Mary Coughlan: ‘32 times I ended up in hospital with alcohol poisoning’

Singer Mary Coughlan at home in Wicklow for magazine feature. Photograph: Nick Bradshaw
The singer spent years ‘in deep sadness and a lot of anger’ but honesty, openness and music got her through

On Mary Coughlan’s kitchen table there are a pile of jiffy bags, boxes of her excellent new CD Life Stories, and, next to them, some drawings of flowers that she’s enclosing with each one. “I used to do these little drawings at the bottoms of essays in school,” she says.

Has she done this side of things before, packing up mail order CDs? She shakes her head and laughs. “I had a f**king record company.”

Out the window you can see a spectacular view of the Wicklow mountains. To get here I’ve had to manoeuvre my car up a tiny little lane. On a terrace by the kitchen, beneath a pot, there’s a dead bird that the cat just brought in. Later she admonishes the feline murderer as she passes. “Now, Bones, what did you do to that poor bird?”

Coughlan lives here with her partner John Kelly, a Kiwi lighting specialist. He usually spends half his time on the other side of the world but his work, like Coughlan’s, has been disrupted. Coughlan’s daughter Clare, from her second marriage to Frank Bonadio, lives in a studio at the end of the garden with her partner and child. They also have three cats, a dog, 15 hens, a horse and a Shetland pony.

She shows me the inlay of her new record. It features 64 photographs, one for each year of her life, taken by my former colleague and her friend and one-time boyfriend, Frank Miller. Miller also took the photos on her first records and this causes her to have a morbid thought: “I hope this isn’t going to be the last one.” She laughs. “That just came into my head right now.”

Coughlan is good company. She’s as thoughtful as you might expect of someone who has spent years in recovery, producing emotive music and campaigning for causes like Justice for Magdalenes. She’s straight-talking and funny and regularly includes “f**king” in her sentences for emphasis. At one point the phone rings and she says, “Can I call you back?” After hanging up she sighs and says “Ex-husbands!”

He had an affair and it was all over the place at the time

She talks me through some of the songs on her new album. The sweeping Bacharachesque Two Breaking into One came about when her producer and co-writer Pete Glenister asked if she was ready to write about the breakdown of her second marriage to Bonadio. “He had an affair and it was all over the place at the time. And then he had a kid with Sinéad [O’Connor]. So it was all very awful. And I’ve never been able to talk about it or write about it. So [Pete] said, do you want to try something?... Do you think it’s still fresh enough that you could feel all that awful stuff?” She laughs.

Mary Coughlan. Photograph: Nick Bradshaw
Mary Coughlan. Photograph: Nick Bradshaw

High Heeled Boots is a song written by Glenister that caused Coughlan to root out her own high heeled boots, place them on her kitchen counter and contemplate them, in order to get into a sufficiently slinky mood. “I looked at them for so long. They’re amazing – these black suede boots with diamonds on the back of them. And I said, ‘F**k it, maybe it’s time to get them out again.’”

Of the Paul Buchanan-penned Family Life, a heart-breaking song about familial strife, she notes that her children were deeply moved, and adds, with emotion, “Ah stop.”

Of Safe and Sound, a beautiful song which documents the ways in which abuse reverberates through generations, she says, simply, “I wrote that for my kids.”

Coughlan first wrote of her experience of familial abuse in her 2009 autobiography, Bloody Mary, though it was alluded to in The House of Ill Repute, the album that came the year before. In Bloody Mary, she wrote plainly about her alcoholism, two of the extended family members who sexually abused her, a mother who retreated into herself and a father who beat her.

“I was in deep sadness and a lot of anger,” she says. “I started paying visits to my father every week. And I told him I was going to write the book and I was going to talk about the abuse. A lot of healing came from that whole exercise from a lot of people. Because an awful lot of people I have come to know in my life were abused and didn’t talk about it. One of my best friends at school was horrifically abused by a priest ... I never knew and she never told me, until my play [Woman Undone] came out, that he had raped her several times and beat her in the confessional … Three years ago, we did that Truth and Justice March for the Magdalene Laundries and a really good friend of mine from Galway told me that he was abused. We hung out together every day for years and nobody talked about it.”

When somebody does something to them, they just freeze. It’s just frozen forever. You just keep acting out of that place all the time

When she told her mother, who died several years before her book was published, about how she had been sexually abused, her mother’s response was to end the conversation. “They didn’t want to know,” she says. “They couldn’t f**king handle it. Sure, I couldn’t handle it. They just didn’t want to think about it. It happened to so many people, you’ve no idea. Almost everybody I went to school with. I got one letter about a month after my book came out from a girl I went to school with who said, ‘It wasn’t just in your house, Mary.’”

She thinks she would write the book differently now.

“That book was written in the middle of the f**king worst f**king pain on the f**king Earth,” she says, before running through the events that happened in the years preceding it. “I bought that house on Martello Terrace when I’d done a film with Neil Jordan … and I had money, and Neil wanted to move to Dalkey and I wanted his house so I bought his house. And I lived with my husband Frank there for 11 years. I stopped drinking. I was sober. We had two kids. I started using again. I wasn’t drinking but I went back on the f**king cocaine to kill the pain. He told me one night in London that he had had an affair with our nanny and I nearly killed him … And then I just packed up my bags and left … I had to leave the house to get myself back together. It was a slip. It didn’t last very long. But it was horrible.”

