Shane MacGowan: The tail-end of a great Irish tradition?

The pugnacious punk may well be the last inheritor of the wayward spailpín singers

Every now and then a people, if it is lucky, finds a figure who will express for it its dreams and torments, its boisterous or fighting spirits. Mid-19th-century Ireland found one such figure in James Clarence Mangan; mid-20th century Ireland discovered a number of such figures in Patrick Kavanagh, Brendan Behan and Luke Kelly. In Shane MacGowan, a native of Puckane, Co Tipperary, and Pembury, Kent, England, late 20th-century Ireland was fortunate to find an inheritor to this wayward songline.

Ever since planter colonialism beat down the haughty, aristocratic-minded bards, Ireland has had a remarkable subaltern tradition of poets and singers. The tributaries that fed into this tradition, which, for want of a better term, might in composite be called a spailpín culture, were various and ranged from sean nós to folk ballad to music hall or dance hall fare. Songs of hard labour and hard living, of wandering and exile, resentment and loss, emerged from this culture, nurtured by two languages, to form part of the musical repertoire.

The songs of Eoghan Rua Ó Súilleabháin and Cathal Buí Mac Giolla Ghunna survived the devastations of the Famine, and there is broad continuity of spirit from those 18th-century songsters to writers and performers, in Irish and English, of our own time. Joe Heaney, Caitlín Maude, Luke Kelly, Liam Clancy, Finbar Furey, Christy Moore and Dolores Keane drew on various elements of this fugitive spailpín culture.

For sure, this spailpín culture has also been influenced by the more high literary romantic traditions of the poètes maudits – those prodigal sons of the bourgeoisie who disdained a middle-class world that prized convention, wealth and success over spirit and imagination. These outcasts linked genius with suffering and self-destruction and sought splendour in squalor.


However, the great bearers, in music and song, of the Irish spailpín culture belonged mainly to the lower or lower-middle strata of society, and if their song-worlds were scored by hardship and desperation, and by the extravagant dream-visions that desperation begets, this had more to do with ordinary life than unvalued exceptional genius. For many, hardship and drudgery, heavy drinking and early graves were the very stuff of their existence. And, typically the spailpíns did not, as Yeats had the poets of Young Ireland, “sing to sweeten Ireland’s wrong”, but rather to express the everyday timber of their own lives and the lives of their fellows, and they did so, on occasion, with exquisite rage.

Wayward posh boy?

Having attended (and been expelled from) London's prestigious Westminster School, Shane MacGowan may seem more poète maudit than spailpín poet. Still, a childhood spent with aunts and uncles in rural Tipperary had immersed him in the lesser-prestige musics popular in the Irish countryside – the showbands and céilí bands, "Country and Irish" acts, folk song and ballad singers.

And MacGowan came of age in 1970s England when the rock world, no stranger to its own forms of dissolution, was being convulsed by punk, a raucous, aggressively atonal anti-musical music that gave the finger not just to the soppy pop of the mainstream culture industry but also to all forms of bombastic stadium rock. From that, ostensibly unlikely merging of these two patrimonies was born the legend of the Pogues.

Now that MacGowan and the Pogues, the band he established in 1982, have become objects of celebrity nostalgia, it is hard to recapture what an outrageously unorthodox phenomenon they were in the mid-1980s. Punk, which had shaped MacGowan, was by then getting past its peak. It had been defiantly modern and vanguard, thoroughly urban and scornful of tradition and heritage – the last thing one might associate with it were tin whistles or banjos, mandolins or accordions. And Irish folk music, which was by then becoming the respectable stuff of national heritage industries, had also left behind the political edge of the 1960s folk revival; the last things one might associate with it by the 1980s were youthful anarchy, belligerence and political pugnacity. To fuse punk ferocity and Irish music, as the Pogues did, was an act of ingenious alchemy, a blasphemy at the altars of both modes.

For those who liked their punk rock to be recognisably punk, the Pogues were “too Irish” to be authentic; for those who liked their Irish music to be recognisably Irish, they were absurdly English and alien, predatory transgressors trading in Paddywhackery. When Noel Hill, briefly concertina player in the revered Planxty, dismissed the Pogues as a “terrible abortion of Irish music”, he spoke for many, maybe most, musicians, journalists, critics and savants. No one knew what to make of the Pogues – except, that is, young people in their teens and early 20s. That generation – gifted with free education, reared when Ireland’s population was ticking upwards for the first time since the Famine – was coming to recognise that all that old-fashioned Paddy and Biddie drudgery they were supposed to have left behind might yet, thanks to the spiralling unemployment and emigration, become their own destiny. This was the generation that embraced MacGowan and the Pogues, channelling them to express their own ragged passions.

Tinderbox times

It must be remembered, too, that Britain and Ireland in the mid-1980s were tinderboxes. The Pogues first album, Red Roses for Me, appeared in 1984. Five years earlier, in 1979, Margaret Thatcher had been elected prime minister in Britain, and, heading up the nastiest Tory government in living memory, proceeded to assault the British working class while also espousing a hardline militant imperialism. In 1980 and then again in 1981, Ireland had been shaken by the H-Block Hunger Strikes, which would see 10 republicans die for their assertion that they were – and should be treated as – political prisoners. Even as that crisis abated, the daily savagery continued relentlessly in the North. In the South, against the background of the protracted recession, Catholic conservatism and a then-fledgling neoliberalism (Dessie O'Malley set up the Progressive Democrats in 1985) were whetting their own respective crises.

