I didn’t shed a tear for Bowie but I did for Cathal Coughlan.
was 14 when I discovered Microdisney. It was 1987 and the video for their song ‘Town to Town’ came on TV. My mother walked through the living room and said the singer, Cathal Coughlan, was from over the road.
On hearing Cathal’s name, my grandfather looked up from his newspaper and said, “Sure that’s Eleanor’s young fella. Didn’t I teach him in school?”
Smiling he went back to his paper. “Well, you didn’t really ‘teach’ Cathal.”
I was hooked. A local hero. It’s been a long journey staying the course with him, for many others it’s been longer.
Cathal Coughlan and Sean O’Hagan, his musical partner, met in Cork at the start of the 1980s and formed Microdisney. The band went through several incarnations before the duo upped sticks for London in July 1983.
Over the next five years Microdisney recorded two albums for Rough Trade Records and two for Virgin Records.
Being Irish in Thatcher’s London had a profound effect on Cathal and inspired him to extraordinary lyrical heights. The band’s second album, The Clock Comes Down the Stairs, is rightly regarded as their crowning artistic achievement.
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Microdisney performed their last gig in July 1988, a benefit concert at the Dominion Theatre headlined by David Bowie. The band split up a few days later. Commercial pressure, lack of success and debt had finished them. Booze and cheap speed didn’t help either.
It seems that, as a fan, I had come onboard just as the ship was sinking. Curtains closed on act one.
If this was just a one-act play, then the news on May 18 of Cathal’s passing, after a long illness, would still have received the media attention it did. But there was to be an act two.
After Microdisney, he licked his wounds and went again. The next band was called The Fatima Mansions.
“Well, it’s a ridiculous thing to call a block of flats, so it was more ridiculous to use it as a band name,” he told me. “But emphatically I was not poking fun at the poor social conditions being foisted on people in inner-city Dublin.”
Fatima Mansions angrily held a mirror up to authority – be it church or state. So angry were they that the LA Weekly once described the band as “the Caucasian equivalent of gangsta rap”. Rolling Stone magazine declared, “if U2 represent God’s country in Ireland, then Fatima Mansions must surely dwell in that country’s hell.”
The band once flew an NME journalist to Knock and handed out free condoms to worshippers entering the shrine. As innocent and childish as it sounds now, this was transgressive behaviour in 1980s Ireland. The exile hadn’t forgotten us.
“I suppose what I would have said at the time was that I wanted things to either be more noisy, or way more stripped down than Microdisney,” he said, describing The Fatima Mansions. “I think we got somewhere towards that.”
Viva Dead Ponies, the band’s 1990 album, is one of the greatest Irish records made. Its noisy elements were influenced by Belgian Industrial music, particularly the Swiss band The Young Gods, and the quieter material owed a debt to Irish and English folk music.
Cathal’s taste was impeccable. He introduced us, through cover versions, to the songs of Lal and Mike Waterson, Sandy Denny and Fotheringay, Dick Gaughan, Richard Thompson, and one of his heroes, Scott Walker.
I met Cathal for the first time in 1991 when The Fatima Mansions played a gig in Cork and I sneaked into De Lacey House to watch the soundcheck. He could have told me to feck off but instead was friendly, funny and kind.
The gig that night was one of the greatest gigs I’ve ever seen.
I spoke to him countless times since for various articles, radio programmes, podcasts and documentaries. He was intelligent, intense and highly opinionated. I steadfastly remained that teenager in awe.
The Fatima Mansions didn’t see out the 1990s, and contractual issues with a record company prevented Cathal from recording and releasing music for a number of years. Unbowed, he continued.
Act three gave us solo albums, multi-artist collaborations and music theatre. He trained his voice and gave us interpretations of Mahler, Brecht and Yeats. Each project was always delivered with 100pc conviction.
The economic realities of an artistic life meant that fronting two critically acclaimed bands didn’t keep the wolf from the door, so Cathal worked a day job in IT with the BBC. But the music never stopped.
