Interview by Barry Egan
'Where love rules, there is no will to power’, Carl Jung once said. ‘And where power predominates, love is lacking. The one is the shadow of the other.’ The shadows having been hanging over her all her life, Mary Coughlan believes that love “has never offered me anything but pain.”
“I believe that we encounter ‘souls’ on this part of our journey and we learn from each encounter,” she continues. “We meet people that make us feel whole or connected or we remember something and it goes on like that for a while. We figure stuff out. I have had very many lessons.”
I ask her to explain the lessons.
“I was 19 when I got married. I had 3 children by the time I was 24 and gone [from the marriage] when I was 26,” she says.
“I met Frank [Bonadio] in 1989. I was 32 — I was already a singer and not yet a complete drunk and I believed he was the love of my life. We lived together for 16 years,” she says. They married in 2003 and had two children, Clare and Cian.
“Frank took care of me and my children when I was unable to. He loved me; I loved him. Then disaster struck again ...” she says meaning the end of her marriage to Frank.
Nine years ago, she met young Australian John Kelly “in a country far away” — and ever since, “we have a connection that’s different again, but it’s love,” she says maybe, I would argue, unconvincingly. This I say because Mary talks at length about how her relationships “have never worked”, “are always f**ked”, or are “disasters” or “they always end badly” — reiterating the earlier link between love and pain for her.
What’s the closest she’s come to feeling that love doesn’t have to be associated with pain? “Many times for a period of time,” she answers, “but for me it always seems to bring pain eventually...”
When I heard Love Will Tear Us Apart first I had to write down what the guy was saying
“Of course,” she adds, “there was extreme passion in my life on many occasions and I’ve been ‘in love’ many times. I think that perhaps I was a very damaged soul and perhaps I didn’t make healthy choices. I find it easy to give love, myself, completely — too much — but I find it difficult to receive, to believe in it. The pity of love, Yeats said”.
“I guess I have learned in therapy that one must love oneself first before you can love another. I suppose I’m still learning how to do that. To be able to love my children and grandchildren has been a great gift”, she says referring to Aoife (38), Olwen (37), Eoin (35), Clare (23) and Cian (18) and her grandchildren Meini (8), Luke (7) and Felice, (“almost 3”). Being a granny is, she says, “very special” and, she adds, “very different to being a ma.”
“I remember my mother stood outside the delivery room when I was having my kids. I couldn’t get into the Coombe when my daughter [Aoife] was giving birth [to Meini eight years ago]. So I went home and got into my dressing gown and slippers and sneaked inside to have a look at my daughter and her daughter. It blew my mind.”
“We have the best of fun. Camping out is next on our agenda,” she says. There is plenty of scope for the latter as Mary lives in a rural idyll in a house she built herself six years ago on the Little Sugar Loaf in Co Wicklow. She sings on her new album about a “thirst for misadventure.” Though Mary tells me that it is “a different kind of misadventure I’m looking for now. I do a lot of shamanic work — singing and chanting and dancing around at moonlight in fields all over the country.”
Yonks before she discovered moonlit shamanism, The Guardian dubbed her Ireland’s Billie Holiday, adding that Mary is “a jazz and blues singer whose life story gives weight to the cliché that the best singers are the ones with the most painful lives.”
She has just performed an almost shocking — because of its emotional rawness — cover of Joy Division’s Love Will Tear Us Apart for the Windmill Lane Sessions on Independent.ie. That afternoon, Mary actually changed the mood in the Ringsend studio when she sang the words: ‘Why is the bedroom so cold?/You’ve turned away on your side/Is my timing that flawed?/Our respect runs so dry.’
In 1992 she says she was especially drawn to Love Will Tear Us Apart. “I was living with Frank [Bonadio]. A very big house on the sea front in Bray. I had a rule that I was not allowed drink in the living room. I had to go away to another room to drink. I would take up a ghetto blaster and listen to Frank Sinatra and Billie Holiday.
