Only the end of the beginning

Shane MacGowan first made the papers amid reports that he'd had his ear bitten off at a Clash gig

Shane MacGowan first made the papers amid reports that he'd had his ear bitten off at a Clash gig. Pictures of his bloodied face were a sight to see and, although the injury involved a broken bottle and no missing ears, it helped to confirm his image as a serious London punk. He had already become something of a fixture on the punk scene - always in the front row at gigs and often dressed, perhaps surprisingly, in a Union Jack suit. His own band, the Nipple Erectors released a few singles but it wasn't until Shane O'Hooligan of The Nips finally became Shane MacGowan of the Pogues that he emerged as perhaps the finest eligible-to-play-for-Ireland songwriter since Elvis Costello. It's a story however which begins, not in London, but in Puckane, Co Tipperary.

"That whole area of north Tipperary is very musical and I heard a lot of traditional stuff - and ceili bands, which count as traditional in my book. I'm talking about real Irish folk music. There would be a lot of unaccompanied singing of all sorts of songs like Kevin Barry - you got to remember that this was the late 1950s, early 1960s - so I built up a repertoire of old famous Irish songs that were made famous later by the Dubliners and the Clancys. There were also songs that have been forgotten long since, like stuff by Maggie Barry I heard on the radio. Radio Eireann was amazing in those days - a hundred times better than any pop channel I've ever listened to. When the Beatles and the Stones came out there were pop programmes as well, but I never rated them, to be quite honest, alongside the music that was played in the house."

Although MacGowan was born in Kent on Christmas Day in 1957, he spent most of his childhood in the Tipperary countryside. The Puckane house had been, he'll tell you, a safe house during the War of Independence and the Civil War, but was by the late 1950s rather less secretive in its activities. It was, in fact, a place open to all comers - and a huge adventure for the young MacGowan.

"It was what they used to call an open house. We lived in a remote townland six miles from the nearest town. There was Borrisokane in one direction and Kilbarron in the other - where Martin Sheen's mother came from a matter of fact. There were loads of great musical families but my lot, the Lynches, and the Dunnes, who were cousins of ours, were generally regarded as the best. In fact, the same priest who discovered John McCormack offered my Uncle Pat the opportunity to go to Italy and do the McCormack trip. So there was music all the time and you had ramblers coming around all the time. People knew that if they were in the area and it was around dinner time that they would get a free meal, a shot of whiskey and in return they'd have to tell a story and sing a few songs - or maybe drop off a bottle of potin."


It was all vital and formative stuff which would surface later when the Pogues arrived as a truly bizarre spectacle on the music scene. Looking rather like a punk flying-column, one of them famously provided percussion by whacking himself on the head with a beer-tray. And as for MacGowan, nobody had ever seen his likes on a stage before. Shane slurred his way through a raging set that left audiences wondering what exactly it all meant. Was it stage-Irishry or stage-irony? Or was it neither? And what were people to make of the obvious fact that these seemingly plastered ex-punks sounded remarkably like a souped-up version of the Dubliners? The one thing which became perfectly clear, however, is that the Pogues were a genuine, if uncomfortable, expression of the young Irish London and that the sudden icon of Shane MacGowan went much further than Kilburn High Road on a Saturday night. Here was a familiar but new kind of Paddy with his roots in the Sex Pistols, the Dubliners and the endless trips back and forwards to Tipp.

"I was very precocious. I learned to read, write, walk, talk and understand adult conversations very early. And I listened very carefully to everything that was said and watched everything that was done. I was taught real history by people that lived it. They were just telling me stories about the past but they told me the truth. The Irish oral tradition was alive and well and I knew all the songs and stories of 1798 and the Fenians and the rest of it. "We weren't big farmers but we were considered pretty well off. We didn't have a car but we had two horses and a cart, a donkey and cart and loads of bicycles. We made our own butter and milked our own milk and I was taught to kill chickens and geese and turkeys. We shat in the fields and pissed out the front door. This is not a hard luck story - this is telling you how much fun it was!"

Not surprisingly, given his Huck Finn existence in Puckane, MacGowan hated his time in urban England. It was however a country which provided work for his father and so the young Shane was constantly on the boat, going back and forwards on visits. His life in London provided few of the freedoms of Tipperary where he recalls sipping drinks and smoking cigarettes from the age of three or four, and going to bars and ballrooms from the age of five. The move to London was a dislocation he sees as the origin of his many well-documented problems.

"London is no fun for a kid. To be quite honest, nowadays it's no fun for an adult. It was bloody awful. There was f--k all to do in London. I hated England and every time I went to stay in England some disaster happened. My parents were unhappy there and no matter how hard they tried, they couldn't help it rubbing off on me, and I got disturbed. I started having recurring nightmares and all the rest of it.

"I got measles and instead of coming out on my skin they went to my brain and I went completely lula - running around, rolling around, laughing insanely, jumping out the window and back in the window - luckily we were on the ground floor. I don't remember any of it but my mother told me about it afterwards. That lasted for about a month and let's say things have never seemed the same ever since. But I think it might have been a blessing. They realised that I was in a pretty neurotic state and so they sent me back to Ireland. So I spent most of my time in Ireland until I went to school."

That Shane MacGowan ended up a pupil in Westminster School is one of pop music's great mysteries. There's no doubt he had brains to burn but the thought of MacGowan attending an English public school borders on the surreal. More believable, unfortunately, is that he only survived a few years before being expelled - so the story goes - for possession of drugs. But whatever the reason, at 17, he was out on his famous ear.

"I'm not saying I didn't have good times in England because my old man was a great laugh and my mother was a great laugh, and at weekends it was gas because we'd go to the races, but getting kicked out of school at 14 didn't help things a lot. But then my mother got ill in England and I had a nervous breakdown and ended up in the looney-bin for six months. When I came out of the madhouse - after turning the tables on the shrink and psycho-analysing him - I went on a raving bender. Anything I could get down my throat I got down my throat.

"I went along to see the 101-ers and supporting them was the Pistols. And that's when I saw God. I saw this little red-haired Paddy up there pouring beer over his head and sneering at the audience shouting insults at him. And then he'd launch into this loud, raucous rock 'n' rollin' number with foul lyrics, I though this was the pop band I'd been waiting for all my life. The punk scene was great while it was small and, to be quite honest, punk was over for me by the end of 1977. So then back I went to Ireland, with the dye washed out and wearing a suit."

And that's how Shane MacGowan moved from punk to Pogue.