Since those days she’s been through a lot of regression therapy with the psychologist Ivor Browne. “Some people, when they stop drinking, they go to AA and say, ‘One day at a time’ but that wasn’t enough for me,” she says. “I wanted to know why I was like that. Somebody would do something small to you and you would just get angry like a four-year-old or a seven-year-old ... Ivor explained that animals fight-or-flight, and humans freeze. When somebody does something to them, they just freeze. It’s just frozen forever. You just keep acting out of that place all the time. Well, that made sense to me, because silly things would become catastrophic and big things would be the same. Your husband shagging the au pair would become the same thing as if somebody didn’t put away the dishes.”

She’s calmer nowadays as a consequence of the work she’s done on herself, more inclined, she says, to let things slide off her. “But I’m still blaming myself for other people’s sh*t. It’s a very comfortable place to be for somebody like me, where I can blame somebody else and perpetuate being a victim. They say in shamanism, that the rescuer, the victim and the healer, they’re all the same thing.”

Mary Coughlan. Photograph: Nick Bradshaw
Mary Coughlan. Photograph: Nick Bradshaw

She also sees her personal struggle as being structurally linked to the repressive country in which she grew up.

A therapist at the Rutland Centre for addiction treatment once told her that 80 per cent of the people they see have abuse in their past. Another therapist friend told her that most of the older Irish women she worked with in London hadn’t left Ireland for economic reasons but to escape abuse. “They’re now alcoholics, drug addicts,” says Coughlan. “And nobody makes the connection. We are a very young country out from under the skirts of the church and the British establishment.”

It’s no wonder then, that in her teens and young adulthood she was constantly experimenting with new ways of living and constantly running away. “I would climb out a window and go to a gig even though I knew I was going to get killed once I got home. I went to the Aran islands to see Donovan … I went to see Rory Gallagher and I knew I was going to get clattered when I got back.”

She tells me about going to Ennistymon Festival, where she sang on the street and then “ran away with a f**king American accordion player and went live in a hippie commune in Gort, for f**k’s sake.”

Music took me away from all my misery. Singing takes you into yourself and away from yourself as well

Her father would beat her, but her feelings about him are complicated. She points to an old photo of him on a shelf in the next room. “I loved him so much. He loved us dearly, but he had some horrific anger too and I’m only now starting to understand where he was coming from. I started to make my peace with my parents when I stopped drinking and stopped blaming them for the way I was.”

Where did her political conscience come from when she was younger? “I came out of the end of the 1960s, really, and there was a lot of talk that took an awful long time to filter to Ireland about women’s rights and the pill,” she says. “I was 17 in May. I did my Leaving Cert in June and I f**ked off and went and lived in a squat in London and man, we were f**king way ahead of ourselves ... We used to get Spare Rib magazine ... We were all about macrobiotics and veganism before people knew what that was. And everybody that I knew was into anti psychiatry and RD Laing ... We were so into it, Aldous Huxley and the doors of perception and Carlos Castaneda, and we used to drop acid and just dissect lines out of books for hours and hours.” She laughs. “I’m not trying to glorify it or anything. That’s what we f**king did.”

Mary Coughlan onstage at the Dominion Theatre in London in 1990. Photograph: Ian Dickson/Redferns
Mary Coughlan onstage at the Dominion Theatre in London in 1990. Photograph: Ian Dickson/Redferns

Back in Galway she was involved in opening a Whole Food Co-op and, when her children were born, she became a “breast-feeding nut”. This was all against a backdrop of extreme Catholic conservatism. “I was 26 and had three children. The divorce referendum was going on. The abortion thing was going on. I’d had an abortion. You couldn’t really talk about it. But when I was going on the boat, I met two girls who were doing the Leaving Cert. We were going to the same place in Ealing. And I’ve wondered all my life what became of them. I’ve thought about them all my life. One of them was going for the abortion and her friend was going with her. And they were meant be studying over at someone’s house. They were going over on the boat and were going to come back the next day. Can you imagine it? And still these f**king bastards are outside clinics in Dublin banging on about it.”

Was she surprised at the 2018 referendum result? She laughs sadly. “I was surprised by the first one,” she says. “We had a very good group on the ground in Galway and we were giving out literature to women. We actually thought the first one would be carried just because we were in our own wee bubble.”

In all that time, music was her escape. “It’s everything to me,” she says. “It’s my whole f**king life. My grandmother bought me a transistor radio and I used to listen to Radio Luxembourg at night. Music took me away from all my misery. Singing takes you into yourself and away from yourself as well. Whatever you would be feeling in the car on your way to a gig would come out in the gig. You’d definitely arrange setlist to include enough misery or whatever was going on.”

