This woman’s heart still beats to a different drum
From battling alcoholism to having stents and cheating car crashes, courageous chanteuse Mary Coughlan is not going to let anything — or anyone — stop her
SHE’S known as much for her dramatic life as her soulful voice, but Mary Coughlan’s opening gambit when we meet in a Dublin hotel is still quite the jaw-dropper. ‘I’m after crashing the f ****** car on the way here,’ she deadpans, in that distinctive Galway brogue.
The jazz singer had her hair done in Donnybrook for our photoshoot and afterwards, turning right out of her car parking space to merge with traffic, she pranged with another car.
‘It’s my fault, isn’t it? But sure if I didn’t try and get out I’d still be there now,’ she shrugs. I tell her she is very calm, considering. ‘Well I spent two days in Galway with my demented father — yesterday and the day before — so it puts everything into context. It’s nothing.’
Her father Peter Doherty lives in a granny flat behind her sister’s house, is 87, ‘looks great and is going to live forever’.
But as for the car, the ‘whole f ****** front is b ****** d’ and it has trouble turning around corners. Where is it now? ‘It’s out there,’ she says, nodding at the window of the hotel. ‘It’s fine. It’s like a f ****** tractor, it’s a big Suzuki jeep. Her car is in bits. It’s a tiny little red car. Oh stoppit,’ she cringes, before gathering herself. ‘It’s an insurance job, like. Nobody’s f ******* dead.’
Mary has been sober for twenty four years following well-documented alcohol and cocaine addictions. I joke that the worst thing about the crash is that she can’t even have a drink to settle her nerves.
‘Your man says to me, “I’ve left you your vodka and tonic on the table”. That little fella there!’ she says, gesturing to a waiter. ‘I said, “I didn’t order vodka and tonic”. He said, “I was reading your mind”. I said, “I don’t drink”. He said, “I’m only joking!” I swear to God. I looked at it and I said, “F***, maybe it is!” But it’s not.’
Lest any reader doubt her, I picked up the tab after our chat and the drink was definitely water.
Next Mary apologises before checking her phone, which she keeps on the table.
‘My daughter’s gone into f ****** labour,’ she explains, of Olwen, 39, a graphic designer who works for Mary’s ex-husband Frank Bonadio — more of whom later. (Olwen welcomed a baby girl, Mary’s fourth grandchild.)
‘And I had to bring my son to the vet this morning with the cat. The cat is not well,’ she says, shaking her head.
We haven’t ordered the coffees yet and already we’ve had a car crash, a labouring daughter, a ‘demented’ father and an ailing cat. Then Mary says she can’t even have coffee because she’s meeting her cardiologist in St Vincent’s hospital after this and he warned her not to. It’s a routine check-up following her operation to have ‘a few’ stents put in her heart last September.
When she turned sixty the previous May, Mary felt too unwell to celebrate and wrote in her diary, ‘I think there’s something wrong with my heart’.
It took some time to convince doctors. She claims she checked into three hospitals complaining of chest pain, only to be told: “Well, you have lung problems historically. Here’s some solpadeine and here’s some anxicalm tablets for panic attacks”. You know, I sometimes think they don’t take me seriously enough because, “Oh Mary Coughlan, she’s on whatever”. I actually felt that.’
She rang her GP from Marks & Spencer in Dundrum on August 29 because she was finding it difficult ‘to breathe and walk at the same time’. Her GP made an appointment with a lung specialist in St Vincent’s for that afternoon.
‘And a nurse picked me off the floor in the car park and brought me in a wheelchair. And the doctor said, “I don’t think this has anything to do with your lungs” and he popped a tablet in my gob, called a cardiologist and they kept me there. They couldn’t even put the stents in yet, they had to give me blood thinners for a few days first. I had really bad blockages — 99%, 97% and 60% and 40%. So two arteries weren’t working at all.’
Mary felt so good following the operation that she was touring England and Germany five weeks later.
‘I feel amazing and if I hadn’t had that operation I’d be dead. So I went off to see all my old friends on December 27. I said I’m going to spend a month in America — Miami, Tobago and Chicago.’
Her old foe Sinead O’Connor has been staying in Chicago of late — the two fell out when Bonadio fathered a child, Yeshua, with Sinead following his split from Mary, with whom he has two children. He didn’t leave Mary for Sinead; they had split two years earlier — and just seven months after they married — when he confessed to having had an affair with their Spanish au pair. But Coughlan and O’Connor still fought over him, their bitter tit-for-tat texts printed in newspapers. They have since buried the hatchet, but Mary arches her eyebrows when asked if Sinead was one of the friends she met up with in Chicago.
‘I did not, no. I’m not going to go there.’
Bonadio lives in the seafront home in Bray Mary sold him and she says they get on ‘grand’. She adds of his 10-year-old son with O’Connor: ‘Yeshy spends a lot of time in our house. He hangs with the kids, you know, my kids. He’s part of the family, big time. We were at his Communion last year.’
