‘Five weeks after heart surgery, I was back on the road, and I walked the entire length of what is left of the Berlin Wall. A month previously, I couldn’t even walk 150ft to the car’
Her health was a worry and her personal life took a hit over the past year — but after undergoing regression therapy, singer Mary Coughlan feels reborn, writes Andrea Smith
Last year was something of an annus horribilis for Mary Coughlan on several levels. Things turned particularly bad during the summer when she felt so ill she was afraid to go to sleep in case she didn’t wake up. “I wrote in my diary, ‘I think I’m dying of heart failure’,” says the feisty singer, who had turned 60 mere weeks earlier.
She didn’t have a birthday party as she felt so bad, and was extremely worried all summer as she suffered severe chest pain. Although she hated doing it in case people thought she was back drinking again, Mary cancelled several gigs. She found herself unable to walk very far, and felt her heart was doing “funny things”.
Before that, she had been suffering ongoing problems with her lungs — in 2014, she was diagnosed with bronchiectasis, where the airways of the lung become abnormally enlarged.
“I was really worried about my heart so I checked myself into three hospitals,” she says. “They all told me I was having panic attacks although I knew I wasn’t, and gave me Solpadeine for the pain. I was finding it hard to breathe so I eventually went to a lung specialist. As I arrived, I took a bad turn in the car park of St Vincent’s, and a nurse brought me into the hospital.”
Mary was referred to a consultant, who discovered a serious heart condition. She was kept in because she had 99% and 97% blockages in one artery and 60% and 40% blockages in the other.
In other words, she was very lucky — because she could have had a fatal heart attack. The consultant told her that parts of her heart would have had little or no blood supply for years. After being put on blood thinners, stents were put into Mary’s heart to restore the blood supply in September, and it wasn’t long before she was feeling much better.
“I had gigs in Germany and England and the doctor told me to cancel them,” she says. “I told him I couldn’t do that because they were sold out. Five weeks later, I was back on the road, and I walked the entire length of what is left of the Berlin Wall. A month previously, I couldn’t even walk 150ft to the car, so it was amazing. It has been hell really, but I’m feeling great now. I started off with cardio fitness in the gym and over three months, they make you walk and then run.”
The next calamity occurred on Mary’s son Cian’s birthday in November, when she was enjoying a day out in Dublin with her sister Carol. They were strolling down the road deciding where to have lunch, when Mary fell outside the Passport Office. “I cracked four ribs on my left side and punctured my lung,” she recalls. “The pain was unbelievable. I was terrified, lying on the road like an eejit, because I imagined my stents splintering and piercing my heart. Thankfully they were grand and I’m flying now, but I still feel the pain in my ribs during gigs.”
The funny and colourful Mary has three children, Aoife, Olwen and Eoin, from her first marriage at 19 to Fintan Coughlan. Then there’s Clare and Cian, who come from her second marriage to Frank Bonadio. They range in age from 40 to 20, and she has three grandchildren. Another baby is due to arrive this week.
“Aoife has Meinie (9), and Luke (7); Clare has Felice (4), and Olwen is due this week,” she says, excitedly. “Clare is still living with me and it has been delightful having my grandson around, but they’re moving out shortly. It will just be me on my tod in the house, and as we always had a full house between one thing and another, it’ll be nice to have the place to myself.”
Mary lives in a house on the side of the Sugarloaf in Wicklow that she built herself.
A ‘Villa Maria’ nameplate hangs on the wall outside, and while she is somewhat mortified about that, it was actually the plate that hung outside the Galway home of her parents, Peggy and Peter Doherty. A family member took it when the house was sold and put it on Mary’s house. Her mum has passed away, and her dad Peter has dementia and the family takes care of him. While Mary was a troubled teenager and didn’t get on with her parents, they happily became very close later on.
That she talks of living alone may confuse people, as Mary has been in a relationship with lighting specialist John Kelly for the past decade. They met when he did the lighting for her tour of Australia and New Zealand. In the past year, however, the romantic relationship ended quietly.
