RIP Cathal Coughlan
May 24, 2022 § Leave a comment
Cathal Coughlan has died. You probably don’t know who he was. Coughlan was the frontman of a criminally underrated band in the late 80s/early 90s, The Fatima Mansions. They were an Irish band, from Cork, but they took their name from a housing estate/project in Dublin. They were wild.
Growing up in the Pacific Northwest in the late 80s, it was very hard to get access to what was then called alternative rock. This was especially true in the suburbs of Vancouver, which were pretty bland and boring in those days. Vancouver was going through this massive change, evolving from a backwater outpost of the British Empire into the modern, cosmopolitan city it is today. Part of this was due to Expo 86, part of it was due to global politics. Vancouver had always been a disembarkation point for immigrants from South and East Asia, that much is true. But in the late 80s/early 90s, with the impending handover of Kong Kong back to the Chinese in 1997, there was a massive influx of East Asian immigration to the city, which, combined with the already extant East and South Asian populations, changed the city massively. This had not yet filtered out to the far eastern suburbs of Vancouver.
The cultural shift of the city meant many things, including me being confused c. 2004 watching the NHL playoffs and an Air Canada ad that showed a city that looked like Vancouver, all these tall, angular glass towers, and the mountains behind them. It took me awhile to realize this was Hong Kong, not Vancouver. But the other thing that happened is that Vancouver emerged from its cocoon and became the international city it is today.
But all of that was still to come. I had read about The Fatima Mansions in The NME, they counted U2 amongst their supporters and fans. They eventually opened for U2 during one leg of the Zoo TV tour in 1992 in Europe (Pixies were the openers in North America). But it was damn near impossible to get their 1990 album, Viva Dead Ponies. I went to all the usual suspects on Seymour St. downtown (Sam the Record Man, A&A Records and Tapes, A&B Sound, and the indie store, Track Records). No dice. The guy at Track suggested I try Zulu Records on W. 4th in Kitsilano. I didn’t know anything about Kitsilano, but the guy was nice enough to tell me how to get there, the #4 bus. But they woman at Zulu, whilst she had heard of The Fatima Mansions, they didn’t have anything by them.
I did eventually find joy a few months later. Columbia House. Maybe it was a scam, but I sure as hell didn’t think so. Yeah, you could get your Brian Adams and Aerosmith this way. But Columbia House had all this random underground music. I found so much amazing alternative, hip hop, and techno music this way, everything from They Might Be Giants to Living Colour to Public Enemy to Boogie Down Productions to The Sundays and The Stone Roses. And The Fatima Mansions. Viva Dead Ponies was in the catalogue. I ordered it. It was glorious.
Things got a bit easier, music-wise, when I moved to Ottawa for undergrad, as Ottawa had The Record Runner on Rideau St., and they had damn near everything. Including their 1992 album, which actually charted in the UK, Valhalla Avenue. The Fatima Mansions were amazing, they weren’t any one thing in an era when record labels encouraged artists to be one thing. Coughlin was mezmerizing as a front man in their videos, tall, angular, Nordic-looking, and rather intimidating. Their music ranged from vicious industrial-inspired grinding guitars and shouted vocals to the tenderness of their cover of Leonard Cohen’s ‘A Singer Must Die,’ on the brilliant 1992 Cohen tribute album, I’m Your Fan.
I don’t think The Fatima Mansions ever came to North America, at least not anywhere near Montréal, Ottawa, Toronto, or Vancouver. Maybe they went to New York or Los Angeles. But not Canada. And these were the days, the early 90s, when Vancouver was the starting or end point of most major tours. This led to some amazing shows, when the artist(s) were fresh and stoked for the road trip, or when they were exhausted and drained at the end of it and they dug down for some amazing shit to end it all.
