Interview with Mary Coughlan

Folk and Tumble caught up with Mary Coughlan before her recent show in Belfast's Crumlin Road Gaol to talk about the turbulence of life and how it's shaped her writing.

To say Mary Coughlan is a survivor is such a massive understatement. This is a woman, who has been a victim of child abuse, addiction issues with drugs and alcohol, two failed marriages, and a litany of trials, struggles, and catastrophes, that no one individual should have to face.

Yet, sitting across a table in The Crumlin Road Gaol as she prepares for one of her first gigs since COVID, you have someone who overcame all these crushing life events, and today presents as a woman of amazing courage, honesty, and forgiveness.

FT: It’s a bit strange Mary after 15 or 16 months of lockdown and one of your first gigs back is in a former prison.

MC: I suppose it is, but there’s a funnier story. When you go on a tour of this place, there’s an old black and white photograph of a woman called Mary Doherty. She was the first female prisoner in here, and that was my name! There’s a strange serendipity to that.

FT: Before we talk about the music, can I ask about your autobiography ‘Bloody Mary’, and your life story, which informs the songs you sing. It’s an enthralling read but a difficult one.

MC: Well. I was so nervous about doing it. Maybe if I was doing it now, it would be a different book. It was just after the second marriage. We were only married seven months but we had been together for like sixteen years, so I was kind of feeling a bit sorry for myself. I had got so many offers to do a book over the years, and I agreed to do it then. It was a long time ago so maybe I have a better perspective now. I’m older now.

FT: The songs on the last album, reflect the life, and are emotional for the listener. Is it difficult to get through them in a gig?

MC: My marriage is finished fifteen years. The producer Pete Glenister, who is also a master songwriter, said to me you’d be better off getting the songs out straight away. He asked me, can you still make them real, and I said oh yeah! I don’t write songs. I tell people stories. Like with Pete, we sit, almost in an interview setting. Pete would pick out particular parts of the story; the wedding dress, Mrs you, Mr me.

Pete said, you go out into the garden, and pick some mint for tea, and I’ll have a chorus for you. So, when I came back he had it completed, and I started singing it straight away, and it felt right.

FT: Do people talk to you about their experiences because of your openness?

MC: There was an unbelievable amount of letters when the book came out; cards, thank you letters. Even still, I get them or people will approach after a gig to share their own experiences. I received two letters from the street in Shantalla, in Galway where I lived. One I used to go to school with. Both said it happened in their house too. If we had known and had have been able to talk to each other…

I’ve known this woman in New Zealand, for years and years, and she has taken the domain, “it happened in our house too”, and has started an organisation to help women there and in Australia.

FT: People can be very judgemental when it comes to addiction. People look down at others with addiction problems. Did you get that?

MC: Addiction isn’t a choice. People don’t realise that the addiction can be the end result of what happened to them when they were little, or growing up, and not everyone can get the help. It’s not everyone, of course, who wants to stop. People choose different things to get over issues. Some people repeat behaviour that they learnt. Some people can’t handle it all and some people take drink or drugs.

FT: Do you think it was harder for you because of your profile?

MC: No. I think in some ways people almost expect it of people in the music business. It’s harder to be a mother, and a woman; a mother especially. The shame of having to say, I left my kids. I nearly would have walked over them to get to the bottle. A lot of the women I’ve met since, feel the same shame because they were mothers. It’s more accepted that men go to the pub and get drunk.

I did most of my awful drinking at home. I would take my daughter out for a walk in the prom, and go a lifebuoy behind the Harbour Bar in Bray, and another a bit away, where I would hide bottle of vodka. I would have a can of coke, drink some, top it up with the vodka, and carry on walking the child with my drink.

FT: But you’ve come through or are continuing to fight it. Has that idea of the rock’n’roll lifestyle changed?

MC: I think it has changed. The first time I noticed, I was playing a big festival in Edmonton, Canada. Joni Mitchell and Neil Young were on the bill, with Bruce Cockburn and J.J. Cale. Huge event and there were a few young Irish bands, and I got chatting to them. They had all these rules. No drinking on travel days, one of them does the accounts, one of them does the flights and travel. They party at the end of the tour but when they’re on the road, it’s a job, and they are very professional about it.

FT: There something about you though, the number of times you’ve bounced back…#

MC: A Donegal woman! That’s it. I take after the granny!

FT: Other Irish musicians like Yourself, Christy Moore, Frances Black, Glen Hansard and many others are heavily involved in social issues and activism.

MC: It’s often up to people in the arts to speak out and raise money on these issues. Even in the first lockdown, The Late Late show asked myself and Frances Black, and Jim Sheridan to do a show to raise money for Pieta House and suicide awareness. That raised 1.2 million that night and went on to raise a lot more. No audience, just in the studio.

People in the arts and music I suppose in particular do speak out about those issues. I do a lot of work for womens’ refuges. There’s a great place that’s started up in Dublin called Saol. You don’t have to be off the drink or drugs to go there but you have to promise to try and reduce and educate yourself, and others about the damage done to you, your children and your family, and then the community.

And they are doing great. The way they were when it started two years ago and the way it is now, it’s like 30 different women, and it’s all just women.

FT: Can I ask about the track ‘Family Life’. It’s a little gem of a song, by a band The Blue Nile. Does the song have a lot of resonance for you?

MC: God, I’ve loved Paul Buchanan’s work for ages. I first heard that particular song coming home from my mam’s funeral. It has a lot of resonance for me, for a lot of people. The lyrics are so well observed. But for me the words “separate chairs in separate rooms” just reminds me so much of my own parents in later life. My dad would be watching his sports in one room, while mam would be watching her soaps in another. It’s a beautifully observed and written song. It’s a song that still hits me when I hear it.

FT: The album itself, despite its sheen and styling, is still quite dark in terms of its subject matter, particularly tracks like ‘Two Breaking Into One’.

MC: Well that song took a long time to get down on paper. It’s about betrayal, so yeah it’s gonna be dark. It’s about a former husband who had an affair lasting years during our marriage.

FT: The subjects are hard-hitting but there is a sensibility to it as well.

MC: Well I’m 64. I wanted to talk about stuff but I wanted an album to be played on radio. I mean I’m not finished. But at 64, I wanted to do an album that was popular, that as many people could get to listen to. Unfortunately, like a lot of artists, circumstances have got in the way. But it will go, the album, hopefully full gigs are on their way back, and we can get it out there.

FT: It’s a great album, and hopefully people will get the opportunity to listen to it live, and love it too. Thanks for taking the time to talk to us.

MC: Not at all. Thank you.

Mary has already started work on her next album. The subject matter will be kept under wraps for a time, but I can reveal, it is based on a work by a much-missed artist. I can also guarantee it will be thought-provoking, challenging, and provocative, much like the artist herself.

Mary Coughlan’s latest album ‘Family Life’ is available now.