Culture That Made Me: why Mary Coughlan loves Elvis, Mad Men and Billie Holliday 

From Rory Gallagher and Elvis, to The Sound of Music and Mad Men, the singer selects her cultural touchstones 
Culture That Made Me: why Mary Coughlan loves Elvis, Mad Men and Billie Holliday 
Mary Coughlan releases a new album next week. 

Radio Luxembourg 

 I was born in 1956. In 1966, I started becoming interested in music. I bought a little pink wireless radio for myself in Derry that you had to turn the dial on. I used to listen to it all day and all night. 

In the backyard in our house in Galway, I’d invite my two friends in and we’d sit sunning ourselves listening to Radio Caroline. Then at night I’d listen to Radio Luxembourg under the pillow with my father roaring up at me: “Turn off that ‘effing radio!” 

Bob Dylan records and the meaning of life 

My musical tastes started to develop when I was about 15. Bob Dylan was God. 

So was Van Morrison as far as we were concerned. The first Van Morrison album I had in my possession was Saint Dominic’s Preview. I used to listen to the track Listen to the Lion over and over again. It’s primal. 

We used to listen to Bob Dylan records and take them apart, listening to the words religiously, writing them down, stopping the record and talking about the track. 

What does all that stuff in Mr Tambourine Man mean? There was a meaning behind everything.

Rory Gallagher in the Hangar Ballroom

You’ve no idea what music meant to me and to people back in the day. It was unbelievable. We used to swap records. You’d give someone a loan of a record for a week. We used to bunk off school if a new album came out. 

I went to see Rory Gallagher with Taste in the Hangar Ballroom in Galway. I snuck out the window to get to the gig. 

My father was waiting outside the door for me when I came out. I was killed. I was mortified because I was shifting a fella outside and my father was standing there talking to one of the bouncers.

Not seeing Elvis 

We never saw Elvis. We heard him. We never saw any of these artists because they weren’t on television for us. They were bigger than we could ever have imagined. 

Oftentimes when you see something a lot, it loses its power. Now you can scroll down YouTube, and you could see a million artists in seconds. All we had was the radio and records.

Any little bit of information you could get about an artist would be really important and you’d share it with your friends. 

With Elvis, I always imagined Heartbreak Hotel should have been more heart-breaking. The way I recorded it myself in 1989 was sad and mournful. There’s beautiful Richie Buckley soprano sax on it. I still love the way we did it.

Cream and devil’s music on TV 

We got a television when I was about eight years old, but there was no pop music on it. One night, we knew from school that Cream were going to be on television that night.

The nuns told us we were not to watch it and of course my mother wouldn’t let us watch it so we went into my Granny’s house next-door to play draughts with my grandfather. My granny was ironing. 

We were sitting at her table looking up at her television for a gawk. My grandmother looked up at the television and saw Eric Clapton gyrating around in a pair of white trousers, playing the guitar.

 “Holy mother of divine Jesus,” she said, “what is that on the television? Turn it off quick!” The devil’s music.

The Sound of Music fanaticism

 I went to the cinema 11 times to see The Sound of Music when I was a child – every Sunday down at the Savoy theatre myself and my cousin would go to see it. I couldn’t believe it. 

It was this whole fantasyland of people living in the mountains singing. The war and the political aspect of it I didn’t understand. I didn’t even know it was there. 

It was just watching this family swinging around the place singing – it couldn’t have been more further from my life.

Identifying with Billie Holiday

I never heard of Billie Holiday until I was nearly 18. I went to see a movie called Lady Sings the Blues with Diana Ross in Shepherd’s Bush in London. 

Everybody was talking about it. It blew me away. I had to find out what I could about Billie Holiday. She has been completely constant in my life since then. Even having babies and washing nappies, I used to be singing around the house, never dreaming that I would get to sing professionally. 

My first singing on stage was Billie Holiday songs with an old jazz band in Galway downstairs in the Cellar Bar around 1982. Her singing is heart-breaking. She had a very troubled life. 

I never admitted my troubles to anybody – about what happened to me as a child – until I got sober 26 years ago.

When you hear something in someone’s voice, in a song or even in the way they are, you recognise a pain that you can identify with, and I did with her in a big way.

Mad Men and Christina Hendricks 

Christina Hendricks’ character in Mad Men ‘did a lot for women with red hair and big breasts’.
Christina Hendricks’ character in Mad Men ‘did a lot for women with red hair and big breasts’.

I loved Mad Men – the whole world of advertising, the clothes, the apartment that Don Draper lived in, the lifestyle. 

What struck me was Betty, the housewife, and her being so organised, and the little geansaí over the shoulders. The whole style of it was perfect. 

Don Draper was so beautiful. It was about a whole scene that was very rapidly changing in America. 

I loved when Lane – played by Richard Harris’s son, Jared – came into it. He brought this tragic side. 

I loved Christina Hendricks’s character – I thought she did a lot for women with red hair and big breasts.

Making cushions for Druid

 One of Druid’s earliest productions was JM Synge’s The Tinker’s Wedding in 1976 at Fo’ Castle Theatre, Dominick Street in Galway. 

I’m a really old friend of Mick Lally’s – he’s gone now too – who was in the play, as was Marie Mullan and Angela Devilly. 

I made the red, velvety cushion covers that went on the theatre’s benches because I had a sewing machine.

Being Paul Durcan’s chauffeur

 It was an exciting time for Galway. We had just started the arts festival. 

During the Galway Arts Festival, my first job was to pick up Paul Durcan from the train station and bring him to different schools to do readings. He was cranky in the car. 

People know more about him nowadays. I always liked his whole thing – his persona.

Mary Coughlan’s new album Life Stories will be released 4 September. See:

More in this section

Scene & Heard

Music, film art, culture, books and more from Munster and beyond.......curated weekly by the Irish Examiner Arts Editor.

Sign up
Cookie Policy Privacy Policy FAQ Help Contact Us Terms and Conditions

© Irish Examiner Ltd