I first heard of Shane MacGowan from one of those high-school teachers we remember many years after graduating—in this case, an overgrown punk who gelled his thinning hair to a green spike, left his shirttails out where they fell beside a long chain, rolled his sleeves above his numerous mismatched tattoos. He was, when I knew him, an instructor in Latin.
In one particularly down-tempo class, he asked us: “Who here knows who Shane MacGowan is?” When no one raised a hand, he resorted to Google Images. Search term: “shane macgowen teeth.” He found what he was looking for. “Here,” he said, “this is the shit heroin will do to you.”
MacGowan, though born in England, spent his early childhood at his family’s home in Tipperary, but the family moved back to England when he was six. As a delinquent teenager in London, he discovered punk rock. His first fame was as a fan: at a Clash concert he got his ear slashed, and a photo of his bloodied head appeared on the cover of NME, a magazine that chronicled the punk scene. After a few years at the helm of his own unremarkable punk band, the Nips (short for “the Nipple Erectors”), MacGowan decided to try something new—a band that would combine a caustic punk sensibility with traditional Irish music. The idea “was to give the tradition a kick in the arse.” The new band was called Pogue Mahon until the BBC figured out that its DJs were having to say “kiss my arse” (póg mo thóin) on the air. The name was shortened to the Pogues. The new band would become the voice of a generation of Irish people who, like MacGowan himself, grew up outside of Ireland.
MacGowan died last week at the age of sixty-five, and to many it seemed a small miracle that he lived as long as that. His fame as a drinker was almost as great as his fame as a songwriter and performer, and all that dissipation took a toll. For one thing, it could make him sound mean. In Julien Temple’s 2020 documentary, Crock of Gold: A Few Rounds With Shane MacGowan, we see him insult his wife and friends. He is in a wheelchair, frail, and white as a sheet, making his friend (and the film’s producer) Johnny Depp, only five years younger, seem like the very image of youthful vigor by contrast. “You can be a right bitch,” he tells his wife Victoria. “But you really are very, very nice. And beautiful.”
He idolized hard-drinking writers like Flann O’Brien and Brendan Behan, whose apparition MacGowan meets in the song “Streams of Whiskey.” Behan was once an IRA operative, perhaps another point in his favor for MacGowan. “I was ashamed I didn’t have the guts to join the IRA,” he says in Temple’s documentary. “The Pogues was my way of overcoming that.” In 1988, MacGowan wrote “Streets of Sorrow / Birmingham Six” about six Irish men in Birmingham and four in Guildford who were coerced into confessions for bombings they did not commit. The song was initially banned in Great Britain for “invit[ing] support for terrorism.” All ten men were eventually exonerated.
MacGowan had an eye for the down-and-outs, people like himself. In “The Old Main Drag,” one of the band’s finest dirges, MacGowan sings of a teenager who goes down to “the ‘dilly” (Piccadilly Circus) with his “dancing bag.” He looks back, years later, at a life spent among prostitutes and pills, suffering grievous physical assaults by the police, including a beating so severe it “ruined his good looks” (thus making clear how the narrator earned his living). Finally, he drags us back to the present:
And now I'm lying here I've had too much booze
I've been shat on and spat on and raped and abused
I know that I am dying and I wish I could beg
For some money to take me from the old main drag
The concertinas flatline, and the last words are spoken rather than sung, leaving open the narrator’s fate—the kind of unlikely choice that elevates MacGowan’s art as the work of creative genius. Its matter aside, the song is lacquered by the kind of rheumy nostalgia that one associates with MacGowan himself, who began drinking at the age of six and spent his eighteenth birthday in a psychiatric institution due to drug addiction, anxiety, and depression.
