The last Irish rebel

Thanks, Shane MacGowan, for everything.

Brendan O'Neill

Brendan O'Neill
chief political writer

Topics Culture World

The most remarkable thing about the death of Shane MacGowan is that it took until 2023. That he survived the Seventies is a miracle. That’s the decade he was packed off to a psychiatric unit at the age of 17 and later became a punk famous for letting his girlfriend bite him on the dancefloor. (‘CANNIBALISM AT CLASH GIG’, said a headline in the NME next to a pic of our bloodied young hero.) That he made it through the Eighties, his sozzled heyday as lead singer of the Pogues, is remarkable. That he scraped through his decades of alcoholism, a crack habit and even 2016 – when celebs seemed to drop dead every other week – feels unfathomable. So noteworthy was his refusal to die that there was even a book published in 2001 called Is Shane MacGowan Still Alive?. Awfully, finally, the answer to that question is No.

Yes, the greatest songwriter of the Eighties has left us. The man who singlehandedly resuscitated traditional Irish music, and spiked it with the din of London punk, has retired to the great drinking establishment in the sky. He was 65. Younger generations will never understand how crazy it is that Shane MacGowan made it to retirement age. You think it’s rebellious when a singer comes out as a they / them. Try a singer who had his first acid trip at 14 and once turned up to an event in Japan so pissed his hosts thought he’d been in a car crash. Never mind sacrificing your pronouns, my man sacrificed his teeth. Though he later had dentures fitted for a TV show called Shane MacGowan: A Wreck Reborn. ‘It’s just how I imagine I’d remember it’, he said for the cover of a book about the Pogues, which is the best cover quote of all time.

Yet even as we marvel at the length of MacGowan’s life, and the almost studied debauchery of it, we must honour its achievements, too. They are legion. It is crazy that in his twilight years he was best-known for two things: his wild life and his wildly popular Christmas song, ‘Fairytale of New York’. If you had told us Pogues fans 35 years ago that Shane would one day be the voice of Yuletide, his raspy vocals echoing in the aisles of every Tesco in the land, we’d have thought you mad. To us he was the last great Irish rebel. Half Luke Kelly, half Sid Vicious. The author of songs of such emotional depth and raucous spirit we knew we’d still be singing them when we were 50. And we are. Go wet-eyed over Fairytale of New York this Christmas, by all means, but also get on Spotify and listen to ‘Misty Morning, Albert Bridge’, ‘Boys From the County Hell’, ‘The Old Main Drag’, ‘Yeah Yeah Yeah Yeah Yeah’…. ‘I love your lips and I love your eyes / I love your breasts, I love your thighs’ – you’ve not heard love songs like this.

Originally called Pogue Mahone – Irish for ‘kiss my arse’ – the Pogues diplomatically whittled their name down in the early Eighties. They burst on to the music scene with their album Red Roses for Me in 1984. That was the year of the New Romantics and Band Aid. Of men in make-up looking earnest next to smoke machines on Top of the Pops and Bob Geldof’s sad-eyed minions wondering if the starving folk of Ethiopia even know it’s Christmas. (Sixty-five per cent of them are Christians, so I’m guessing they do, yes.) Then along comes this hybrid Irish / London band, part-trad, part-punk, as if Brendan Behan and Johnny Rotten had defied the laws of nature and had offspring, singing ‘The Auld Triangle’ and ‘Poor Paddy’ and ‘Down in the Ground Where the Dead Men Go’. No wonder Melody Maker described Red Roses for Me as brilliant but ‘strangely irrelevant’, like ‘a particularly bloody two-fingered [gesture] aimed at all things considered current and fashionable in 1984’. Yes, quite correct.

By the time of their masterpiece – 1988’s If I Should Fall From Grace With God, on which ‘Fairytale of New York’ made its first appearance – the Pogues had fully embraced their ‘strange irrelevance’. They were the cultural outliers who inspired wild devotion among fans. MacGowan declared himself the enemy of pop worthiness, a one-man screw-you to the po-faced bent of so much Eighties pop. Asked why his punkish Irish outfit enjoyed so much success, he said ‘[because] we weren’t a faggot and a guy with a synthesiser’. Look, I know that’s not PC, but you know as well as I do what he meant. ‘I’ve got nothing against faggots – we have one!’, he continued, referring to Philip Chevron, the Pogues’ guitarist, who was gay. He couldn’t abide ‘world music’, either. You know, Peter Gabriel in an ironic military jacket singing about Steve Biko or Annie Lennox wanging on about wearing condoms. No one wanted ‘another bunch of straights playing “world music”’, he said. They ‘wanted the Pogues’, they wanted ‘nutters’. It’s true, we did.

