To Hell And Back With Mary Coughlan

Mary Coughlan - Photo by Colm Henry (3)
Photo: Colm Henry

For a while Mary Coughlan seemed to be living her career backwards. She had a number one album before she ever played a gig, and a decade later found herself back at the bottom rung of the ladder.

The Irish blues/jazz/soul singer may have fallen in love with music as a toddler and been singing Billie Holiday songs around the house at 17, but she was 29 before she turned professional.

“I just never thought I was good enough,” is Coughlan’s explanation for the delay. A friend in the music business recognised her talent and finally convinced her to record. The resultant album reached number 1 in the Irish charts six weeks after its 1985 release.

Only then did she set about performing. “The first night I did a concert four people turned up,” she recalls, “and the second night the queue was down the street and around the corner.”

She suddenly found she had a stellar music career to add to her three small children, and it was all too much. “I became an alcoholic and drug addict, and everything went down hill as rapidly as it went up hill,” Coughlan says with typical candour.

Mary Coughlan - Photo by Colm Henry (1)
Photo: Colm Henry

Her drinking phase – she has now been sober for 19 years after consuming up to three bottles of vodka a day – was savagely destructive to herself and those around her. Having emerged from rehabilitation a return to performing was sufficiently scary for her to contemplate not bothering. Then she was offered a gig in Galway.

“The guy who booked me in there,” she recounts, “said, `I’ll give you a chance. I’ll put a small poster up behind the bar and see what happens, because the last time you were here you almost fell off the stage, and I swore I’d never speak to you again.’ About two days later we’d sold out eight nights. And that gave me back my confidence. I did those gigs, and every night we got a standing ovation, and every night it was better than the night before.”

Coughlan subsequently repeated the downfall with cocaine, and once again straightened herself out and came back. But even through the alcohol and drug phases her poignant music was always the best possible release for her demons.

“And it is still is!” she exclaims. “I just seem to go right back there every time. There’s always something to moan about!”

Mary Coughlan: March 30, Clarendon Guesthouse; March 31, Vanguard.