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Shane MacGowan: From céilí-punk rebel to feted genius, addict to national institution

Despite the many medical challenges of his final years, he retained an admirably cussed streak that stopped him occupying the role of the smiling public man too comfortably

Considering that Shane MacGowan was a protean fixture in Irish life for so long, by turns hell-raising maverick, gritty romantic and idiosyncratic icon, his creative heyday was surprisingly brief.

But MacGowan, who has died aged 65, produced songs of such incandescent brilliance while frontman of the Pogues that this achievement remains the bedrock on which his reputation rests, no matter that he became arguably more famous for his hedonistic image as his career faltered.

Initially framed as an iconoclast taking a sledgehammer to the hidebound conventions of trad when he and the London-based Pogues first made their mark nearly 40 years ago, English-born MacGowan was far more respectful of the Irish folk tradition than his rambunctious persona suggested. The mythology and ballads he absorbed during childhood stays in his mother’s native Co Tipperary remained a touchstone throughout his life, whether as the wayward son of Irish immigrants in the Home Counties of southern England, the bug-eyed singer of a rising céilí-punk combo or the troubled solo performer tussling with addiction and ill-health.

That MacGowan would eventually become a something of an institution in his beloved Ireland, feted by statesmen and celebrities alike, was the most unexpected twist of all. Despite the many medical challenges of his final years, he maintained a Delphic, almost serene presence, if retaining an admirably cussed streak that stopped him occupying the role of the smiling public man too comfortably, as evidenced by his regularly stated admiration for the IRA.

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For all his love of Ireland, London was the proving ground for MacGowan’s remarkable talent. His teenage years were a jumble of juvenile delinquency and school expulsions. These ensured that, despite his obvious intelligence, he never followed a standard career path, though it imbued him with an enduring sympathy with society’s outsiders.

Instead, he spent the 1970s criss-crossing the British capital’s vibrant youth cultures, soaking up reggae, soul and freaked-out hard rock. The punk explosion of 1977 was the real catalyst: MacGowan, now calling himself Shane O’Hooligan, became lead singer of the Nipple Erectors (later tastefully recast as the Nips). The band were rollicking also-rans, but the punk scene’s primal DIY ethos proved a crucial element in his next venture.

In 1982, MacGowan formed Pogue Mahone with fellow musicians Spider Stacy, James Fearnley and Jem Finer – all English – to fuse traditional Irish airs with furious punk energy. He had hit upon the distinctive hybrid that became his trademark.

“I’ve never understood why it took me so long to make the connection,” he told his long-time girlfriend and later wife Victoria Mary Clarke in A Drink With Shane MacGowan, the conversational memoir they co-authored in 2001. “I had a mental block that said Irish music is one thing and pop music is another.”

Newly rechristened as The Pogues, the group made their mark as a live act, now bolstered by bass player Cait O’Riordan and drummer Andrew Ranken. Their debut album Red Roses For Me followed in 1984: essentially a document of their frenetic stage shows, the album also gave an early hint of MacGowan’s yen for tales from the underbelly of urban life in his songs Transmetropolitan and Dark Streets of London.

But it was on the band’s 1985 follow-up, Rum, Sodomy and the Lash, that MacGowan truly found his voice as a songwriter. Songs such as The Old Main Drag, The Sick Bed of Cuchulainn and A Pair of Brown Eyes took in male prostitution, Celtic mythology, republican history and lovelorn nostalgia with an unflinching, grimy but literary sensibility worthy of his hero Brendan Behan. The album remains arguably the most fully realised iteration of MacGowan’s artistic vision, certainly the rawest.

By now the band were bona fide star attractions. It’s hard to overstate the seismic impact The Pogues had in Ireland at the time. Their gigs were closer to punk rock shows than reverent ballad sessions, but they won over a generation of young Irish fans – including this writer – otherwise indifferent to folk music.

MacGowan’s background was crucial to making this connection. It’s hard to imagine any Irish-born musician of his vintage ripping up the trad rule book so comprehensively while embracing supposedly anachronistic tropes of Irishness – roistering sentimentality, religious imagery, patriotic iconography – with such gusto.

Despite harrumphing from some traditional quarters, as much about the band’s boozy antics as their manic playing, The Pogues made Irish music seem cool, here and abroad. (The group were accepted into the canon when they recorded with their spiritual forebears, The Dubliners.)

Within the group, however, things were changing. O’Riordan left, while Irish musicians Phil Chevron and Terry Woods joined the line-up, shifting the group towards the more accomplished sound of their next album, If I Should Fall from Grace with God.

Their most successful release to date, it included MacGowan’s signature song, Fairytale of New York, his growlingly tender duet with the late Kirsty MacColl. Long a Christmas staple, it’s indicative of MacGowan’s singular gifts that Fairytale still defies seasonal cosiness, with the derogatory term “faggot” bowdlerised from latter-day versions; Shane was rarely one to heed sensitivities.

As the song’s US setting shows, the singer’s horizons had expanded to encompass Irish America: he tapped into the diaspora experience like none before. Up to the 1980s, the lives of Irish immigrants were largely excluded from the official historical narrative, but Shane’s starkly poetic vignettes pushed such stories back into the public imagination.

By the late 1980s MacGowan’s heart was no longer in The Pogues. He made two more albums with the band, 1989′s Peace and Love and 1991′s Hell’s Ditch, both of which featured stirring compositions by the singer. But as his consumption of drink and drugs increased, he drifted apart from other members, becoming less interested and more erratic, before being fired in 1991.

In truth, this marked the end of MacGowan’s glory years. He formed a new band, The Popes, but his solo output was unsatisfactory, never reaching the heights of earlier efforts. He issued two long players: 1994′s raggedly intriguing The Snake and 1997′s misfiring The Crock of Gold, before effectively calling time on his recording career. MacGowan never again released an album.

Though he continued to perform intermittently, MacGowan appeared to go into a steep decline. His intoxicated lifestyle became so infamous that a ghoulish circus often congregated around him: when I interviewed him in 1997 he seemed semi-comatose, consuming pint glasses of martini and stumbling to the bathroom at regular intervals. Between overdosing in private and vomiting on stage, it was a painful spectacle, especially for those close to him; he and Victoria split for a period in the early 2000s.

Never one to follow the script, however, MacGowan found an odd equilibrium in the years that followed. There were intermittent performances, including periodic reunions of The Pogues that ran until 2014, which kept him in the public eye.

Meanwhile, if he was upset about his creative well drying up, he didn’t let it show. “Every song you write has to be a song that you enjoy singing as much as one you’ve know all your life,” he told me in 2003. “I feel relieved that I’ve done that with some of my songs, but if I never write another one again, I don’t really mind. Never having had a plan, I’ve never been disappointed.”

This philosophical worldview must have been tested by his failing health in later years, with a broken pelvis confining him to a wheelchair. But MacGowan’s reputation only grew. He received awards from President Michael D Higgins, and was surreally serenaded by Gerry Adams in Julien Temple’s 2020 documentary, Crock of Gold.

More pertinently, he was lauded as a peer by the likes of Bruce Springsteen, who visited him at home in summer 2023, and Bob Dylan, who sent good wishes from a Dublin stage in 2022. This final act, which saw the singer transformed from cautionary figure to eccentric national institution, was hardly a happy ending: the unblinking fatalist in MacGowan would surely have resisted such a pat conclusion.

But the London-Irish dreamer who loved myths and embraced faith may have been more accepting of his life’s arc, and even secretly happy. It was never possible to pigeonhole MacGowan’s mercurial genius.