I obsessed over Viva Dead Ponies for a long while after I found it in the Columbia House catalogue. I can’t remember exactly when I got my hands on it, though my memories have me listening to the album, which was supposed to be called Bugs Fucking Bunny (I think it’s kind of obvious why that didn’t happen), over the Christmas break that year. None of my friends liked it, which was interesting, even the ones who liked synth-pop (which also features on Viva Dead Ponies) or industrial. I guess The Fatima Mansions were too many things to be anything. And I suppose this is why they remained obscure, at least in North America. It always felt to me in those days that the Europeans could handle their musical artists being more diverse in their sounds than we could.
I lost track of them after about 1992, and they broke up in 1995, Wikipedia tells me. Coughlan died on 18 May after a long illness. He was only 61. Before Mansions, he had been in Microdisney, who scored a few hit singles in the UK, and after Mansions split, he released a raft of solo music, his last album coming out in 2020.
May he rest in peace.
Triumphalism in Boston’s Famine Memorial
November 15, 2018 § 2 Comments
Last week I mentioned the haunting and beautiful Irish Famine memorial carved from bog wood by the artist Kieran Tuohy.
I spend a lot of time thinking about and, ultimately, teaching Famine memorials in both Irish and Public history classes. For the most part, Famine memorials are similar to Tuohy’s sculpture, though perhaps not as haunting. They show desperate, emaciated figures carrying their worldly goods in their arms and trying to get to the emigrant ships leaving from the quay in Dublin, Derry, Cork, etc. The Dublin memorial is perhaps the most famous.
The Irish memorials tend to reflect stories of leaving, the desperate emigrants heading to the so-called New World. Death is secondary to these narratives, though just as many people died as emigrated due to the Famine. Take, for example, my favourite memorial on Murrisk, Co. Mayo. This one depicts a coffin ship, though unlike many other monuments, it reflects death, as skeletons can be found aboard the coffin ship. In fact, if you look carefully at this image, you can see that the netting is actually a chain of skeletons, depicting the desperate refugees who died aboard these ships.
The stories told by Famine memorials in North America differ, however. They offer a solemn view of the refugees arriving here, sometimes acknowledging the arduous journey and the pitiful conditions in Ireland. But they offer a glimpse of what is to come. Perhaps none more so than the Boston Famine Memorial.
The Boston Famine Memorial is located along the Freedom Trail in Boston, at the corner of Washington and School streets downtown. Like most Famine memorials around the world, it dates from the era of the 150th anniversary of the Famine in the late 1990s. The Boston memorial was unveiled in 1998. It is not a universally popular one, for perhaps obvious reasons, and attracts a great deal of mocking. It’s got to the point that now there are signs surrounding the memorial asking visitors to be respectful.
It is comprised to two free-standing sculptures. The first shows the typical, desperate, starving, wraith-like Famine refugees. The man is desperate and cannot even lift his head, whilst his wife begs God for sustenance as her child leans towards her for comfort.
But it’s the second sculpture that is problematic. This one shows the same family, safe in America, happy and healthy. In other words, we get the triumphalist American Dream. But, there are a few gaps here. First, perhaps the obvious gap, the nativist resistance the Irish found in the United States. And perhaps more to the point, whereas the man is dressed like a worker from the late 19th/early 20th century (even then, this is 50-60 years after the Famine, the woman is dressed as if it’s the mid-20th century, so 100 years later.
Certainly, the Irish made it in the United States. The Irish became American, essentially, and assimilated into the body politic of the nation. But this was not instantaneous. It took a generation or two. It is worth noting that the first Irish president was also the first Catholic president, and that was still 115 years after the start of the Famine, with John Fitzgerald Kennedy being elected in 1960. Irish assimilation in the US was not easy, in other words.
And then there’s the triumphalism of the American Dream which, in reality, is not all that accessible for immigrants in the United States, whether they were the refugees of the Famine 170 years ago or they are from El Salvador today. And this is perhaps something unintended by the Boston memorial, given the time lapse between the Famine refugees and the successful, American family.