How Mary Coughlan has finally put her House in order

Known at the height of her success almost as much for her drinking as for her soulful, bluesy jazz singing, Mary Coughlan now lives a 'normal life' with children, grandchildren and pets. She told Joanne Sweeney about writing a musical, about women living in a 'house of ill repute', that's turned out to be more personal than she'd envisaged

Mary Coughlan has created a musical based on her acclaimed 2008 album The House of Ill Repute
Joanne Sweeney

MARY Coughlan is one of the great survivors of life and love as well as being Ireland's answer to legendary singers such as Billie Holiday and Edif Piaf.

The Galway-born artist doesn't just takes her audiences to church with her music, she practically baptises them with her own passion and pain. As Melody Maker once lauded, 'A song is not complete unless it has been sung by Mary Coughlan', so Belfast audiences are in for a treat with two upcoming performances in what is a busy year for the songstress.

She will join accordion player Sharon Shannon and singer Frances Black for a special performance at the Concert at Clonard as part of the Feile an Phobail West Belfast Festival on Tuesday August 9.

She will also be making a return visit to the city's Black Box venue later in the year.

"I come to Belfast all the time, every year. I play the Black Box generally just before Christmas and it's become a bit of a tradition now. I come up a lot and always enjoy it," she tells me.

While she has never been anything but honest in public about the sexual abuse in her childhood and how it scarred her, the alcoholism, the rehab and failed marriages and relationships that followed in that turbulent period of her life, Coughlan has been sober since 1994 when she tragically miscarried a baby after falling down drunk in the kitchen one night.

She ran away at the age of 14 with a boy two years older than her in a relationship that lasted a day, only then to get married to Fintan Coughlan at the age of 19. By 26, she was a mother to their three children. Then by 32 she had met her former partner Frank Bonadio who she went on to have two more children with over a 16-year relationship.

But those years were also dominated by her drinking, particularly in her 30s when she would put away bottles of vodka or tequila a day. In one bad year, she was hospitalised 32 times for alcohol poisoning and drugs.

Unlike the sad end of Holiday who died from cirrhosis of the liver, Coughlan now lives happy and harmoniously in the hills of "County Wickla", as she pronounces it, with one of her daughters Clare (28), Clare's son Felice (4) and her youngest son Cian (19) with "horses, dogs and cats" in what she says is a "normal life".

Her other children Aoife (39), Olwen (38), Eoin (38) and her grandchildren Meini (8) and Luke (7) are all frequent visitors, so much so she says that she has never experienced empty nest syndrome "as they never really left".

In this her 61th year, Coughlan has decided to peel off one more layer of her persona while creating a musical based on her acclaimed 2008 album The House of Ill Repute.

She explains; "The House of Ill Repute is an album of 12 songs about 12 different women living in a house of ill repute. It's about how they all ended up there and I always thought that it would make a great musical.

"I suppose most of the stories would be about myself in a way and it's a way of being able to put out there different aspects of myself using different characters. I decided to do monologues on specific memories and tie them with the songs from House and other songs from my earliest childhood memories.

"So it became something different completely and now I'm working on it some more. I found that as I went on with the writing, it became more and more personal in the end."

The combination of monologue and song has already gone down well with audiences in Dublin after it was presented as "a work in progress" in nine performances in May.

Coughlan said: "We did four nights in the Lab in Dublin where people go to try things out. We had questions and answers afterwards and I learned a lot from that about what people want, what they want to see more of,what they want to see less of. They were very open and honest. I really enjoyed the experience and we are going to turn the one-hour-long performance into two parts later in October.

"Already people in the west are going mad for it. They want it now but I hope they want it as much at the end of the year when we are finished working with it as we hope to take it throughout the country.

"In many ways it has opened a lot of stuff for me and it made me look at things differently. It's added another dimension to the whole thing. I looked at myself, and my part in it all, the marriages and relationships. The whole thing has been very difficult but also very satisfying."

In one of the monologues, Coughlan recalls the first time she ever performed in public.

"I remember the first time I sang in public at the age of five and I go back into the feeling of that, which is lovely," says the daughter of a Donegal soldier and a Connemara woman.

"I started accessing parts of myself that were happy as a child. People always asked me if there was music in my family. All of the stories I ever heard growing up were that I was soothed by music, that if I was crying they would shove me under the radio on a big shelf in the house.

"My mother taught me the first songs that I ever sang. She was always singing herself and bought records and listened to the likes of Elvis, Cliff Richard and Guy Mitchell."

Scars On The Calender was the last of her 10 albums, released last year, and was another brilliant collaboration between her and producer Eric Visser.

"I've enough material for another album," she says. "But I really need to plan out my year very carefully. Music is obviously my big thing and I have a lot of it on between now and the end of the year.

"I was 60 this year and there's a few of my women friends that I'm meeting up with next month in America to go on a road trip, probably ending up in New Orleans. We had promised ourselves when we were 50 that we would go to Cuba but we never got there. Now that we're 60, we're off. "

:: Mary Coughlan will be preforming with Sharon Shannon and Frances Black at the Concert at Clonard (Clonard Monastry), at this year's Feile an Phobail on Tuesday August 9 and with her band at The Black Box, Belfast, on December 1.


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