- 01 Oct 21
This Sunday October 3rd, the legendary Mary Coughlan will take to the stage at the Grand Social for the latest show in our Up Close and Personal series, in conversation about her acclaimed 1985 album, 'Tired and Emotional'. To mark the occasion, we're revisiting a classic interview – originally published in Hot Press in 1985 and written by the late, great Molly McAnailly Burke.
Mary Coughlan is highly contrary and a lot more besides. She has also emerged as 'The Voice' of '85 through her spirited live performances and her recently-released debut album "Tired And Emotional".
Molly McAnailly Burke investigates...
In the late seventies, Mary Coughlan was a housewife and mother of three who knitted for spare cash and could occasionally be persuaded to sing at parties when she was three sheets. She comes from no musical family, studied no instrument at school, and had no consuming interest in the traditional music scene that dominated her home town of Galway. More a professional partier, who buzzed around the crack like a wasp to a honey jar, Mary earned much social notoriety by virtue of her high public profile. Brazen and devil-may-care, she could be relied upon to say, and do, the things that other people only imagined.
"Believe it or not, though, I was shy about singing. Painfully so", recounts Mary, trying to recall the incidents leading to her nearly over-night plunge into the late-night music world. Long time friend and musical mentor Eric Visser was the catalyst. Eric, who has been putting out an album a year with his highly successful continental band Flairk had shifted his base from Holland to Galway in the mid-seventies. Known for both twelve string and sitar, Mary and I recalled those smoke-filled Knocknacarra evenings when Eric's droney eastern-inspired instrumental solos would drift like the fog from Salthill strand. Galway has been a haven for foreigners since the Lynches and de Burgos chased out the O's and Mac's some five hundred years ago, and to this day it has a curious tolerance for the exotic. Mary O'Doherty Coughlan, however, is as Irish as a P.A.Y.E. strike, and just as determined.
Two and a half years ago Eric Visser asked Mary if she'd like to try singing some songs he had written. Just for the crack, like. Mary was chuffed, and after working out a small set, they decided to enter a talent competition in a Salthill nightclub. Among the numbers was Eric's highly innovative tango version of "Nobody's Business" and the Nancy-Friday-like fantasy "Beach" song, lyrics by Eric's Irish wife, Anto.
"It was my first time on stage" recalls Mary," and I was terrified. But my confidence began to soar as Eric and I won every night, through all the heats . .. to be beaten at the post by someone singing "Silver Threads and Golden Needles." She laughs now, consider ng how preposterous the whole shebang was in the first place, but at the time she had less of a sense of humour. Stories have it that Visser, sniffing smugly as he was handed the second place trophy, tossed it to Mary who stomped it to bits on the stage. The now-glued-together icon of injustice sits on the window-sill of Mary's young ones, who play `talent competition' with it.
It's easy to become well-known in Galway — too easy, perhaps. Local entrepreneur Olly `na-Gigs' Jennings set them up with a string of successful supports throughout the summer and autumn of '84, notably a highly acclaimed Leisureland gig with the Flying Pickets. But Galway has a fame ceiling as low as a Corporation flat, and it's also notorious for underpaying the supports. (More about that in another article, threatens the last of the Battleaxe De Burgos). Additionally, business abroad had necessitated Eric's return to Holland, and guitarist Gerard Coffey was drafted as replacement on very short notice. Luckily Gerard, whose versatility has stretched from classical to bluegrass, was a veteran of those oul' Knocknacarra sessions and knew Eric's and Mary's material intimately. Aiming for a band, or at least another keg to balance the boat, the two pulled in Moral Philosophy student Declan Gibbons to add more lead riffs. They flirted with titles like "Blue Heaven" and "Broke At The Ritz", doing Leon Redbone covers and Billie Holiday amongst Eric's continental jazz.
But the Galway Syndrome loomed large. A teensy puddle with too many musical frogs is a haven for venue operators and a torment to serious musicians facing shilling shortages. Gerard and Mary separately recounted to me how they attempted a residency at a trendy Galway pub. "The place was so packed they had to lock the doors", says Mary. "At the end of the night they gave us thirty quid. We couldn't be bothered, even though we'd had a poster made up and everything".
Trying to take things into their own hands, the band attempted to establish themselves in a cabaret atmosphere in Salthill — candles on the tables, dim lights, thick smoke, you got it. But whether it was over-exposure, or the difficulty of getting city residents to trek out to the salty suburbs in midwinter, they packed it in after three weeks. Mary chalks it up to the lack of a suitable inner-city venue. The music pubs of Galway tend to cluster like mussels towards the Claddagh end of the city, and most nights are so crowded the dead could stand at the bar 'til closing time.
