Remembering The Pogues’ Shane MacGowan, the raucous and tragic sage of Irish music
It is often a sticky enterprise for musicians to make some sort of boast that involves God. “We’re more popular than Jesus now,” John Lennon infamously said in a 1966 interview, causing Americans in the Bible Belt to light Beatles LPs and posters on fire.
“I’d hope we mean more to people than putting money in a church basket and saying ten Hail Marys on a Sunday. Has God played Knebworth recently?” asked Noel Gallagher of Oasis in 1997, drawing several angry responses from British MPs.
Believers were understandably offended by these statements, but I can’t help but agree with Shane MacGowan’s suggestion that he was the one “that [God’s] going to use to save Irish music.”
I can’t help but agree with Shane MacGowan’s suggestion that he was the one “that [God’s] going to use to save Irish music.”
Best known for his involvement with the band The Pogues, MacGowan died on Nov. 30 at the age of 65. His career breathed fresh life into what Irish music could be.
MacGowan and The Pogues blended traditional Celtic instrumentals with thrashing punk rock to create an infectious sound that caught on like wildfire, forging friendships and musical partnerships with rock legends like The Clash’s Joe Strummer (in his youth, MacGowan got a chunk of his ear bit off in the crowd at a Clash concert) and with traditional Irish music giants like The Dubliners.
As is the case when looking back on the legacy of musicians who are synonymous with the bottle and more extreme illicit activities, many may simply remember MacGowan for his alcohol- and cigarette-stained grin. But behind that smile was a man who devoured literature, loved his country and yes, contemplated God.
Catholicism always had a strong influence on MacGowan, as his devout family encouraged him to be a priest early on in life.
“Their wish was to have a priest in the family, instead of a drunk in the family. It was one step up for everybody if I became a priest,” his autobiography, A Drink with Shane MacGowan,notes.
“Their wish was to have a priest in the family, instead of a drunk in the family. It was one step up for everybody if I became a priest,” MacGowan once wrote.
While MacGowan clearly chose a different road, his lyrics sometimes reflected on the relationship between his debaucherous lifestyle and his faith, perhaps most notably in the titular track off The Pogues album “If I Should Fall from Grace with God.”
In his signature raspy voice, MacGowan sings, “If I should fall from grace with God / Where no doctor can relieve me / If I'm buried 'neath the sod / But the angels won't receive me / Let me go, boys.”
The lyrics are mournful and despairing, as MacGowan grapples with the prospect of not being permitted through the pearly gates. But you would never be able to tell that MacGowan was thinking about a meeting with St. Peter from the song’s rip-roaring instrumentals, upbeat enough to set any Irish pub ablaze with dance. This was signature Shane—his lyrics are bathed in introspection and personal philosophy, but his onstage persona was closer to that of Joey Ramone than Van Morrison.
MacGowan’s lyrical interests also frequently centered on the Irish diaspora, as MacGowan spent the majority of his young life away from Ireland in England. Although written by guitarist Phil Chevron, the words to “Thousands Are Sailing” are a prime example of lyrics that align with the Pogues’ and MacGowan’s deep interest in the global displacement of Irishmen and women. “Thousands” mourns the journey on “coffin ships” taken by Irish emigrants who sought opportunity overseas at the risk of not surviving the journey in the first place.
Citing famine and other hardships as the reasoning behind the mass emigration, MacGowan also doesn’t spare criticisms of the Catholic Church: “Where e'er we go, we celebrate / The land that makes us refugees / From fear of priests with empty plates / From guilt and weeping effigies / Still we dance to the music and we dance,” he sings.
In these lyrics, MacGowan wrestles with the complicated legacy of the Catholic Church’s relationship to the Irish famine. Professor Breandán Mac Suibhne of the National University of Ireland argues that “The Catholic Church was a ‘net winner’ from the Great Famine, as the urban Catholics who survived it were more likely to be regular Mass-goers than the largely rural poor who died, enabling the church to increase its influence on the population at large.”
MacGowan and The Pogues' lyrics show some of this reckoning with an institution they belonged to. But, in true Shane fashion, his answer to these questions? Dance to the music.
With the holidays just around the corner, it would be impossible to write about MacGowan’s contribution to popularizing Irish music without mention of The Pogues’ classic Christmas anthem “Fairytale of New York.” MacGowan, born on Christmas Day in 1957, sings alongside Kirsty MacColl in what ended up being the Pogues’ most well-recognized song. The tune propelled the album on which it was featured to #88 on the Billboard 100, the Pogues’ highest position of their career.
A tragic ballad of an emigrant Irish couple attempting to celebrate in New York, the song beautifully captures the devastating unraveling of a doomed romance. (Both singers are also tragic figures in their own right.) While the foreign land of New York contributes to their not-so-jolly Christmas, both figures know they only have each other to blame for their struggles: “I could have been someone / Well, so could anyone / You took my dreams from me when I first found you,” MacGowan and MacColl go back and forth.
MacGowan battled personal demons for much of his life, but did so in such a joyful way that casual fans and onlookers didn't realize the full extent of his struggles.
But of course, Shane pulls our attention back to the good: “The boys of the NYPD choir / Still singing ‘Galway Bay’ / And the bells are ringing out / For Christmas Day.” MacGowan’s ability to beckon singing, dancing and music as a solution to hardship is uncanny, and this Christmas song stays true to Shane’s belief that a fiddle, bodhrán and tin whistle are the ingredients needed to mend a broken heart.
MacGowan also contributed to a rendition of “The Little Drummer Boy” performed by the aptly named Northern Ireland Catholic trio The Priests, composed of the Rev. Eugene O’Hagan, the Rev. Martin O’Hagan and the Rev. David Delargy.
After some Catholic fans of The Priests were upset by MacGowan’s inclusion on the song because of his hedonistic lifestyle, the band defended MacGowan’s involvement, saying “He came across as a deeper, richer and more complex person than he’s often portrayed,” and that MacGowan “had a ‘depth and sincerity’ that is not picked up by the media.”
An oft misunderstood man, MacGowan battled personal demons for much of his life, but did so in such a joyful way that casual fans and onlookers didn't realize the full extent of his struggles.
Fans of The Pogues might consider ourselves lucky to see MacGowan live this long: "People have given Shane six months to live every year since he's been 19," Chevron told NPR in 2006; but it does not lessen the pain of seeing him go.
Editor's Note: A previous version of this article identified Shane McGowan, not Phil Chevron, as the writer of “Thousands Are Sailing."