It seems appropriate that Friday’s funeral cortege of Shane MacGowan will pass through some of the streets of a Dublin fraught, raw and struggling to manage marginalisation and migration. Writing about MacGowan’s 1986 song A Rainy Night in Soho in the 2005 book Beautiful Day: 40 years of Irish rock, Gerry Smyth and Seán Campbell suggested “Popular music in most contemporary societies has been shaped by people who find themselves on the social margins, most notably immigrants and their immediate descendants. This has certainly been the case in Britain, where musicians of immediate Irish descent – from Lonnie Donegan to Noel Gallagher – have played a definitive role ... Think of John Lennon and Paul McCartney, Dusty Springfield, John Lydon, Kate Bush, Elvis Costello, Kevin Rowland, Boy George, Morrissey and Johnny Marr.”
MacGowan belonged on that roll call too, and his life and career offer much for historians and sociologists as well as the custodians of musical culture to ponder. The second-generation Irish experiences – the triumphs and travails of those who have sometimes been labelled the “hyphenated people”- belie stereotypes. The personal dislocations and duality no doubt complicated identity, influenced various musical experiments, and remind us that Anglo-Irish ties, distances, absorptions, rejections and misunderstandings are not just matters of politics; they are economic, social, cultural, personal and profoundly emotional.
Looming over them all is emigration and all the layers and entwinements that experience signifies. When MacGowan was filmed for the 2001 documentary If I Should Fall From Grace, directed by Sarah Share, he referred to his “raw” and “emotional” words put to a music that “bypasses the intellect and hits you in the gut and hits you in the heart and hits you in the soul”. But the words were also a product of a deep learning and reading inspired from an early age by his parents and his heritage. The film footage includes Shane in the MacGowan home place in Tipperary where childhood visits shaped so much.
During that MacGowan childhood, Dominic Behan addressed the fractious debates about the Irish folk revival in Ireland Sings (1965), rubbishing the idea that “everything in relation to folk song must be limited to the purely ethnic with no allowances for the day-to-day changes which are a feature of any society”. This would have been “tantamount to asking us for our signature on a death warrant for folklore. Above all, it is asking us to sing with an academic tongue in cheek, and, before we bawl our heads off, we must find out why.”
University of Galway’s John Kenny has suggested MacGowan stood out because of “his discomfiting tendency ... to wear his cultural heart on his sleeve. He had no time for the kind of uniform cleverness too often demanded of culture by the self-consciously educated.” The maturity, insight and confidence of the young songwriting MacGowan was remarkable and ensured his art will endure. He had, as American novelist Rick Moody saw it, “some kind of fervent vision, some mad need to discourse ... Even when his lyrics were tossed off, as they often seemed to be – scatological, irritable, provocative – there was something in them that was continuous with the heartache and sublimity of the Irish folk tradition. The Pogues made Irish music contemporary again, but without diluting its convoluted pathos, rescuing it from the banality of musical tourism, while striking a blow against what was, at the moment of their ascendancy, a virulent and popular strain of British anti-Irish racism.” MacGowan’s fellow Pogue Philip Chevron concurred: “The only politics that counted in the London-Irish scene were the politics of being Irish in a place that was innately racist.”
The excessive drunkenness was disturbing to watch, with shades of Brendan Behan. What Colbert Kearney has labelled “the promotional value of alcoholic outrage” came with a hefty price, the self-destructiveness ensuring the quality and output suffered, exacerbated by the thorny identity issues (drinking was “central to this recreated Irish identity. Diaspora does not cause Irish alcoholism, but it certainly does not help” suggested Moody).
Watching the decline of the seemingly haunted MacGowan was painful. The rebel conquered by addiction created some embarrassment; as writer Michael O’Loughlin noted in 2020, “the problem with MacGowan is that he seems to hold up a mirror to the worst aspects of Irish emigration, the ones we would rather forget”. The discomfort “can be explained only in terms of an ongoing buried trauma and shame related to Irish emigration over the last century and its consequences.” It was an observation echoing that of President Mary Robinson in 1995 when she addressed a tense Oireachtas about the Diaspora: “We cannot have it both ways ... we cannot want a complex present and still yearn for a simple past”.
MacGowan at his best gave authentic and exceptionally lyrical meaning to those tensions.