The Song Remains: Shane MacGowan (1957-2023)

Irish cultural icon status should not obscure his artistic gifts as a sublime lyricist.

Anyone catching the mainstream media on 30th November 2023 could not fail to be moved by the tributes to Shane MacGowan following his peaceful death that day from viral encephalitis after battling the disease since 2022. As well as the media coverage, the President of Ireland, Michael D. Higgins, paid his own tribute recognising Shane MacGowan’s talents as a lyricist and his contribution to Irish and the Irish Diaspora’s cultural life. All this for a musician who struggled with drug and alcohol problems for most of his adult life, and is reputed to have considered becoming a Catholic priest in his teens as well as reputedly claiming he was too much of a coward to join the IRA. While his wildman hard-drinking public personae provided good copy for certain parts of the popular media, his fame is due to his merging of punk rock with traditional Irish music in The Pogues, and his own undoubted gifts as a songwriter and lyricist. The popular media tributes have homed in on The Pogues ‘Fairytale of New York’, sung as a duet by MacGowan and Kirsty MacColl, which has entered popular consciousness as one of the most popular Christmas songs, even though the lyrics are hardly your typical cheery Christmas fayre.

Shane Patrick Lysaght MacGowan was born on Christmas Day 1957 in Pembury, Kent, to Irish immigrant parents who returned to Tipperary for the first six years of his life. The family returned to England and Shane MacGowan obtained a scholarship to Westminster School but was expelled for drug possession. He found his spiritual and musical home in the punk movement of the seventies, forming the Nipple Erectors in 1976. He formed Pogue Mahone, a play on the Irish for “kiss my arse”, in 1982. Their live performances helped them land a record deal with Stiff Records and a name change to the more media-friendly Pogues. The band became one of the bands of the ‘80s with their mix of punk rock and Irish traditional music and Shane MacGowan’s poetry-like lyrics supported by his love of melody, despite any inherent darkness in the lyrics. The Pogues released five albums with Shane MacGowan before he was sacked in 1991 due to his unreliability, two of which are true classic albums, 1985’s ‘Rum, Sodomy & the Lash’ and 1988’s ‘If I Should Fall From Grace With God’. The Pogues reformed in 2001 with Shane MacGowan back in the fold and lasted until 2014 as a touring band but released no new material. Shane MacGowan formed the Popes in the ‘90s releasing two albums which while not reaching the heights achieved by the Pogues, showed that Shane MacGowan was not suffering from artistic burnout.

The 21st Century saw little new Shane MacGowan material but he continued to play live with the reformed Pogues, and his celebrity status rose as he finally seemed to manage his own personal demons, eventually marrying his long-term fiancé, journalist Victoria Mary Clarke in 2018. While his reputation and celebrity have often obscured the undoubted quality and originality of his best work, there can be no doubt he kicked Irish, and folk music in general, in the tóin at a time when it was badly needed. There is a whole generation of Irish, British and American roots musicians who have developed their own careers based on Shane MacGowan’s artistic inspiration and innovations.

 

 

About Martin Johnson 378 Articles
I've been a music obsessive for more years than I care to admit to. Part of my enjoyment from music comes from discovering new sounds and artists while continuing to explore the roots of American 20th century music that has impacted the whole of world culture.
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Richard Parkinson

Great tribute. Shane and The Pogues also have a body of London songs on a par with The Kinks