The GOO is a recently launched event and gig guide, edited by John Brereton, that’s available in Dublin. Colm was asked to write a piece about the late Cathal Coughlan for the magazine’s first edition, which was published in June. We’re re-producing that piece here.
When Microdisney briefly reformed in 2018, it was on unfamiliar turf – on the ornate stage at the National Concert Hall in Dublin – that they fired up together for the first time in three decades. That all-seated venue is dripping in history, beautifully finished and is the capital’s go-to location for elite cultural events. Re-assembled to perform their acclaimed second album, ‘The Clock Comes Down the Stairs’, the significance of the setting for what was, to all intents, a delayed Microdisney swansong, wouldn’t have been lost on Cathal Coughlan, the band’s singer. So where did it all go right?
From Glounthaune on the outskirts of Cork city, Cathal founded the band in 1980 with the Luton-born Seán O’Hagan and, over the course of an eight-year career, they produced four fine studio albums and an assortment of other odds and ends. ‘The Clock’ is generally regarded as the pick of their bunch: like much of Cathal’s output with Microdisney, The Fatima Mansions and as a solo artist, it is under-scored by images of chaos, destruction, loss and finality. The ‘clock’ in the record’s title can be read as a metaphor for death.
Many of us who fetched up on Earlsfort Terrace four years ago found ourselves at a show we never thought we’d see. Microdisney had been narkily consigned to cold storage thirty years previously, after which both Cathal and Sean went on to enjoy productive, staunchly independent-facing careers, forever stuck on the left of field. Cathal never outwardly struck me as one for nostalgia: for someone so constantly up-front and engaging, he was an intensely private man. So in hindsight, you can make what you will of that handful of live dates in Dublin and London in June, 2018 and a decision to locate the band’s last ever show in Cork the following February, squaring the circle, completing the cycle.
Cathal’s name first surfaced on a poorly-recorded, shambling six-tracker recorded live at the UCC Downtown Kampus at The Arcadia Ballroom in Cork in the summer of 1980. ‘Kaught at the Kampus’ –replete with its artsy spelling – was conceived in the can-do spirit of punk rock where the noisier and more tuneless you were, the better. An early iteration of Microdisney contributed a shouty, angular cut to the record, ‘National Anthem’, where it sat beside a handful of live takes from some of their peers: Nun Attax, led by Finbarr Donnelly, Urban Blitz and Mean Features, fronted by Mick Lynch. Released on the fledgling Reekus label, ‘Kaught at the Kampus’ was intended as a calling card with which Cork’s live music scene could lay down a marker and flick a middle finger at those who dared to confront it.
Recorded as another group familiar to regulars at The Arcadia, U2, was issuing a second major label single, ‘Kaught at the Kampus’ is far more important now as a social history document. It captures three of the most engaging and influential frontmen in Cork music history at play on the one disc, all of whom died far too early. Cathal Coughlan is pre-deceased by Donnelly, who drowned in The Serpentine in London in 1989 and Mick Lynch – who later went on to front Stump – who died after an illness in 2015.
Cathal leaves behind him a formidable body of work. His wide breadth of reference – like Finbarr Donnelly he was alarmingly well-read – is reflected in the far-reaching scope of his output with Microdisney, The Fatima Mansions and his numerous solo and side projects. He was as influenced by Seán Ó Riada and Na Filí as he was by Scott Walker, Steely Dan and The Stooges: for someone whose material railed so consistently against the controlling hand of clerical power in Ireland, his canon is exceptionally catholic.
Commenting on Cathal’s death, which was announced on May 23rd last, the film-maker Paul Duane, who was working with him on his most-recent project, Telefís, noted that ‘he was in the middle of a huge creative renaissance’, which of course he was. Apart from his work with Jacknife Lee in Telefís, he had also recently issued his first album of solo work, ‘Song of Co-Aklan’, in a decade. But then his career is one of constant renaissance, re-invention, re-evaluation and renewal: he just constantly moved on.
Mysterious to the end, he is easily one of the finest and most distinctive Irish writers, singers and commentators of his generation. His considerable presence will be sorely missed and very fondly recalled.