My late mother never met Cathal Coughlan but he might as well have been one of her own sons. She saw in him a talented singer and musician who, by making his way with his group, Microdisney, during the dank, repressed years in the 1980s, was flying the flag on the international stage for two of the things that occupied her most: entertainment and Cork. One of Cathal’s last songs, which he recorded with his most-recent project, Telefís, was called ‘The Symphonies of Danny La Rue’. And in my mother’s eyes, Cathal was an heir to Danny La Rue, the drag performer born and raised in Cork as Danny Carroll who performed bawdy gags on primetime British television while togged out in an elaborate crinoline, huge wig and rubber breasts.
Cathal was another in that line of great local entertainers – like the singer, Walloo Dunlea and the actor, Eddie Mulhare – who chose to steer their own courses and did those stuck back home proud. He was out there somewhere, out where dreams come true, far from the despair, torpor and malignant odour that characterised Cork city during what felt like an endless recession. You’d read about Cathal’s various achievements in infrequent colour pieces in The Evening Echo but even though the truth was far more humdrum – much of Microdisney’s early life in London, to where they’d re-located in 1983, was dominated by squalor, booze, acid and penury – it didn’t matter. Cathal and the band looked glamorous and healthy in their promotional photographs and videos and had at least one thing going for them: they’d escaped from Cork.
My mother died four years ago this week and, days after we cremated her, I reluctantly headed off to see Cathal lead Microdisney one more time as the band performed ‘The Clock Comes Down The Stairs’ elpee at The National Concert Hall in Dublin. It was a night most of us who fetched up felt we’d never see: Microdisney had been put into cold storage almost thirty years previously after a critically-acclaimed and commercially-doomed career and a series of terrific albums, of which ‘The Clock’ is generally believed to be their best. Corny as it sounds, but from my seat in the stalls at the Concert Hall, I found a remarkable comfort and balm in Microdisney’s performance that night: it’s not stretching it to describe it as a warm embrace of a show.
Word of Cathal Coughlan’s death broke earlier today: he was 61 years old, no age really, and had been battling illness for a while. Our paths crossed often over the decades I’ve spent hanging around music and musicians: he was always terrific and engaging company, spectacularly well-read, self-deprecating, funny and forever politically astute. I can’t claim I ever knew Cathal, who was an incredibly private man, but I certainly knew his work: I devoured his music obsessively. He was a magnificent songwriter, musician and singer who, in his numerous guises – after Microdisney he caused endless carnage and enjoyed no little fun with The Fatima Mansions, Bubonique, The North Sea Scrolls and Telefís – seemed to be perennially out of time. To this end, I stand by my contention that Cathal is still to be properly critically evaluated in either a Cork context or a broader national one. He’s long been among the least most important footnotes in contemporary Irish music history.
It’s not for the want of trying, either. After two fine studio albums for Rough Trade – and a compilation of earlier material called ‘We Hate You South African Bastards’ – Microdisney, the band that Cathal formed in Cork with Seán O’Hagan in 1980, recorded two further long-players for Virgin Records, from which the band’s best-known song, ‘Town To Town’, was lifted as a radio-friendly single. In a bizarre meeting of the waters, The Fatima Mansions – the Cathal-led power-mobile he fronted for the guts of a decade from 1988 – even briefly toured with U2 on the opulent Zoo TV tour, with predictable results.
Although he rarely articulated any degree of over-sentimentality for his hometown – and is far-removed from that most risible of species, the professional Corkman in exile – I long suspected he was way more wired into the gut of the city and beyond, its people and prose, its songs and its ways than he’s ever given credit for. In particular, I detected a keen ear for the O’Riada/Muskerry singing tradition which, although never overly apparent in Cathal’s output, certainly shaped his spirit and various humours. A point he elaborates on at length in Paul McDermott’s excellent multi-media project “Iron fist in velvet glove”
I first encountered Cathal’s name on ‘Kaught at the Kampus’, a six-track live album recorded at the UCC Downtown Kampus in The Arcadia Ballroom in Cork in August, 1980, and released on the fledgling Reekus label. An early-iteration of Microdisney contributed a noisy, angular cut, ‘National Anthem’ to that elpee, which also featured Mean Features, an unsophisticated four-piece fronted by Mick Lynch, and Nun Attax, led by Finbarr Donnelly. ‘Kaught at the Kampus’ was conceived in the full-on, can-do spirit of punk rock and sounds far better in theory than in practice: it’s shambling, raw and poorly-recorded.
But it’s a significant release in its own right too. Issued just as a young Dublin band with its own connections to The Arcadia – U2 –was pushing its debut album, ‘Boy’, the six-tracker served as a four-band calling card and a memo to those willing to listen that Cork too had plenty of fire in it’s belly and ammo in its locker.
‘Kaught at the Kampus’ is also notable in that it captures Cork’s three most compelling frontmen from that period at play on the one disc. Tonight, ‘Kaught at the Kampus’ feels eerie of aspect: all three of them died prematurely. Donnelly drowned in London in 1989 and Mick Lynch died after an illness in Cork in December, 2015.
Cathal Coughlan’s contribution to popular culture in Cork and beyond from the years immediately after the outbreak of punk rock, is enormous. He possessed a host of rich and rare gifts and he’ll be very fondly remembered.