“I would look at the record sleeve of Joy Division’s Love Will Tear Us Apart. It used to make me cry. I listened to sad songs. I just dug myself a hole and wallowed in it. When I heard Love Will Tear Us Apart first I had to write down what the guy was saying,” she says referring to Joy Division singer Ian Curtis who in 1980 hanged himself in the kitchen of his Macclesfield house aged 23.
“Love has torn me apart,” Mary says. “Love does tear people part whether that is familial love or between friends or lovers. It tears the soul out of you. It can do. It can also bring a lot of joy. But for most of my life it has been the other way.”
Born May 5, 1956, Co Galway, Mary was only 14 when she fell in love with a guy, two years her senior. They ran away together. It lasted about a day, because “we had no money and no place to go.”
“We stole a boat and rode up the river in Galway. We both wondered what it would be like to wake up beside somebody in the morning and be happy. It didn’t work. The guards were waiting for us. I got locked up in my bedroom for a month. He got sent away to boarding school.
“It was so good but I wasn’t allowed to have it,” she says forlornly. “It seemed to me that anything good in life was taken away from me.”
Mary is here ostensibly to talk about her new album — her first album of new material since 2008 and a reunion with long-time collaborator “and my soul-mate”, Erik Visser — Scars on the Calendar. Mary doesn’t do promotion so much as bare her bruised soul. She says if you listen closely to Chance Encounter (‘It’s over/I don’t love yo u any more’) and Eoghanin (‘I’m aware that I have caused this’), you can hear her crying. “They said, ‘You can’t let that out!’ But they are only feelings.”
Mary Coughlan’s flawed genius is the ability to sing out those feelings, that pain, in such a powerful way that the listener somehow feels inside Mary’s head as she revisits the wreckage of her past.
Does she ever wonder how she is still alive after all she has been through? “I do. Look at my history. I was 32 times hospitalised in two years for alcohol poisoning and drugs.”
“My daughter Claire, who lives with me now and her little fella [Felice] ... we were laughing in the car the other day about the night around 1990 Frank and Aoife and Ollie and Eoin were carrying me out ... one each had an arm and one of them had a leg!
“They were trying to carry me out of the house to bring me to hospital, because I had done it again.” (Doing it again for Mary Coughlan entailed a personal oblivion that was fuelled by “four bottles of vodka a day.” She would keep drinking for seven days “until I collapsed.”)
“So, they just dropped me — flat-bang — on the concrete floor when they heard a neighbour’s door open. Then she dragged me inside into the hall until the neighbour had gotten into their car and driven off. It is not something you’d think you’d ever be laughing about but...” Mary had, she remembers, grimly, vodka hidden every where. “You know those life-saving things you see on the promenade in Bray? I used to have naggins of Vodka hidden all the way down in them. I would just tell people I was going for a walk and come back plastered.”
Does she have a lot of guilt buried inside because of what she put her family through?
“Well, guilt keeps you drinking. That’s what I have learned over the years. Guilt and blaming yourself. I suppose I was about five years into therapy when my therapist said — when I told her what my life had been like — ‘Is it any wonder? You’ve got to stop hating yourself and being so down on yourself because that is a cycle.”
Why Mary Coughlan drank so self-destructively is, simply put, because “it was before my First Holy Communion ... the first time I was sexually abused by a family member.”
Is the person still alive? “No. None of them are. It became ... I won’t say a routine ... but it became a regular thing until I was about 11. And I started running away from home and I started doing loopy things when I was very young.” Mary left home altogether when she was 17. She pinned a note to her mother’s pillow. It said, ‘Gone off to see the world.’ Mary was true to her word. “I kinda never went home for a few years after that. It was kind of a very unhappy time for me but looking back on what I did now, I can’t imagine if any of my kids had done the same thing, and they had plenty of reason to.