The two albums for which the Pogues will best be remembered – Rum, Sodomy & the Lash (1985) and If I Should Fall From Grace with God (1988) – appeared, then, when class warfare, sectarian strife and Anglo-Irish animosities all simmered. In this atmosphere, Irish music was expected to walk on political tiptoe or to be benignly philanthropic – U2's protest-song-that-was-not-a-rebel-song Sunday, Bloody Sunday was released in 1983, and Live Aid, the trans-Atlantic rock extravaganza organised by Bob Geldof and Midge Ure to raise funds for famine relief in Ethiopia, took place in 1985.

In stark contrast to the rock philanthropists, the Pogues were neither politically careful nor neutral. Songs such as The Sick Bed of Cuchulainn or Sally MacLennane, both penned by MacGowan for Rum, Sodomy & the Lash, invoked a rowdy, knockabout plebeian Irishness associated with violent navvy and republican song traditions, the former largely out of favour and the latter effectively banned from the airwaves. And on If I Should Fall from Grace with God, the song Streets of Sorrow/Birmingham Six, written by Terry Woods and MacGowan, represented one of the most stinging political songs to be penned by any Irish/British band in the period:

There were six men in Birmingham

In Guildford there’s four

That were picked up and tortured

And framed by the law

And the filth got promotion

But they’re still doing time

For being Irish in the wrong place

And at the wrong time

In Ireland they’ll put you away in the Maze

In England they’ll keep you for seven long days …

The Guildford Four were only released in 1989; the Birmingham Six waited until 1991. The MacGowan song was no elegy, dirge or protest song; it was flamboyantly partisan music, a searing j'accuse espousing a cause then not greatly popular in either Ireland or England.

Rent boys and pistols

Were it merely a matter of MacGowan's republicanism, the Pogues would have been only a punked-up Wolfe Tones. But they were always far more. If MacGowan's republican sentiments appealed to one constituency, songs such as The Old Main Drag, recounting the abjection of a rent-boy, or Lorca's Novena ("And Lorca the faggot poet, they left till last/Blew his brains out with a pistol up his arse"), spoke to other realities.

To complicate matters, MacGowan's lyrics, despite their ostentatious irreverence, were also shot through with a Catholic sense of rakish sinfulness and spiritual disgrace. But then again for every song of physical and spiritual maiming there are perhaps the best of all MacGowan's songs, those in which body and spirit soar in wild collective hedonistic exuberance, the great Dionysian The Body of an American, The Irish Rover, The Galway Races or Fiesta. Paradoxically, if the Pogues were a laddish band, and MacGowan always espoused a hard-drinking Irish masculinity that looked backwards to Brendan Behan or the Dubliners, several of the Pogues most evocative songs come to us as male-female duets. The wonderful MacGowan/Kirsty McColl duet Fairytale of New York, obviously, and the MacGowan/Sinéad O'Connor or MacGowan/Cait Ó Riordáin versions of Haunted are cases in point.

MacGowan may now seem a wasted wonder, a shipwrecked survivor of the days when he and the Pogues wreaked havoc with settled conceptions of Irish music. There is real sadness in the fact that once the little winning streak of great songs was gone, it really was gone. Within three years of the Pogues’ de facto demise with the sacking of MacGowan in 1991, Michael Flatley and Jean Butler – the children of other Irish emigrants, this time hailing from the United States – would in turn tear up the received script for Irish dance.

Both transformations of fossilising traditions came largely from Irish emigrant communities outside of Ireland, yet there are obvious differences between the Pogues and Riverdance. The Pogues were always a rakishly plebeian, rather ramshackle, often shambolic, short-lived affair: while the band struggled on without MacGowan until 1995, its pomp was in 1984-90.

By contrast, Riverdance and its successor shows were from the first exemplary products of the culture industry: they represented a top-down dance-revolution meticulously choreographed and mechanically reproducible, expressing a wholly corporatised frenzy of new energy. The opposite of shambolic, Riverdance has proved to be one of the most enduring successes of modern Irish culture.

Rebel traditions

If it fell to Riverdance to announce the birth of a new 21st-century neoliberal, post-nationalist Ireland, slick, sexy and synchronised, corporate and cool, magnificently professional, was it the fate of the Pogues, and that of MacGowan more particularly, to be the last of the spailpíns, the tail-end of a tradition stretching back to Eoghan Rua and Cathal Buí? Can the Pogues, with hindsight, be seen as a last-gasp moment just before the Celtic Tiger finally scoured the scruff of Kings Cross and Kilburn from the parishes of Irish song?

Maybe. Rebel and raucous traditions can certainly be tapped and tamed, but they can also sleep for decades only to come suddenly awake when least expected. In 1980 nobody was expecting Shane MacGowan or the songburst of twisted beauty and wild fantasia he would soon release. Now, as Ireland honours MacGowan at 60, it should celebrate a great songwriter who has written some songs that will be transmitted to a time when neither he nor we will be there to hear them. And Ireland should hope that its subaltern spailpín culture might still have a few more surprises in store.

Perspectives: Shane MacGowan 60th Birthday Celebration with performers including Nick Cave, Johnny Depp, Cerys Matthews and Carl Barat, takes place at the National Concert Hall on Monday, January 15th.

Joe Cleary is a a professor of English at Yale University and author of Outrageous Fortune: Capital and Culture in Modern Ireland ( 2007), which includes a chapter on the Pogues and contemporary Irish popular music