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Michael O’BrienMarch 22, 2024
Composite image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Sinéad O’Connor and Shane MacGowan, two Irish musicians, both died in 2023; Sinéad on July 26 and Shane on Nov. 30. Losing one of these legends would have been tragic, but seeing them depart within months of each other was devastating to their fans. 

Celebrating their lives and songs, a wealth of artists ranging from David Gray to the Dropkick Murphys performed at Carnegie Hall in New York City on March 20 to give new life to the departed artists’ ballads.

O’Connor, who is remembered for the depth of her lyricism and raw yet powerful voice, and MacGowan, the iconic frontman of The Pogues whose drinking habits rivaled Andre the Giant’s, share much more in common besides making Irish music.  

O’Connor’s friends knew her as someone who tried her best to tend to the mental and physical needs of her companions. MacGowan’s wife Victoria Mark Clark, who was at the Carnegie Hall tribute, shared with the crowd that O’Connor possessed an “incredible amount of empathy” for people, Shane included.

O’Connor also worked to save MacGowan from the throes of his addiction. In 1999, while the two were recording their popular duet “Haunted,” Shane was haunted by something truly evil—heroin.

After watching MacGowan reel from the effects of his drug use during the duo’s recording session, O’Connor alerted the police. He was arrested for possession and resented O’Connor for a while after, but soon enough, MacGowan recognized O’Connor’s saving act. When asked about the incident and if their relationship was over, MacGowan said, “No, but it ended my relationship with heroin.” 

The two artists were full of song, tragedy and triumph; they deserved a proper tribute. And the collection of artists at Carnegie Hall delivered.

After a bagpiper playing a dirge marched to the stage to begin the ceremonies, Violent Femmes guitarist Gordon Gano took the stage, fiddle in hand, rousing the audience with a one-man rendition of “A Pair of Brown Eyes,” my personal favorite Pogues track. 

I felt myself tearing up before the song began. As someone who adores The Violent Femmes and The Pogues, I thought I was going to have to ask my seatmate for a tissue.

But I was not entirely moved by the rendition. Gano had an admirable performance on the fiddle, but still, I think so much of the pathos of many songs by The Pogues comes via the unison of their instruments supporting MacGowan’s gruff voice—not just the fiddle, but also the tin whistle, banjo, accordion and more.

My minor complaint was quickly assuaged by the appearance of one-time Pogues bassist Cait O’Riordan and the uber-talented Steve Earle, who provided a rip-roaring version of “If I Should Fall From Grace with God.” Over the P.A. system, the announcer joked that this could be the first mosh pit that Carnegie Hall had ever seen. Joined by the Carnegie Hall house band, O’Riordan and Earle embodied the frenetic yet masterful musicianship that The Pogues exuded so well, complete with Shane’s signature yewww!s. 

The set alternated between O'Connor's and McGowan's songs, and Lisa Hannigan of County Meath took the stage to perform Sinéad’s “I Am Stretched on Your Grave.”

As in the title of her duet with Shane, the word “haunting” is oft overused in describing O’Connor’s voice and music, but there is no better way to describe Hannigan’s cover. Embodying the intense adoration that O’Connor emotes on the track, Hannigan wailed, “I am stretched on your grave/ And will lie there forever/ If your hands were in mine/ I'd be sure we'd not sever.” Hearing Sinéad’s words echoing now sent chills down my spine. 

An honorary son of the Emerald Isle, Josh Ritter performed one of The Pogues’ tales of their mother country, “The Broad Majestic Shannon.” With songs such as “Girl in the War” under his belt, Ritter was an apt choice to perform this song of homesickness and longing with gorgeous instrumentation behind it. Before beginning his cover, Ritter joked, “If it weren’t for The Pogues, I’d still be an N.B.A. player.”

Sinéad was a staunch advocate for social justice in her lifetime, an aspect of her life that was not forgotten by the performers who covered her songs. The Carnegie Hall tribute doubled as a fundraiser for PEN America, an organization that promotes literacy and free expression, which further honored Sinéad and her advocacy work.

Two years after she infamously ripped the pope’s photo on Saturday Night Live and thus was blacklisted from many performing opportunities, she released “Thank You for Hearing Me,” an acknowledgment to those who stuck by her side after her act of resistance. The tale of gratitude in the face of adversity was performed at the Carnegie Hall show by the Resistance Revival Choir, a powerful collection of multicultural voices that I believe O’Connor would have been pleased to see united in her song.

Sinéad also made waves when she wrote and released “Black Boys on Mopeds,” highlighting the hypocrisy of then-Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher’s outrage at the killing of student protestors in Tiananmen Square; at the same time, Thatcher was turning a blind eye to the murder of Nicholas Bramble, who was unjustly murdered by English police after they wrongfully assumed he stole a moped that was his own. 

The honor to perform this hallmark of Sinéad’s marriage of activism and music was bestowed upon Amanda Palmer, one-half of the cult favorite Dresden Dolls. “England’s not the mythical land of Madame George and roses/ It’s the home of police who kill black boys on mopeds/ And I love my boy and that's why I’m leaving,” Palmer sang.

Many of the MacGowan songs performed highlighted the musician’s mirth, but Billy Bragg offered a more sober reflection with his performance of “A Rainy Night in Soho.” Perhaps the most poignant song MacGowan penned with The Pogues, it includes the lyric “You’re the measure of my dreams,” which always makes me choke up a bit. What could be a better expression of love? But Bragg’s crystalline rendition made me realize the song could be just as much about MacGowan himself as it is about his lover. 

MacGowan writes, “We watched our friends grow up together/ And we saw them as they fell/ Some of them fell into Heaven/ Some of them fell into Hell.” Yes, we often drift apart from companions, but “falling into heaven” is exactly what I think Shane did.

My appreciation for MacGowan’s poetic lyricism grew as Bragg sang “I’m not singing for the future/ I’m not dreaming of the past/ I’m not talking of the first times/ I never think about the last.” 

Time must have been a loose construct for MacGowan, consistently under the influence of substances and touring with minimal time off the road. He probably never thought about the day he would die, “the last;” but death comes for everyone the same. Here MacGowan argues that if we know we will have a last day on earth, why stress over it?

The emotional centerpiece of the night came when O’Connor’s daughter, Roisin Waters, performed “Nothing Compares 2 U,” a Prince song that was popularized by O’Connor’s cover. A fantastic performer in her own right, Waters sang, “It’s been so lonely without you here/ Like a bird without a song /Nothing can stop these lonely tears from falling,” honoring her mother’s memory.

The grand finale was Ewan MacColl’s original, “Dirty Old Town,” which became known as The Pogues’ most popular number after they released their own version of it. MacColl’s son Neill was in attendance to sing along, showing that Irish music is truly a family affair. Although every artist that performed throughout the night was on stage for the tune, its closing verses were given to Bettye LaVette, a cover artist with a simply amazing voice; she’s also married to an Irishman. (Bonus points!) 

Earlier in the night, LaVette performed O’Connor’s “I Do Not Want What I Haven’t Got,” noting that when she first covered the song while Sinéad was still alive her rendition received rousing approval from O’Connor’s team.

As a cover artist, LaVette noted, “When you sing other people’s songs, it’s like taking care of their babies,” showing the deep reverence she has for O’Connor and MacGowan’s songwriting gifts.

Indeed, every artist who performed at the tribute lovingly took care of their babies. We will never see MacGowan or O’Connor perform them again, but their legacy lives on every time a musician, a millionaire or a local hopeful sings their songs.

More: Ireland

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