They went stratospheric, boosted by ‘Fairytale’. They even convinced then Hollywood heartthrob Matt Dillon to star in the vid for that song. (Dillon later recalled having to hold MacGowan up, because otherwise he’d ‘have gone down the stairs’). It is impossible to overstate the impact the Pogues had on second-generation Irish youths in London and Britain’s other big cities. It was completely electric. That our Irish-born elders were initially horrified by them – worried they were sullying the motherland’s music with all their vulgarity – was part of the attraction. Our love of the Pogues was as much a screw-you to the twee cultural tendencies of our parents’ generation – Big Tom, Gay Byrne, Val fucking Doonican – as it was to our native British peers who we knew looked upon our community with suspicion and derision. Our English mates had Deacon Blue, we had The Pogues. Game, set and match. I sincerely hope Shane had some idea of what he did for an entire generation that often felt unmoored from both its parents and society. There are millions who will never forget.

It was in large part nostalgia, I know. It was a last hurrah for the Irish rebel. For at the same time that the Pogues were intoxicating young Irish-Brits and Irish-Americans with songs about the Birmingham Six, the Famine and Irish lovers separated by migration – ‘Your eyes, blue as the ocean between us’ – the Irish were being brought in from the cold. The Troubles were being wound down, anti-Irish bigotry in the UK was fizzling out, being a Paddy was increasingly in vogue. The nostalgic streak to the Pogues was brought home to me during their reunion tour of 2004. Once again the wild lads landed at a time when pop was unimaginably naff. This was the era of self-emasculated posh fops like Travis, Coldplay, Keane. Keane were the anti-Pogues. They took their name from the tea lady at the private school they attended (Tonbridge, £30,000 pa) and their lead singer was once spied by Popbitch on a train ‘drinking Ribena [and] doing the Daily Telegraph Book of Sudoku’. Rock’n’roll! What sweet relief it was to see the Pogues at the Manchester Arena that year. But it was wistful, too: a jaunt to a punkish yesteryear to escape the new millennium’s crisis of manhood and meaning and music.

We will see a lot of Pogues nostalgia in the coming days. MacGowan will be praised to the hilt by people who would have cancelled him in a heartbeat if he emerged today. Indeed, the annual fuss over the word ‘faggot’ in ‘Fairytale of New York’ is a testament to the simmering loathing for MacGowan’s old-world cultural honesty that lurks behind the treatment of him as a national treasure. I could quote the long and beautiful justification MacGowan made in 2018 for his use of that f-word, his musings on how every songwriter, writer and playwright has the freeborn liberty to create characters that speak horribly as well as beautifully. But instead I’ll cite what he said on The Late Late Show in Ireland a couple of years later when it was put to him that the lyric is offensive: ‘Fuck that.’

Ireland’s Taoiseach, Tánaiste and president will pay tribute to MacGowan. Even as they trounce the Ireland he represented. Even as they rush through hate-speech laws that would potentially have led to someone like MacGowan being dragged to court for his sinful utterance of a word like ‘faggot’. These people drain the spirit from Ireland, turning it into a flat, conformist country, like a little Canada on the coast of Europe, and then think they can say Shane’s name? Please. If he was the spiritual heir to Behan and Flann O’Brien and Ronnie Drew, they’re the spiritual heirs to the Committee on Evil Literature, the psychotic censorship body set up by the Irish Free State in 1926. That the death of free-speaking ‘nutter’ MacGowan has occurred at the same time as the Irish state is further clamping down on the ‘hate speech’ that allegedly emanates from the lower orders is all the proof we need that the Irish rebel is on the verge of extinction.

His music will outlive these people. It will survive cancel culture. It will outlast a pop scene where binding one’s breasts and saying ‘I love Greta’ are insanely considered acts of rebellion. ‘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’, he sings on ‘A Rainy Night in Soho’. Let’s hope he’s falling into Heaven today. He deserves it.

Brendan O’Neill is spiked’s chief political writer and host of the spiked podcast, The Brendan O’Neill Show. Subscribe to the podcast here. His new book – A Heretic’s Manifesto: Essays on the Unsayable – is available to order on Amazon UK and Amazon US now. And find Brendan on Instagram: @burntoakboy

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