If James Joyce or Flann O’Brien had discovered punk music, they might have written songs like Cathal Coughlan, who died in hospital on May 18 after a long illness, aged 61.
In 1990 he wrote one of the greatest songs of all time, the furious black comedy of Blues for Ceausescu for his band The Fatima Mansions. The song was a gleeful goodbye to a despised Romanian dictator who was executed along with his wife on Christmas Day 1989. It was also a six-and-half-minute critique of the UK, the monarchy, Europe and Ireland:
In the dingy Irish orphan’s home
Dickie Mountbatten licks the alchemist’s bone
It’s done in strict official secrecy
God, I love living in a democracy!
Born in Glounthaune, Co Cork, Coughlan was the son of teacher and a civil servant. He went to Presentation Brothers College in the city and later became a medical student at UCC for two years. “And a really f**king useless one,” he said.
On New Year’s Eve 1979, he met the Luton-born Irish ex pat and guitarist Sean O’Hagan at a party in Cork. O’Hagan immediately liked his acerbity. The friendship was sealed when Coughlan asked a guy at the party, who was playing a folk song, if he knew anything by the then obscure Salford punk band The Fall. Not long after O’Hagan and Coughlan formed Microdisney.
In July 1983, they moved to London, and signed to Rough Trade. The BBC’s John Peel, then the most influential DJ in the UK, championed them. Peel said he could listen to Coughlan “singing the phone book”.
In 1984, Microdisney released their debut album Everything’s Fantastic. It was followed by We Hate You South African Bastards!, inspired by the band’s opposition to the apartheid regime of institutionalised racial oppression.
The opening track, Helicopter of the Holy Ghost, was Coughlan singing about poverty and Irish emigration: Where’s the hope or beauty, truth or dignity?/Put that suitcase down before you answer me.
His insights about the construct and the reality of Ireland were as engaging as his music. Irish people were in torment, he believed. “I blame a lot of things on the civil war,” he once said. “It was never really settled, and Ireland is a country where people just don’t accept the idea of pulling together.”
The entry of organised religion in the form of the Catholic Church into the already toxic mix didn’t help, in Coughlan’s view. “It was the new colonial authority. We weren’t trusted to look after ourselves, so a babysitter had to be sent in in good time for 1921 and it was the f**king Romans, basically.”
Living in London in the early 1980s, Coughlan had some experiences as an Irish immigrant that were less than amusing. On occasion he was stopped on the way home by the police who told him: “As far as I’m concerned, you’re in this country illegally.”
“This was coming at the tail end of roughly 40 years of Irish guys, my age, coming over here and planting bombs,” he said in an interview in England with pop culture website The Quietus in 2012. “It didn’t begin in 1969, 1972 or 1974 — there was a back history there. And neither am I blind to the reasons for this, but the context was just so completely different. So we have everything to thank Graham Norton for. Who better equipped to be a peacemaker than Graham Norton?”
In 1985, Microdisney’s brilliant album The Clock Comes Down the Stairs reached number one in the UK independent charts. Two years later, having signed to Virgin, they dented the UK Top 40 with the anti-pop single Town to Town. Mainstream success eluded the band, however, and they were dropped by Virgin in May 1988, which precipitated the end. They played their last gig two months later, supporting David Bowie at the Dominion Theatre in London.
Coughlan soon formed The Fatima Mansions, taking its name from corporation flats in Dublin’s Rialto. Their first single, 1989’s Only Losers Take the Bus, was inspired by a comment made by Margaret Thatcher about anyone on a bus over the age of 25 being a failure. The band’s second album, 1990’s Viva Dead Ponies (Coughlan apparently wanted to call it Bugs F**king Bunny), was Morrissey’s favourite LP of the year. That year, Coughlan travelled to Knock with The Fatima Mansions’ guitarist Aindrías ‘Grimmo’ Ó’Grúama and handed out condoms, the supply of which was still restricted in Ireland then.
In 1992, the band supported U2 for a leg of their Zoo TV tour in Europe. Holding a Virgin Mary artefact, he told the crowd in Milan: “I’d like to thank the Vatican for destroying my home country.”
He was not in his best condition. “I was abusing every substance I could find, mainly alcohol,” he would later say. “They nearly had a hospitalisation on their hands a few times during the tour.”
That year Coughlan’s out-of-kilter version of the Bryan Adams’ song (Everything I Do) I Do It for You, reached the Top 10. It was his only real hit. Also in 1992, he worked with comedian Sean Hughes on a side project, Buboniquec. He married his girlfriend, Julie, the following year.
On 1994’s Popemobile to Paraguay he was enraged by Pope John Paul II’s urging — in a letter to the archbishop of Sarajevo, the Bosnian capital — that victims of systematic mass-ethnic rape in Bosnia-Herzegovina during the war by rebel Bosnian Serbs should accept “with love” the children that were the result. “The King of the Papists is a friend to the rapists,” he sang.
The Fatima Mansions broke up in 1995. Legal issues with his record company stopped him from performing for years after. There was a collaboration with Luke Haines and Andrew Mueller on The North Sea Scrolls in 2012.
In 2017, he worked with French composer François Ribac and German singer Eva Schwabe on their album Into the Green. In June 2018, Microdisney reformed to play shows in Ireland and England.
Last March, Coughlan released Song of Co-Aklan, his first solo album since 2010’s Rancho Tetrahedron. He also collaborated with producer Jacknife Lee as Telefís on the album A hAon, a beautiful record which came out a few months ago. Given what we know now, that he was very ill in hospital, is the song Archbishop Beardmouth at the ChemOlympics — with the lyric ‘Don’t call it chemo/These toxins are for fun’ — Coughlan referring to his imminent death? It has echoes of a dying David Bowie singing of his end on Blackstar from 2016.
Last year Coughlan was asked how he would like to be remembered. “I suppose I would like to be remembered as a part of the group of Irish performers who have changed conceptions about what Irish artists stand for,” he said.
Cathal Coughlan achieved his aim.