AMANDA FERGUSON in Crumlin Road Gaol

Tuesday, September 15, 2020


After more than six months in various stages of lockdown getting out to the Crumlin Road Gaol in north Belfast to listen to legendary performer Mary Coughlan sing was a joy.

I have missed going to gigs and even though it was just for a tiny taster of her new album Life Stories it was such a thrill.

She is my kind of woman. Warm, honest, straight talking and swears like a sailor.

I often start interviews by putting my voice recorder on and telling the interviewee don’t worry about swearing etc as it’s just for me to type back.

I didn’t bother with Mary as she f***ing loves to swear.

I have read so many great pieces from colleagues who also got the chance to sit down with Mary as she launched Life Stories.

You can read Mary's interview from Maureen Coleman in The Irish News here: Regression therapy is what freed me up to let go of all the s**t

And her interview with Patrick Freyne in The Irish Times here: 32 times I ended up in hospital with alcohol poisoning

Back to Mary's interview for

I started by asking Mary about the new album which is performing well in the charts already.

She will, covid permitting, be performing songs from it in Belfast's Crumlin Road gaol on November 13th and 14th.

She tells me it is as the name suggests, about life stories: love; family; highs and lows; 12 step programmes, and more.

One of her favourite songs from it is High Heel Boots, about “taking off the runners, putting on high heel boots and finding a bit of craic in life again”

I ask her what motivates her to keep making music.

“It’s all I can do,” says the 64-year-old, who recorded her first album Tired and Emotional around 30.

“My longevity...I mean, I nearly died 26 years ago from drinking so I stopped drinking. It nearly killed me and then I gave up the bottle.

“I started at a time in Ireland when everybody was listening to trad music, folk music, and what I was doing was just that bit different.

“It has been hard to pitch in Galway over the years, journalists have said they don’t know whether it is jazz or soul or whatever, it is a bit of everything.”

Mary is easy to talk to and generous with her time but I can sense colleagues over my shoulder waiting for their turn to chat so we try to aim for more quick fire questions and answers in an attempt to get as much as possible packed in.

I ask the questions quickly and Mary takes as long as she likes to answer. I love it.

Which music artists do you love?

“Billie Holiday was my number one,” she says.

“Van Morrison. Leonard Cohen. Elvis Costello. I listen to everybody. Eminem. I love Eminem. I went to see Eminem five or six times.

“I saw Kendrick Lamar in Dublin last year. I was lucky enough to catch him. I love Paolo Nutini. Ray Lamontagne.”

I am struck by her mention of Eminem and ask has she heard of Irish language hip-hop outfit Kneecap.

She hasn’t but will “check them out” and laughs at the dark and apt name choice for the edgy Belfast rappers.

How do you listen to music, which format? I ask.

“CDs,” she says without hesitation. “I buy CDs.”

How has the music industry changed since you started out?

“It’s sh*te,” she says.

“There is no music industry. It’s all owned by Spotify and stuff.”

She thinks streaming services are “the worst thing to happen to the music industry”, and is unhappy with how much artists are paid from them.

“I get paid .001 of a cent per song,” she adds.

With cancelled gigs and spending much of the year in lockdown because of the covid 19 crisis it is tough times for musicians but there have been some silver linings.

“I have never spent as much time since 1985 at home in my life,” she said.

“I have got to explore where I live in the Wicklow mountains.

“I have been walking a lot and doing a lot of yoga, and spending a lot of time with my grandchildren.

“It is the longest I have been at home which is extraordinary, no Australia, New Zealand, America, England, Scandanavia this year.”

I started off my career in news reporting but also doing lots of gig reviews and arts features, so I could have asked Mary loads more about the music but colleagues have all that covered and my mind turns to politics.

I have been working more as a Northern Correspondent in recent years therefore a lot of my time as a journalist and commentator is taken up with politics (and it is relevant to the arts) so I take the opportunity to delve into this area with Mary.

I ask her about the new Irish government and what she makes of the new dispensation (Fianna Fáil, Fine Gael and the Green Party sharing power).