Family is a big deal to Mary. She has three children from her first marriage to Fintan Coughlan — Aoife, who works for Literature Ireland, Olwen, and Eoin who has a Masters in Music from Trinity and works in Media Cube in IADT. Her younger children are Clare, who is training to be a horse whisperer and Leaving Cert student Cian, who is filling out his CAO form and wants to be a chef.
As for the grandchildren, ‘Oh, I love them. It’s just the most amazing thing to ever have happened. To have grandchildren on sleepovers! We drag a big mattress out onto the floor in front of the telly and we watch all the s**t films that are out and we have drinking chocolate and treats.’
RECENT reports say Mary has split from her boyfriend of ten years, John Kelly, but it sounds more like they are still in their unconventional relationship.
‘John is in New Zealand. He lives there part-time and I go out to New Zealand. He owns a lighting company there; concert lighting and stage lighting. He lives most of the time here. But since the earthquake in New Zealand one of his warehouses fell down and now they’re rebuilding, so he went back in December. So I’ll see him… He’s coming back to do Vicar Street and we’re both leaving together the next day,’ she says, of her upcoming gig in Dublin on Saturday, May 13 and subsequent gigs Down Under. Does she miss him? ‘No… I... Yeah, of course I miss him. Like today all I’d have to do is call him and he’d be there,’ she says, of the car crash. ‘But I also enjoy fending for myself. And being on my own. I like my own space and my own woman cave of a bedroom.’
Mary looks well and has remarkably good skin — she says it’s ‘because the blood is flowing again’ and that she was ‘grey in the face’ before the operation.
‘I’m lucky to be here. I’m flying, I’m walking, I’m running. And doing weights. I do cardio-fitness three times a week. They monitor me; I wear a thing and I’m monitored. It’s really difficult. Running for five minutes carrying six kilos of weights and then stopping and going again and cycling and doing squats. But I’m fit. I’m fat but fit. I’m fit fat,’ she laughs.
Her phone rings and she takes the call. ‘Is this about the little prang we had this morning? Jesus you’re quick,’ she says, explaining that she
can’t discuss it until tomorrow. ‘I’ve to see my cardiologist at 4 o’clock,’ she says, winking at me. ‘Are you my insurance or her insurance?’
Drama aside, Mary is easy company and down-to-earth. She is also quirky and new agey, into things like shamanism.
‘I’m part of a group called Sli an Chroi, the path of the heart. We meet sometimes and we have full moon meetings. We do breathing and chanting and listen to drumming music and we meditate. It’s lovely. We sit in circle and stuff like that.’
She was also one of the more controversial subjects in the recent documentary film Meetings with Ivor about psychiatrist Dr Ivor Browne, known for his opposition to traditional psychiatry.
Comedian Tommy Tiernan, author Sebastian Barry and journalist Nell McCafferty also featured. But Mary was the only one who consented to undergoing regression therapy on camera. She has been fascinated with Dr Browne since the 1980s, but only recently spoke to him.
‘I kept running into him. I’d see him in Donnybrook when I was buying my vegetables and I saw him here and there and at Michael D’s house — f ****** Michael D’s house, The Aras!’ she corrects herself.
‘Literally everywhere I went, Ivor was there. I said, “Okay Mary, here you go”. I said to him, “What are you doing now?” And he said, “Actually I’m doing this film…” And that was it — I was off.’
At what event in the Aras did they meet?
‘Some do Michael D was having. I’ve been there lots of times. I go up and sing a song whenever they have an oul event on.’
She and Dr Browne had plenty to discuss. Her 2010 autobiography, Bloody Mary, told of how she was kissed and touched sexually by her grandfather, and touched inappropriately by another man. She was a teenage runaway, has survived two broken marriages, and the hurt she caused to her children during those years of drink and drug abuse.
‘I had major health issues, I almost died,’ she says, of the darkest days before she sobered up in 1993. ‘I was in hospital for a while and then I went to the Rutland Centre. I had bad metabolic acidosis — when your organs start turning against you — so I had to stop drinking. And I managed it.’
Regression therapy is when ‘you go back to places of trauma in your past and you feel the experience, rather than talk about it. It was very difficult.’
Seeing herself regressed on film was ‘quite freaky actually. The level of total immersion that you’re in. You’re not aware of anything except where you are in your head and your heart.
‘It might sound stupid, but I believe that a lot of the stuff that was going on with my heart came to the surface at that time and that’s what came up for healing. I do believe that.
‘It clears them all out. I know my cardiologist would not agree. But,’ she adds, ‘I’ve always had a slightly different way of looking at things’.
Mary Coughlan, Live and Kicking, Vicar St, Dublin, May 13, details ticketmaster.ie
Contrary Mary: ‘I’ve always had a slightly different way of looking at things’