It never occurred to her to sing professionally until her friend and collaborator Erik Visser convinced her to. “I got knocked down when I was pregnant. I was 12 weeks in hospital with a broken pelvis. And I was six months pregnant. And Erik used to come down every day with a guitar to play tunes. He wrote a song for my daughter Aoife, who’s 44 now, and it was number one in the classical chart in Holland. He became really well known, travelled the whole world and then came back to Galway and said, ‘You have to do this.’.”

If it was happening to me now, I’d be on the gutter press every f**king day of the week, like Amy Winehouse

Her first record, 1985’s Tired and Emotional, was a huge success. What was it like becoming famous? “I didn’t even think about it. I went with it. But it was very strange. One night I was in my dressing room in London and Nick Cave was there and Shane McGowan and Elvis Costello and I was thinking, ‘What the f**k is going on?’ I just put it down to ‘They’re all party animals and so am I. So that’s why they’re here.’ I didn’t ever take it that they thought I was good. I never believed that.”

What was it like having her ups and downs documented in the press? “When I came out of the Rutland Centre [in the 1990s], I said I was going to talk about the drinking,” she says. “If it was happening to me now, I’d be on the gutter press every f**king day of the week, like Amy Winehouse. Everybody knew, but nobody wrote about it in those days, but I was so ashamed of being an alcoholic and a mother and I had done some awful things. Thirty-two times I ended up in hospital in two-and-a-half years for alcohol poisoning. The shame I felt particularly because I was a mother … And because I was a f**king ‘earth mother’ in the 70s and I had come full circle. I used to be picked up off the streets by the guards and brought home. So I wanted to talk about this … I had some sort of epiphany after about two years of the Rutland Centre that it wasn’t really my fault. One day [therapist] Maura Russell said ‘Stop beating yourself up. Get down off the f**king cross.’ Constance Short did a painting of me when she read that in the book.”

She brings me into the next room to show me the painting. It’s an abstract depiction of a naked woman on a cross doing a high kick. “A female Jesus kicking out,” says Coughlan.

Irish Blues and Jazz singer and Pro Choice campaigner Mary Coughlan photographed outside the Dail during the vote on the Protection of Life during Pregnancy Bill. File Photograph: Brenda Fitzsimons
Irish Blues and Jazz singer and Pro Choice campaigner Mary Coughlan photographed outside the Dail during the vote on the Protection of Life during Pregnancy Bill. File Photograph: Brenda Fitzsimons

When we sit back at the kitchen table we end up discussing the way migrant workers are treated by the Irish meat industry.

“[Ireland] has got better in some ways,” she says. “We weren’t even allowed to talk about gay people when we were young. But it’s still the f**king same in another way. I was talking to a woman from the migrant right’s place the other day and I thought ‘Have we learned nothing?’ We’re just finding somebody else to abuse. Which is kind of what people do in life. The Israelis and the Palestinians. The Hutus and the Tutsis … A lot of the damage that was done to people in Ireland is still working through the generations.”

She talks about politicians she admires including Richard Boyd Barrett and her former A Woman’s Heart co-creator Frances Black. Coughlan’s daughters have been trying to encourage her into a political career. One of them said, “‘You’ve always been at the fringes. You have to do it now because you wouldn’t be afraid of anybody’... I’d love to do it if I thought I could do any good.”

She has a bit more time on her hands than she anticipated. After spending all of her savings on the album, a year’s worth of lucrative international gigs disappeared due to the pandemic. She is currently on the pandemic unemployment payment, but it was reduced from €350 to €203, which is very difficult to live on. The Department calculated her income based only on Irish sources, which she feels is unfair given how much of her money comes from foreign touring. She recounts another story about being ripped off by a promoter a few years previously. “I’m still dealing with this sh*t at this age.”

And yet, otherwise she seems in good spirits. Her album is brilliant. Her family are all close by. A few years ago, she had a stent put in her heart to address a serious heart condition and the surgery improved her quality of life considerably. She also has a lung condition, bronchiectasis, which means, she says, that “one side of my lung is f**ked” but it has been under control. “Everything that ever happens to us, every word ever said, you hold it all and it comes out somewhere,” she says.

And she has acclimatised to lockdown. “I thought it was going to f**king kill me,” she says, “but Jesus I started to love it. I started doing yoga and walking and singing. The lads from the band came out and we started doing [online] gigs in the garden. I’ve never been at home for so long in 35 years as I’ve been for the last seven or eight months. It’s so weird.”

She is aware that her openness about addiction and abuse has helped people. “People wrote to me after the book, thousands, about their situations. And I know an awful lot of people who got the courage to talk about it.” She shows me a recent letter. The envelope reads. “Mary Coughlan, the singer, the Sugarloaf or thereabouts in Wicklow.” Did that manage to reach her? She laughs. “‘Mary Coughlan, singer, Ireland’ gets to me. It’s unbelievable … So many young women and men grew up in Ireland in the 1960s and 1970s in their own private hell, unable to talk to anybody … Talking about it was step one of getting rid of some of the shame. But it did take me 20 years.”

Mary Coughlan’s Life Stories is released on September 4th. You can buy it directly at marycoughlanmusic.com