“It is a f***ing disaster,” she says and laughs.

“We have had three different ministers for agriculture in the past 20 weeks.

“I am not a fan of either of the older parties – Fine Gael or Fianna Fáil.

“And I think what happened in the very beginning of the pandemic was Leo Varadkar just went right in there and grabbed the bull by the horns and told us what to do and we all f***ing listened to him.

“I have great respect for him and Simon Harris the (then) health minister, and now it is a complete shambles, all over the place.

“Nobody knows what the other one is doing, you know.”

Mary doesn’t believe the government supports the music industry enough in Ireland.

“No. We have our own organisation, the Music & Entertainment Association of Ireland. We have thousands of people online.

“We are lobbying the minister for social welfare and the minister for the arts.

“The arts is up here and the music industry is down here, and they never shall meet, so they got a lot of the grant aid, the arts industry, which included theatres and opera and dance and we we have had to fend for ourselves and mostly we were completely wiped out. And there is a lot worse off than me.”

I jump to another topic. Feminism. Mary has always identified as a feminist.

“Yeah,” and she nods.

“Since I was four”.

Mary tells me about arguing with Dublin feminists in the 1980s, she says wanted to segregate a gig, and not allow her band in because they were men.

“I just said, ‘that’s another heap of f***ing bullsh*t there'.

“I said 'look that is a whole other type of discrimination. These guys are cool. That is why they are in my band'.

“I believe in breaking down walls rather than building them, you know what I mean.”

What is the best thing about being a woman is a big question but she answers.

“Jesus, I don’t know. It’s just much more interesting than being a man,” she says and laughs.

What’s the best advice you have ever been given?

“My therapist in the Rutlands (addiction treatment centre) told me 26 years ago, ‘get off the f***ing cross, Mary’.

“And Constance Short, the artist, painted a picture of a woman on the cross kicking the leg up like that, and she gave it to me.

“Get off the cross.”

Mary hasn’t performed her music in a gaol before, but loves the north Belfast venue and is looking forward to the gigs there this autumn.

You can buy tickets here on the: Crumlin Road Gaol website

Mary “loves Belfast”.

“I have been coming up here since 1986 to do gigs,” she added.

“First ever gig was in the Europa.”

I ask her how she would describe the north (Northern Ireland), how she would sum it up.

She says driving down from Stormont that morning she remarked to her partner John, “it is very much, kind of like a different country still”.

“It has always been so exotic,” she added.

“For us living in Galway, Belfast and Derry were like…"

She explains the background.

“My granny was from Donegal. My name is Mary Doherty. My granny used to bring us into Derry on the bus, you know.

“I bought a transistor radio and went down to Pump Street and bought a pair of wet-look boots.

"It was almost like the closest you could get to Carnaby Street without going to London, you know.

“I always thought it was just like…it still feels different.”

On what Mary sees for the future of the island she is clear in her support for a new shared island.

“I would love for it…I am not a full on nationalist, but I would like it to be one island, one country," she says.

“We are one country. We are one. I hate that there is a divide.”

Would she consider running for elected office herself?

“I have considered it seriously just recently,” she says.

“I have thrown my name into a few different hats.

“My kids want me to run. I am one of the few musicians, still singers in Ireland who has absolutely no f***ing, what do you f***ing call it?, no…”

I think I just might know the word she is thinking of.

Me: “No filter?”

“Yes," she says.

"No f***ing filter.

“I need to be independent, and I might do it.”

So, watch this space.

At this point my time is up and I suggest to Belfast-based PR professional extraordinaire Michelle McTernan that she should run a campaign for Mary to be elected President of Ireland.

“I am not f***ing running for President,” Mary chips in at the very notion of it.

And with that this wonderful and talented woman, this force of nature with “no f***ing filter” is on to the next interview.

What a treat to meet her, speak to her and listen to her perform.

You can follow Mary on Twitter and purchase the Life Stories album from the Hail Mary Records label on the Mary Coughlan Music website

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