she's the most political person I know. She's Brian's best asset and I don't say that lightly.' As one of the most unpopular taoisigh in living memory, Brian Cowen has faced a barrage of negativity, not just about his Government's policies, but also about some personal issues.

Geraldine insists that any personal criticism -- such as comments about his appearance or suggestions that he's a heavy drinker -- doesn't affect the Taoiseach because he 'has a way of shaking things off'. But how is his family dealing with it? 'I know Mary finds it very hurtful and his daughters find it very hurtful.

But the media has changed terribly over the last ten years and it's open season.

'The media will always pick on somebody. Brian Cowen, to me, certainly doesn't have any baggage; there is nothing in his past that you could fault him on. He's a true statesman.

'If times were different for us economically, if we didn't have a global downturn, Brian Cowen certainly would be viewed in a much different light.

'I have no hesitation in saying to you, it's country first and party political stuff after that. Nothing will take his eye off the ball when it comes to his country.' And, as someone who has known Brian Cowen since his childhood, Geraldine maintains that the speculation about him being a heavy drinker is complete rubbish.

'I would be very hurt by it because the Brian Cowen I know is a very normal man; he enjoys a few drinks with good friends and I think that's a very normal attribute in a person.

'He's a good man for spinning a yarn, telling a joke, a good all-rounder. I think Brian Cowen is a shy man and I think that's a nice trait. Also, Brian Cowen is a very modest man.' Geraldine, who is on the national executive of Fianna Fail, also insists that the rumours of division in the party over Brian Cowen's leadership style are 'hyped up'.

She continues: 'It's only two people. I won't even say a handful of people. …