All through my life, I’ve never felt more Irish – more proudly Irish – than when I listen to The Pogues. Their songs, and Shane MacGowan’s unmistakable voice – so rich, warm, strong, intimate, masculine – have been with me since childhood, when my parents, aunts and uncles would play them at parties.
I’ve listened to those songs while far away and homesick; I’ve listened to them at Christmas; I’ve listened to them while blind drunk and maudlin. Songs like Hell’s Ditch, The Sick Bed of Cuchulain and Boys From the County Hell have fascinated me almost as transgressive literary works, with their fierce, compacted lyricism, their raging passion and ecstatic savagery. And then there are the love songs, as timelessly gorgeous as any ever recorded. Shane MacGowan’s songs and voice are to me – to many of us – the very soul of Ireland.
MacGowan was long past his brief creative peak by the time I came of age enough to understand The Pogues as not just an Irish band but a punk band, a gang of renegades whose music burned with the spirit of open defiance and sovereign independence that the late twentieth-century’s great cultural movement represented. I saw them play live just once, on one of their semi-regular Christmas reunion concerts, at the Olympia in Dublin. They were great. I remember how, for Fairytale of New York, MacGowan got his mother up onstage to sing the late Kirsty MacColl’s part. Last year, when I watched an eightysomething Bob Dylan play an unforgettable concert in Dublin, Dylan gave a moving shout-out to MacGowan who was there among the audience. “I hope you write some new songs soon,” said Dylan, or words to that effect.
MacGowan’s claim to greatness, of course, lies decades in the past: the brief period in the mid-1980s when The Pogues were the most exhilarating band on the planet. Their signature sound, even more than the riotous banjo, whistle or accordion, was MacGowan’s random and deranged scream – the bellowing howl that emerged from the depths of him and ripped through song after song, unprovoked and gratuitous, a cathartic roar signifying nothing but its own savage euphoria. Shane MacGowan’s scream was the very noise of wildness, hedonism, excess, an irrepressible surplus in the human spirit that bursts free of all systems, confines, controls. To hear it was to feel braver, more reckless and strong.
This was what MacGowan, in Hell’s Ditch, called “naked howling freedom”. Little wonder that The Pogues’ music resonated far beyond the Irish diaspora. In the final interview he gave in his lifetime, the great Chilean novelist Roberto Bolaño was asked whether he preferred Elvis or the Beatles. His reply: The Pogues!
MacGowan’s death at the age of 65 comes as no shock. In recent photographs he hadn’t looked at all well – although, frankly, with the life he lived and the habits he indulged, it was surprising that he held on as long as he did. There was a time when I would have argued that his alcoholism was beside the point, that he was entitled to a life of ruinous indulgence if that’s how he saw fit to reward himself for his glories in song, and that he’d achieved more in a few short years of productivity than many of those who condescended to him did in a lifetime. I don’t quite see it that way any more (I don’t drink alcohol any more either). It’s sad that he allowed his addiction to drown his talent.
And yet, perhaps it really doesn’t matter much. What matters is the songs. MacGowan sang of sinners, killers, drunks, brawlers, whores, lunatics and deviants. In his work he was well acquainted with damnation – but we should have no fear for his soul or its destination. The Broad, Majestic Shannon; A Rainy Night in Soho; Summer in Siam; Misty Morning, Albert Bridge: when you gift the world songs like those, you go straight to paradise. Shane MacGowan joined the immortals years ago.
Rob Doyle is the author of Here Are the Young Men, This Is the Ritual, Threshold and Autobibliography
- Find The Irish Times on WhatsApp and stay up to date