Sunday 22 April 2018

Life lessons with Mary Coughlan: My drinking had got so bad that I would down three bottles of vodka and lie comatose for about a week

'I'm almost 60 and I know who I am for the first time in my life' - Mary Coughlan. Photo: Tony Gavin
'I'm almost 60 and I know who I am for the first time in my life' - Mary Coughlan. Photo: Tony Gavin
Family: Mary Coughlan with her daughter Clare Bonadio and grandson Felice Farrelly last year.
John Meagher

John Meagher

Mary Coughlan is one of the country's best loved singers. Born in Galway 60 years ago next month, she released her latest album, the biographical Scars on the Calendar, last year. Her latest project is a theatrical version of her 2008 album, The House of Ill Repute, which she is performing as part of the MusicTown festival in Dublin. Renowned for her frank songs and even more forthright opinions, she battled alcohol and drug addiction - as detailed in her 2008 autobiography, Bloody Mary - and hasn't had a drink in 23 years. Twice divorced, she has five children and lives near Bray in Co Wicklow.

When we were young, my mother made the most amazing dresses for us and the house was lovely. But that was on the surface - I was really unhappy. I ran away from home when I was 17.

The first song that ever moved me was Van Morrison's Listen to the Lion. He sings, "And I will search my very soul" - and that's me to a tee, I have to get at everything. When I moved to London [after the Leaving Cert], I used to walk around Ladbroke Grove hoping to catch a glimpse of Van, but I never did. Later, he came to some of my gigs and we'd have a few drinks together afterwards.

I've always believed in reincarnation and why I keep making the same mistakes over and over again. It's remarkable how deeply implanted the patterns of behaviour are in my soul. I've been doing regression therapy and it's amazing.

Within two and a half years of being in the music business, I had a house in Howth on two acres, next to Gay Byrne and with a sea view. The industry was so different then, you could make a good living from it. But I lost every bit of it, and I work today because I love it - and because I have to.

Very few people will tell you their story - every bit of it. You can be living with someone for years and you don't know the half of it - as I know only too well. In my business, you present to the public what you want them to believe. But when I came out of the Rutland Centre, I thought 'f*** it, I'll put it all out there' and that's helped to keep me sober.

The treatment I received at the Rutland Centre changed my life. One of the things they do is bring in children to tell how the drinking has affected them. I would never have heard their story was it not for the fact that I had to sit there and listen to them every week for six weeks. There was no hiding place. They'd come in and tell me what impact my drinking had on them and all the other patients of the centre would be present too. I hadn't listened to their pain before, but this time I did and if you truly listen there's no way you can drink again. Had it not happened, I'd still be drinking.

My drinking had got so bad that I would down three bottles of vodka and just go up to my room and lie comatose for about a week. My daughter Aoife, who was about 16 at the time, used to sleep on the floor outside the room. She'd listen out in case I'd puke.

When I wrote my book I had solicitors' letters on behalf of people wanting to see what I was putting in it about them. And when my lawyers went through the book, there were red stickers on virtually every page. So much had to be left out.

If it wasn't for Australia and New Zealand and places like Finland I'd be f***ed. The music business has changed so much and you just can't make the sort of money when I first started out. It would be impossible to do this by remaining in Ireland. I played the Sydney Opera House a few years ago and I'd never be able to do something that big here.

Last year, I was so freaked out when I turned 59 because 60 was just around the corner. But I'm not bothered by it now because I'm almost 60 and I know who I am for the first time in my life and I'm not apologising for it. I'm not lonely and I'm not f***ed up - well, I have my moments, but generally it's all good.

I'm going on a road trip in the US at the end of the year with a small group of friends. One of the them is the girl I ran away with from Galway all those years ago. She rang me up about six years ago and wanted to know if it was me - I used to be Mary Doherty then. I haven't seen her since then.

[Producer] Erik Visser has been the most important music collaborator of my life. We've been working together for 30 years and we have this incredible understanding. We just hit it off from the start. He isn't well at the moment and, very selfishly, I think: "What am I going to do when he's not around? Who am I going to work with?"

I wouldn't call myself a nationalist, but I am very proud to be Irish. What they [rebel leaders] did was amazing. But that RTÉ series, Rebellion, gave no sense of the scale of it - you'd swear there were only three people on the street.

My daughter bought me a book a few years ago called F*** It and I loved it. When I went on their website I saw that they did retreats in Italy and I've gone on a few of them. It's all about tai-chi and movement and it's full of head-bangers.

I have a strange relationship with Galway. I kind of went off it. It became this tourist town. It had been a great place, with great characters. Now, every time I go down there, there's a new roundabout.

Mary Coughlan presents The House of Ill Repute in the Lab, Foley Street, Dublin, tonight. It's part of MusicTown, a two-week arts festival which runs until April 17 and features Neneh Cherry, Lynched and David Kitt. For details on the full line-up, see

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