In 2016 he was added to the bill of ‘Imagining Home’ at the National Concert Hall in Dublin – a series of concerts organised to mark the centenary of the Easter Rising. Our greatest iconoclast seemed to be almost reaching ‘national treasure’ status.
That night as he finished a snarling version of his old Mansions’ song ‘A Pack of Lies’, two Patrons of the Arts sitting in front of me looked at each other and tutted. He wasn’t there yet, thankfully.
Act four in 2018 brought a rapturously received Microdisney reunion with sold-out concerts in the National Concert Hall and at London’s Barbican Centre. The band returned to where it all began, for a final triumphant concert in Cork.
That night he bowed and left the stage overcome by emotion. Is it simplistic now to think that maybe he knew what we didn’t?
Cathal wasn’t the only musician to escape Cork for London. His old friends Finbarr Donnelly and Mick Lynch followed him and their respective bands Five Go Down to the Sea? and Stump would also plough highly original furrows through the mid-1980s UK post-punk music scene.
Buoyed on by each other, and the scene’s intense petty rivalries, the three friends had honed their stagecraft at the Downtown Kampus in the old Arcadia ballroom on Lower Glanmire Road in Cork.
That a music scene in Ireland’s second city, away from the prying eyes of Dublin, during a time of deep economic recession and stifling moralistic oppression could produce three of the country’s most charismatic frontmen ever is just phenomenal.
Or more likely, those were the very conditions needed to inspire the trio to get up on stage, give it a go, and buy a ticket for the Innisfallen ferry to Pembroke as fast as they could.
But London’s streets were not paved with gold. Donnelly died in a drowning accident in 1989 and Lynch died of cancer in 2015. Though he would have a more prolific recording and performing career, Cathal never forgot his old friends.
“I can say with my hand on my heart that I would not have ended up doing music if I hadn’t met Donnelly,” he told me. “If I hadn’t done music I would’ve ended up a malcontented alcoholic civil servant working in a food factory somewhere in Offaly.
After Lynch’s passing he said, “Meeting Mick Lynch had given me the idea of how you could make a splash. Except I have no pretension that I could touch Mick for the things that Mick could do.”
Together the three old friends became an inspiration for generations of Irish musicians – and in particular the trio are monumental figures to many on Leeside. Cork owes them a huge debt.
“I don’t know whether Cork has quite yet got its head entirely around what Cathal has contributed,” said Australian journalist Andrew Mueller in Iron Fist in Velvet Glove, my documentary about Microdisney. “I won’t go so far as to say that they should build a statue of him – but I think they should build a statue of him.”
Last year Cathal released Song of Co-Aklan and this year as Telefís (with Garret ‘Jacknife’ Lee) he released a hAon, two of the greatest albums of a long and distinguished career. A second Telefís album was just finished a few weeks ago.
It suddenly seemed that act five was looking good for Cathal – but last year no one took note when he sang: “Seems my body’s had enough of me.”
Last September when lockdown lifted, I went home to Cork for a gig. I wanted to see Pretty Happy, the obvious baton-holders to Cork’s early Eighties post-punk spirit. I told Cathal I’d seen them play a gig in Glounthaune, in a field beside what used to be John Joe’s pub.
Once he recovered from the shock of hearing that there’d been an outdoor gig in his old village, our conversation quickly moved from the band to the field they played in.
“That field used to flood with very unsavoury materials every high tide,” he laughed. “The rats would gambol in the sunshine. As kids we used to really fear that field.”
He could be cynical, but he was always very, very funny.
A former BBC colleague of Cathal’s took to social media last week, writing, “His music career was an open secret but never talked about directly – but telling new hires ‘by the way, Cathal has his own Wikipedia page’ was always fun.”
Within minutes of the news of Cathal’s passing being announced, someone had edited that Wiki page from “Cathal Coughlan is” to “Cathal Coughlan was”. That was it. I cried.
‘Iron Fist in Velvet Glove – The Story of Microdisney’ a documentary by Paul McDermott is available at paulmcdermott.ie/iron-fist-in-velvet-glove