Coolest day of my life: sharing a beer with Cork music legend Cathal (in NY!)

Cathal Coughlan aged 61 died this week. John Dolan recalls sharing a beer with the Corkman
Coolest day of my life: sharing a beer with Cork music legend Cathal (in NY!)

Cathal Coughlan, photographed at Leadenhall Market, City of London, on 14 May 2005 by Bleddyn Butcher.

SOME men are born cool, others have coolness thrust upon them.

I’m not sure which of those - nature or nurture - applied to Cork music legend Cathal Coughlan, whose death at the tragically early age of 61 was announced this week, but if he could have bottled his aura, he would have made millions.

Other men, like me, will never be cool; you can dress me up in a pair of Levi 501s and reflective sunglasses, mount me on a Harley Davidson, drape a fag out of the corner of my mouth (eh, a bit 20th century that, Dolan? Ed), and call me Maverick, but I will just not look the part.

Cool - and, indeed, uncool - people would see right through me.

Of course, in my advancing years, as I plod gracefully through my early fifties, this lack of street ‘cred’ doesn’t bother me in the slightest.

Sure, you get the odd circus freak like Tom Cruise (60 this summer) who can still rock it like a young wan, but mostly coolness is something that applies to the 18-30 age group (and, sorry ladies, cool is a male-only term. I will be taking no further questions on this matter).

Back in the last century, when I belonged to that idealistic and rebellious age group, I guess I flirted a little with the cool set, without ever entering their exclusive club.

In my early twenties, I more than once spent the evening dancing in Manchester’s iconic Hacienda club, and I was a devotee of the so-called ‘Madchester’ music scene before it caught on in the mainstream. I dressed the indie part too, back in those days when my hair was brown and not the blonde my daughter calls it (OK, OK, it’s white).

Although stubbornly and resolutely - almost proudly - uncool myself, I hung out with some cool people and went to some cool places.

One of those cool places I went to when I was barely old enough to shave was New York, with a music-loving friend, whose sister was living there and working in an Aids hospital - a heartbreaking job at a time when there was no cure and the city was the epicentre of the disease.

It was autumn, 1991, and - thanks to my hip and trendy friend - I got to see some great sights in the Big Apple and enjoy some wonderful experiences.

One night, we went to the famed nightclub CBGBs which, in the 1980s, established a global reputation for hosting punk and new wave icons like the Ramones, Patti Smith, Blondie, and Talking Heads.

Yes, only the coolest, hippest, most happening place in the known universe.

My friend wanted to see an Irish indie band called The Fatima Mansions, and in the days beforehand we played songs from their latest album, Viva Dead Ponies. (Apparently, the album was almost called Bugs F***ing Bunny!)

I recall one track gloried in the title Only Losers Take The Bus, while another sang gleefully of the recent toppling and execution of Romanian dictator, Nicolae Ceaucescu - including the unsympathetic line “Ciao, Ceaucescu”.

The music was a mingling of punk and folk, and I loved it, and eagerly looked forward to the gig.

This was many years before I moved to Cork - but of course, Fatimas Mansions was Cathal Coughlan’s band. 

My fellow Echo columnist, Stevie G, who knows far more about these things than I, this week praised his swagger and originality.

Born in Glounthaune, Cathal attended Presentation Brothers and UCC before forming Microdisney - one of the finest Cork bands of their era.

By 1991, he was rocking it with The Fatima Mansions - a name, I learned, which sprang from a housing estate in Dublin.

The day of the gig in New York arrived, and my friend and I caught the subway to CBGBs, where we rocked up an hour or two before the music began.

We headed into a bar next door for a beer - and my friend’s jaw dropped. A group of guys were also having a pre-gig gargle - and he recognised them as none other than The Fatima Mansions!

And there is where it happened - the coolest few minutes of my life. Stood in a bar in New York, about to watch a gig in the world’s hippest music venue next door, and we were spending a joyful few minutes shooting the breeze with the main act - Corkman Cathal and his band.

It’s more than 30 years ago now, but I can still recall our belief this was a pivotal moment in our lives.

We were a little wary of striking up conversation with Cathal - a bit like you would be wary of striking up conversation with Roy Keane today, I guess! Would the singer rebuff these two earnest English fan boys?

We needn’t have worried. We told them we there to see them perform and Cathal and the band were delighted. We all stood for a few minutes, chatting about New York, about CBGBs, about nothing much really.

We didn’t over-stay our welcome, we realised they had sound checks to do and stuff, so we casually bade them good day and said we hoped they enjoyed the gig.

And that was it - my moment among the cool-set; fleeting but memorable. My 15 minutes of fame!

******

There is a funny follow-up to the story.

That night, I bought a cassette of Viva Dead Ponies and, when I went home to England, I played it on a loop in my car for weeks.

One night, my car was stolen by joyriders and the police found it abandoned, the engine still running. They rang my home in the dead of night to inform me and said they would call to my address and pick me up so I could collect the car.

As the young cop dropped me off at my car, he laughed as he told me the joyriders had been speeding along with the music on full volume, and when he got to the now-abandoned vehicle, a particular song was blaring out that had tickled him up.

I was puzzled what he meant - and duly mortified when I put the key in the ignition and a line from the first sing of Viva Dead Ponies blared out: “Kill a cop. Why the hell not?” Well, I did say Cathal was a punk.

Thank god that cop had a sense of humour - or maybe he too was a fan of The Fatima Mansions.

RIP, Cathal Coughlan, and thanks for making me, very briefly, feel achingly cool.

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