John is from New Zealand and has a company there so he goes back home a lot, but still returns to visit and works on Mary’s gigs, both here and abroad.
“I needed to be on my own for a while,” Mary proffers by way of explanation. “We’re still really good friends. John has a business in New Zealand that he needs to tend to, and I have things to do here.”
However, proving there may be another chapter to come in this particular love story, John is coming over to stay with Mary in August. “I guess we’ll be okay,” she shrugs, and you find yourself really wanting it to work out for them both.
Interestingly, the singer now attributes her brushes with illness to suppressing her feelings around things that occurred in the past.
As has been well-documented in her book Bloody Mary: My Story, she describes being kissed and touched sexually by her grandfather and being touched inappropriately by another man. Carrying this burden within herself caused her to become a troubled teenager, and she brought these difficulties into adulthood.
Her life has not been without considerable drama, including the breakdown of her marriage to Frank, and the subsequent and very public slanging match with Sinead O’Connor, with whom he has a child.
A true survivor, Mary has been very open and honest about her problems, which include alcohol and cocaine addiction. She has been sober since 1994, after she fell on the floor, drunk and pregnant, in the kitchen of her home in Bray. She was unconscious when her family came home and found her and she miscarried the next day. This devastating experience was the catalyst for her becoming sober. She went into rehab in Dublin and with her family’s support, defeated her alcoholism.
While she clearly adores her children and grandchildren, her relationship with her three eldest children became strained at the height of her addiction.
“They wouldn’t speak to me, and for very good reason,” she told me in a previous interview. “Winning back their trust didn’t take long because they were very forgiving. We’re over it now and we’ve all done an awful lot of work making up and, I suppose, making amends.”
While she has enjoyed great success in her career and her soulful, heart-stirring voice has taken her all over the world, Mary, who had an abortion when she was 27, wasn’t truly happy in herself. She felt that she was repeating patterns of behaviour that weren’t helpful and wanted to understand why. Always a seeker of truth, she attended several talks given by eminent psychiatrist Ivor Browne over the years.
“I longed to put up my hand and say, ‘Please tell me what’s wrong with me?’ but I never had the courage,” she says. “I kept running into him at things in 2015 and he gave me his book, and I decided I really wanted to try his regression therapy. There was a thing called the ‘frozen present’ in it, where animals fight or fly but humans freeze when something traumatic happens. That was me, like, for example, the time I was knocked down by a car. I froze at that time.”
Browne explains in his book that when we’re faced with a threat or trauma, we can choose not to feel it fully. In other words, we can ‘freeze’ the experience. However, regression therapy works on the principle that we need to discharge the “frozen energy” or it builds up inside us and adversely affects our health. Practitioners use hypnotherapy to bring people back to these experiences in the hope of addressing them and freeing up the energy. Mary started working with Ivor last year and has found the whole experience fantastic and very therapeutic. It has changed her life, she says, and made her conclude that all of the physical problems she was experiencing were the result of suppressed trauma bubbling up inside her for years.
“Then there was one big bang,” she explains, referring to the heart and lung problems, “but it’s all cleared out now. During the therapy, when you go back, you start to experience the feelings around that trauma again. It’s f****** incredible because it’s so powerful. There were days where I couldn’t get out of bed after those sessions, but then it all slips into place and makes sense.”
Now that she’s feeling better on every level, Mary is fizzing with enthusiasm and ideas. While many singers lose their ability to sing as they age, her voice remains constant and is a thing of great beauty and power. A world-class performer who sings jazz and the blues with searing, aching honesty and rawness, Mary always holds her audiences spellbound.
Then she has a new project in the pipeline. Following on from the wonderful musical she created last year based on her 2008 album, The House of Ill-Repute, Mary has received funding this year from the arts office at Dublin City Council for a new creative project.
“It will be my life viewed through Ireland in the Sixties and Seventies,” she says. “It will cover things like abuse, alcoholism, addiction, Magdalene laundries, brothels, asylums, patriarchy and all of that.
“It will be dark, but it will be very funny too.”