Fortunately, Dublin had begun to take notice. Declan Sinnott brought them up for a string of Meeting Place gigs, and counselled Mary to consider a shift to Dublin, where she was likely to take off like a shot. But the big break came from Siobhan McHugh and the "Sounds Promising" program. February '84 had the RTE switchboards jammed with people wanting to know the identity of this remarkable new singer. "Meet Me Where They Play The Blues", an obscure New Orleans jazz piece from the Forties, was selected for "Pick Of The Week", where it came to the attention of Gay Byrne. From there on it was the Late, Late, The Music Show, and Exhibit A . . . a veritable snowball on speed.
"These were very tasty productions", remarks Mary, "and I started getting offers left, right and centre. It was tormented, because with the kids as well as Gerard's other commitments, I really couldn't consider gigging regularly outside of a fifty mile radius of Galway". And she had great reluctance to leave her own dear Galway Bay.
What to do next? Things were getting confusing. Declan Gibbons had opted out, Gerard was getting edgy about committing himself to travel. "I didn't want to get into the Galway pub gig grind — it's a dead end. But otherwise it was back to the knitting. And not being able to take advantage of offers from Dublin was frustrating" recalls Mary. A highly but as the spring softened, Eric Visser reappeared on the scene, like the lark in the morning. He had big plans for an LP featuring Mary, and the recording began almost successful string of Sunday morning sessions in Leyden's of Ennis was the only highlight of this period — "he let us keep all the door money", sighs Mary, in fond memory. But otherwise things had gone slack. Eric was still away, and she was broke.
A phone call from Terry O'Neill put the fizz back in the soda; two Freddie White supports, one at the Olympia. Smash hits, both. But the reality of the lifestyle behind the true blues singer's delivery began to take a toll on Gerard, and he handed up his notice. Well I remember that chill predawn hour as the two of us sat tensely in the get-away car waiting for Mary to come out of the Olympia. She had disappeared into the inner sanctum of dressing rooms and could not be located. When she did come out, it seemed ill-advised to question her too closely. "I'm gettin' tired of sippin' wine and watchin' it bubble/sometimes our dreams fall out of line and land us in trouble/ but honey if you're yearnin'/there's a fire still burn in'/meet me where they play the blues...". Mary returned to Galway, a voice without a venue, in the wake of rave reviews. Gulls cried over Salmon Weir Bridge.
The Hot Press - overnight. Eric, a perfectionist with very specific ideas, put Mary through the mill as only a true Professional can. "I was all night in the studio", says Mary, with bottles of Dutch gin to keep my vocal tone at the right atmospheric level: quiet, moody, melancholic. That wasn't a hard emotion to fake. I crawled home through the dawn, got the kids up for school, and tried to catch a few hours sleep before starting all over again". "Tired and Emotional" was the title Mary chose for the record.
The tension set in as the rough mix made the rounds of record companies. Everyone liked it, but there were marketing problems. In Ireland, you're supposed to fit Rock, Folk, Trad or Country. Blues is News, a hot potato. The smokey spud was finally buttered by the `Mystery' label, distributed by WEA, and should be seeping through the airwaves even as we speak. Something new and highly charged is on the scene: late night mystery music, but All Ours. The flame haired Mary, in her black beaded gown and voluptuous frame, is New Orleans, 1930, reincarnated in Shantalla, Galway.
The future glints like a pearl in a freshly opened oyster. Mary has left her beloved home town to perch like a dove among the Gaybos and Bill Grahams of Howth, and has been seen gigging with saxophone wizard Keith Donald and others of the ilk. Her daughters, Aoife and Olwyn take her phone messages, pester her to be in on time, and have their own special set of requests when she's on stage: "Strange FROOOT, mammy!". An eerie choice for children, but there you are.
In all, she's come a long way from those Galway days when her unusual style stuck out at sessions like a Sampan at a Curragh race, earning her much notoriety. A well-known Galway fiddler, who would not win the Stag/ Hot Press award for humility, tried to chase her out of a traditional session once and got a damp reminder of perspective when she dumped a full pint down his front. "Who d'ya think y'aire, GOD???!!!"roared Mary, about to follow him into the jax and finish him off. She was restrained by friends from further retribution, but she tells me half of Galway shook her hand the next day. She had said and done a thing that others had only been fantasizing about for years.
Hot Press presents Up Close & Personal, a live series with the artists behind seminal Irish albums at The Grand Social. Sunday October 3rd we sit down with Mary Coughlan, to discuss her legendary debut album 'Tired and Emotional', which sold an astonishing 100,000 copies in Ireland. Mary will interviewed by Hot Press contributing editor Paul Nolan, one of the magazine’s most outstanding writers and contributors. Limited tickets are available here.