Mary Coughlan revisits her past: ‘It was everywhere. Bags of cocaine, champagne and tequila’

TV review: In ‘Keys To My Life’, well known people travel to the places they have lived

Singer, party animal and survivor Mary Coughlan has lived several lifetimes since becoming one of Ireland's most celebrated blues singers in the mid-1980s. For that reason the first episode of the second series of Keys To My Life (RTÉ One, Sunday) suffers slightly for trying to squeeze too much into the 30-minute run time.

The programme features well known people revisiting the houses they live or have lived in, in the company of Brendan Courtney.

Courtney is a chatty tour guide and full of enthusiasm as Coughlan welcomes him to her open-plan house in the Wicklow mountains. They travel from there to her native Galway, a place of mixed feelings for Coughlan who suffered sexual abuse as a child and who had a rocky relationship with her domineering father. But it is also where she had her children and the scene of her early success in music.

“Some really happy stuff happened here – and some trouble. That’s life,” she says outside the house she bought with her first husband, school teacher Fintan Coughlan. They’d married because she was pregnant, only for Coughlan to miscarry weeks before the ceremony. On the morning of the nuptials, her mother gave her brandy and a valium and told her things would be fine.


Coughlan looks back on these traumatic memories with humour and courage. However, she seems in danger of becoming overwrought as they visit the bedroom where her father came to apologise for the physical abuse to which he had subjected his daughter. “He kind of broke down and said he was sorry for ever laying a hand on me.”

That pain shone through in Coughlan’s music as she made a name for herself as a soul singer. But acclaim brought temptation. “It was everywhere: bags of cocaine. The drink on stage was champagne and tequila mixed. We all would have a pint of it.” She was hospitalised on 32 occasions for alcohol poisoning.

She did eventually face down her demons, though the failure of her second marriage tested her hugely. She left her new husband, Frank Bonadio, just weeks after they had tied the knot when it emerged he'd slept with their au pair.

Coughlan had by then moved to Wicklow, which is where she and Courtney welcome Frances Black, the singer turned senator, who had helped Coughlan through the darkest days of addiction.

Keys To My Life is gently ambling viewing and for the new season the producers have lined up celebs such as Christy Dignam and Linda Martin.

Coughlan’s story, in truth, would be better served by a biopic or feature-length documentary than breezy weekend TV. But she has come through the storm with a smile and, in their brief time together, she and Courtney make for an agreeable double-act.