He made a living telling the stories of underdogs: Irish immigrants to America, the unhoused and unwell, doomed soldiers. It’s often said that the Pogues could have made their music only in the diaspora, not in Ireland. “The Boys from the County Hell” turns the usual banal immigration story on its head:
We’ll eat your frigging entrails and we won’t give a damn
Me daddy was a blue shirt and my mother a madam
My brother earned his medals at Mai Lei in Vietnam
MacGowan may go in for nostalgia, but he isn’t sentimental. No, his songs tell us, we were not all Irish kings and queens from some misty old ballad. Sometimes, we were fascists, prostitutes, bullies, drunks, and—perhaps above all—boastful loudmouths. Or just “A Pair of Brown Eyes”:
So drunk to hell I left the place
Sometimes crawling sometimes walking
A hungry sound came across the breeze
So I gave the walls a talking
And I heard the sounds of long ago
From the old canal
And the birds were whistling in the trees
Where the wind was gently laughing
Just as his songs told the stories of the Irish diaspora, MacGowan’s lyrics became part of their own language. When my Irish-American father wanted to describe New York’s cutting winter gales, he defaulted to a line from “Fairytale of New York”: “the wind goes right through you / it’s no place for the old.” Over the past four decades, MacGowan’s poetry has become an important part of the meaning-making rituals of the Irish-in-exile, as well as in representations of those rituals in popular culture. In an episode of The Wire, for example, mourners at a mock wake for Baltimore Police Detective Jimmy McNulty—who has just quit the force—join together in singing the Pogue’s song “The Body of an American.”
MacGowan’s voice, described by the writer Joseph O’Connor as “dangerous, dark, exciting, wolfish,” was well suited to belt out definitive versions of legendary ballads like “The Auld Triangle” (about an Irishman in prison), as well as the anti-war song “The Band Played Waltzing Matilda.” Though written by Ewan MacColl, “Dirty Old Town” will forever be thought of as MacGowan’s song, because no one could sing it better.
In old interviews from the 1980s, MacGowan is quick and incisive on politics and history. There is no hint of the glacial manner of speech and utter lack of affect we find in Crock of Gold. This dramatic change apparently goes back to an early nineties booze-and-drug crack-up. Something went terribly wrong for MacGowan back then, and the Shane that we knew afterwards was not the same man who wrote and performed the songs that would make him a legend. MacGowan himself told the story of having to be carried to the hospital because his feet were so swollen from heroin injections. He says he narrowly avoided double amputation. His sister, Siobhan, was advised that he had only months to live.
And yet he somehow survived a few more decades. He was like Tim Finnegan from the old ballad about an epic boozer who falls off a ladder and breaks his skull, only to resurrect at his own wake when the revelers spill whiskey on him. (As far as I know, MacGowan never sang this song.) He was ever living up (or down) to the trope of the soused Paddy, and simultaneously ever subverting it. Mourned in life, he was the cat with nine lives, always drinking himself into an early grave but never quite getting there. On 1990’s “Sunnyside of the Street,” one year before the rest of the Pogues fired him from the band, MacGowan makes it plain: “I will not be reconstructed.” He never was.
MacGowan died amid a revival in Irish folk music, all of whose emerging figures seem to credit something to him. “We used to go to Shane’s house and roll joints for him,” Andrew Hendy, of The Mary Wallopers, told the Guardian. “We told him to fuck off a few times, as he did us.” The much-celebrated Dublin folk band Lankum performed at MacGowan’s sixtieth birthday party in 2018, playing “The Old Main Drag.” Naming their “False Lankum” the best album of 2023, The Quietus’s Patrick Clarke writes that any talk of a “revival” ignores the fact that “boundary-pushing, experimental, avant-garde approaches to traditional songs have been present under the surface for as long as the songs themselves. Experimentalism, in fact, is integral to them. It is what has kept them alive through the centuries.” To retain their meaning and power, in other words, they need the occasional “kick in the arse.” That means MacGowan's many fans can look forward to his reincarnation in a new era of experimentation, one that will proceed by fits and starts, like the drunk narrator of “A Pair of Brown Eyes”: “sometimes crawling, sometimes walking.”