“If you consider how bad I was with the first three kids. It wasn’t until I went to the Rutland Centre and listened to them all, because my kids would come every week and talk about how it was for them. And I think really when you go through six weeks of that, and look at your little kids like that...”
But you were a little kid as well when it happened to you, I say to Mary. “Yeah. I was a little kid when it happened to me. And I think that I was diagnosed that my development stopped when I was about age 7 or 11, my emotional development.
“That’s what the psychiatric evaluation was. Then I had to start growing up. And once you start... it was a thirst for misadventure but it was also a thirst for making myself better, and making myself whole again. I am a believer that we are all born and we become damaged; many people become damaged in different ways. So, that’s what happened to me. And I never made the connection.”
When Mary wrote her 2011 autobiography Bloody Mary: My Story, she received “hundreds” of letters from women and men from Galway that I knew vaguely or very well who said, ‘It wasn’t just you. It happened to a lot of us.’ I have done some work with women in England who work with women from Ireland who have been abused, and have gotten into drug and alcohol situations. They talk about the Church with the abuse, but most abuse, you’ll find if you talk to people, happens within families.” Did she ever confront her abuser? “I did, yeah. But through the work that I’ve done over the years, I’ve become...” Mary says stopping. As part of her therapy, she continues eventually, she had to step into her late mother Peggy’s shoes “and where she came from — and my father Peter’s shoes and where he came from. People didn’t do stuff to hurt me,” she says later, “they didn’t know any better.”
“I thought, I suppose, I would have children and never ever hurt them. But I just hurt them in a different kind of way, you know?” she says meaning her alcoholism. Mary went into the Rutland Centre in 1993 around Easter. She got “locked” a few days after she got out, then phoned the Rutland and hasn’t touched a drop of alcohol since. She says she had a lot of internal anger about what had been done to her. She directed that anger inwards at herself, and by trying to drink herself to death. “Well, I tried to kill myself with ... I was going to say with normal methods. I tried to kill myself when I was 16.” Instead of in the grave, Mary ended up in Ballinasloe — “in,” she says, “a very large mental hospital, with big, big doors with big locks on them. It was filled with old people and it smelled of cabbage and urine. I have a lot of miserable stories.” Asked how does she feel when she looks back on that 16-year-old girl now, Mary says she did therapy called Finding The Inner Child. “It has taken me 17 years to get to any sort of peaceful place in my life, 17 years sober.” The first 5 years of therapy, twice a week, were hell, primarily because there was just so much to talk about, “but once the floodgates opened.” She says she got married and had children at a “very young age” because, she says, she wanted to “give them something that I didn’t have. But you can’t give people what you don’t have yourself.”
When first she started to sing the blues, as she calls it, in 1984 the catharsis began in earnest for Mary Coughlan. “I started to sing and I’d close my eyes and all this stuff would come out. And it came out and people recognised it,” Mary says meaning her inner torment.
“I did a gig. There was 4 people at it the first night and the following Tuesday night there was a queue down the corner, then the Wednesday, it was the Baggot Inn [in Dublin]. It was phenomenal.
“The following year I was playing every festival around the world,” Mary says on the foot of her internationally critically acclaimed debut album Tired And Emotional in 1985. “It was all very good but I just went out of control completely. I was spinning inside like a mad woman.”
Because she was still the 10-year-old girl inside? “Yeah, I was still the 10-year-old girl inside, trying to reconcile having three kids and a career.” I ask 59-year-old Mary Coughlan will she always be that frightened, abused, lonely, 10-year-old little girl inside. “I think I’ve learned not to ‘react’ like a 10-year-old any more to things life throws at me. But I guess in many ways I still have the heart of that 10-year-old.”
Mary Coughlan and Erik Visser’s new album Scars On The Calendar is out now.
Mary Coughlan and other leading artists will offer new interpretations of Carole King’s songs including her best-selling album Tapestry at the National Concert Hall 17 July in Art of the Song: Carole King’s Tapestry. Tickets €25 on 417 00 00 or nch.ie
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