Cathal Coughlan, the Cork musician who died aged 61, was widely recognized as one of the greatest songwriters of his generation.
With his groups Microdisney and Fatima Mansions, then solo, he mixes rapture and rage, beauty and ferocity of scorched earth. Often he did it over the course of a single song – Fatima Mansions’ 1990 masterpiece Blues for Ceausescu, for example, was a vitriolic deconstruction of despotism and right-wing political successes as energetically today as at the time he wrote it.
Coughlan never became a rock star. He was, however, among the most important Irish artists of his day. In the 1980s, Microdisney emerged from recession-hit Cork as something of an anti-U2 (Bono and his mates would later take the Fatima Mansions on tour as support for their Zoo TV shows). Forged in the contradictions between the soft-pop arrangements of English expat Sean O’Hagan and the thoughtful incandescence of Glounthane native Coughlan – topped with that instantly recognizable baritone voice – Microdisney sounded like nothing the music Irish had ever produced.
They were also a quintessential Cork band. Microdisney had a surreal quality that reflected both Leeside’s sense of itself – but also the dystopian feeling that hung heavy when the collapse of heavy industry turned the town into a miniature Rust Belt of Ireland .
“Cork was so far back then,” O’Hagan told the Examiner as Microdisney reunited in 2019 for a farewell concert in Cork. “It’s important to remember that. Things could still happen in isolation. There was a sense of humor and a pattern of behavior that was integral to that distant existence.
“Maybe you didn’t really have a band at all – so you just made it up. The next time you’re on stage and someone says, ‘I thought you said you rehearsed Culture and industry co-existed. I had never seen anything like it – a city full of cheerful students strolling around but also remnants of old Cork skinheads hanging around.
Microdisney eventually moved to London. There they gained a small but devoted following among music journalists and at the Rough Trade label.
“They were a brilliant band. We heard them and fell in love,” Rough Trade founder Geoff Travis told the Irish Examiner in 2019. “Cathal wrote such interesting lyrics. He was a bit scary. Sean, of course, wrote brilliant melodies.
Microdisney has produced its share of masterpieces – 1985’s The Clock Comes Down The Stairs is often considered one of the greatest Irish albums of all time. Still, with Rough Trade focused on The Smiths and critical acclaim for Microdisney failing to generate substantial sales, Coughlan and O’Hagan eventually went their separate ways.
“I have a lot of regrets about how this ending happened, and in particular the tunnel vision that has fueled my doomsday over-reaction to the band’s situation over the past two years,” Coughlan confessed to the ‘Irish Examiner. “Compared to the situations I have been in since then, it was definitely something of a survivor. But I just wasn’t grown up enough to stand back.
“So it left me both embarrassed that I had failed on traditional terms that I had never wanted to apply, and fearful of failing on more humble terms that seemed to be my natural level afterwards.”
Coughlan’s next project was Fatima Mansions. Where Microdisney had kept a lid on its rage, its new project has become an outlet. Songs such as Evil Man, 1000 Percent and Viva Dead Ponies gripped you by the skin: they were a beautiful act of venting and channeled the anger many felt in an Ireland beset by corrupt politicians and fascist clergy.
He did not suffer fools. When it was reported that Michael Stipe had drifted into a Fatima Mansions concert in New York and emerged from it 10 minutes later, Coughlan took aim at REM with a scatological cover of Shiny Happy People – demolition work best encountered with headphones and safety glasses. .
That same ironic ferocity was on display in the Fatima Mansions’ famous U2 slot double run in Milan in May 1992. Booed on the first night, the Fatima Mansions got their revenge the following night. Accompanied by industry rock Mansions, Coughlan committed rude acts with a replica bottle of Virgin Mary shampoo while wearing an FC Barcelona jersey (Barcelona having beaten FC Sampdoria of Genoa in the European Cup final Europe the night before).
“They all seemed quite amused,” he said of U2’s response to his antics. “It was really a no-win situation. The audience was…I won’t go into details. It wasn’t the smoothest show on the tour. There were two nights. The first night we almost be wiped out. The second night we decided to wipe them [the audience] outside.”
There was also a tender side to his songwriting, as evidenced by records such as Bertie’s Brochures.
“There was nothing and no one like them, that’s clearly what they preferred. But that kind of meant nobody really knew what to do with it or what to do with it,” journalist Andrew Mueller told the Examiner in 2020. “As was the case with Microdisney, though, people are still talking about it, so that very many do not for many of their best-selling contemporaries.
Coughlan was not done, however, and would later release a number of well-received solo LPs. And this year, he and Snow Patrol/Taylor Swift producer Garret ‘Jacknife’ Lee have joined forces for Teilifís, a Kraftwerk-inspired electro project that takes a wry look at the surreal world of Irish broadcasting in the 1960s. 70 and 80. .
A sort of psychoanalysis of Irish identity told through the prism of Bunny Carr’s Quicksilver and the Late Late Show, it was just one more surprise from a musician who refused to sit still. And who, until the end, has always found new ways to denounce the contradictions and hypocrisies of power.