Obituary: Cathal Coughlan Maverick, Cork-born singer for Microdisney and The Fatima Mansions
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 at the age of 61.
n 1990, he wrote one of the greatest songs of all time, the furious black comedy of Blues for Ceausescu for his group The Fatima Mansions. The song was a joyous farewell to a despised Romanian dictator who was executed with his wife on Christmas Day 1989. It was also a six and a half minute critique of the UK, the monarchy, Europe and Ireland:
In the Irish orphan’s seedy house
Dickie Mountbatten licks the alchemist’s bone
It is done in strict official secrecy
God, I love living in a democracy!
Born in Glounthaune, Co Cork, Coughlan was the son of a 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 fucking fucking useless,” he said.
On New Year’s Eve 1979, he met Luton-born Irish expat and guitarist Sean O’Hagan at a party in Cork. O’Hagan immediately liked his acerbic. The friendship was sealed when Coughlan asked a guy at the party, who was playing a folk song, if he knew anything about the then-obscure Salford punk band The Fall. Soon after, O’Hagan and Coughlan formed Microdisney.
In July 1983 they moved to London and signed with Rough Trade. The BBC’s John Peel, then the UK’s most influential DJ, championed them. Peel said he could listen to Coughlan “sing the phone book”.
In 1984, Microdisney released its first album Everything is Fantastic. It was followed by We hate you South African bastards!inspired by the group’s opposition to the apartheid regime of institutionalized racial oppression.
The opening track, Holy Spirit Helicopter, Coughlan sang about poverty and Irish emigration: Where’s the hope or the beauty, the truth or the dignity?/Put that suitcase down before you answer me.
His insights into the construction and reality of Ireland were as engaging as his music. The Irish were tormented, 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 sticking together.”
The entry of organized religion in the form of the Catholic Church into the already toxic mix has not helped, according to Coughlan. “It was the new colonial authority. We weren’t trusted to take care of us, so a babysitter had to be sent in time for 1921 and that was the f**king Romans, basically.
Living in London in the early 1980s, Coughlan had experiences as an Irish immigrant that were less than amusing. On occasion, he was stopped on his way home by police who told him, “As far as I’m concerned, you’re in this country illegally.
“It was coming at the end of about 40 years of Irish people my age, coming here and planting bombs,” he said in an England interview with pop culture website The Quietus in 2012. “It didn’t start in 1969 or 1972 or 1974 – there was a back story there. And I’m not blind to the reasons for that either, but the context was so different. So we have everything for thank Graham Norton Who better equipped to be a peacemaker than Graham Norton?
In 1985, the brilliant Microdisney album The clock goes down the stairs reached number one on the UK independent charts. Two years later, after signing with Virgin, they rocked the UK Top 40 with the anti-pop single City to city. Mainstream success eluded the band, however, and they were dropped by Virgin in May 1988, which precipitated the end. They played their final gig two months later, supporting David Bowie at the Dominion Theater in London.
Coughlan soon formed The Fatima Mansions, taking its name from the company’s apartments in Dublin’s Rialto. Their first single, 1989 Only losers take the bus, was inspired by a comment by Margaret Thatcher that anyone over 25 on a bus is a failure. The group’s second album, 1990s Viva Dead Ponies (Coughlan apparently wanted to call it Bugs F**king Bunny), was Morrissey’s favorite LP of the year. That year, Coughlan traveled to Knock with Fatima Mansions guitarist Aindrías ‘Grimmo’ Ó’Grúama and distributed condoms, the supply of which was still limited in Ireland at the time.
In 1992 the band supported U2 for a leg of their Zoo TV tour of Europe. Holding an artifact of the Virgin Mary, he told the crowd in Milan: “I would like to thank the Vatican for destroying my country of origin.”
He was not in his best condition. “I abused every substance I could find, mostly alcohol,” he would later say. “They were nearly hospitalized several times during the tour.”
That year, Coughlan’s offbeat version of the Bryan Adams song (Everything I do) I do it for you, reached the Top 10. It was his only real success. Also in 1992, he worked with comedian Sean Hughes on a side project, Buboniquec. He married his girlfriend, Julie, the following year.
On the years 1994 Popemobile in Paraguay he was enraged by Pope John Paul II’s urging – in a letter to the Archbishop of Sarajevo, the Bosnian capital – that the victims of systematic mass ethnic rape in Bosnia and Herzegovina during the war by rebels Bosnian Serbs “lovingly” accept children was the result. “King of papists is friend to rapists,” he sang.
The Fatima Mansions broke up in 1995. Legal issues with his record company kept him from performing for years. 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 in the green. In June 2018, Microdisney reformed to play shows in Ireland and England.
Last March, Coughlan published Co-Aklan Songhis first solo album since the 2010s Rancho tetrahedron. He also collaborated with producer Jacknife Lee as Telefís on the album A hAon, a beautiful record released a few months ago. Given what we know now, that he was very ill in the hospital, is the song Bishop Beardmouth at the ChemOlympics – with the lyrics “Don’t call it chemo/These toxins are for fun” – Coughlan referring to his impending death? It has echoes of a dying David Bowie singing his end on Black Star from 2016.
Last year, Coughlan was asked how he would like to be remembered. “I guess I would like to be remembered as part of the group of Irish artists who changed conceptions of what Irish artists represent,” he said.
Cathal Coughlan achieved her goal.