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With his rebel spirit, Shane MacGowan fought ‘to make Irish music hip’

Shane MacGowan performing with the Pogues in 1988.Magnolia Films

In the summer of 2000, Shane MacGowan played The Harp, the Irish pub on Causeway Street. By then, fans were well aware of his mounting health problems. Infamous for his binge drinking, the growling singer had been booted almost a decade earlier from the Pogues, the Celtic punk band he cofounded in 1982.

When he appeared, belatedly, on the other side of a glass wall just before taking the stage with his replacement band, the Popes, the rowdy crowd erupted. MacGowan’s presence was always a monkey-see, monkey-do affair, with audiences draining their cups in time with the wobbly frontman.


But it was also a celebration of rebel spirit, and the power of the word. For all his troubles, MacGowan — who died Thursday, having somehow made it to the age of 65 — was a true poet at heart, and a fierce believer in faith. A “free-thinking religious fanatic,” as he once claimed.

Shane MacGowan performs with The Pogues in Boston on March 10, 2007. ERIK JACOBS/NYT

Born of the London punk movement of the late 1970s — MacGowan, then known as “Shane O’Hooligan,” and tin whistle player Peter “Spider” Stacy met in the bathroom at a Ramones show — the Pogues married the gruffly traditional Irish music of the Dubliners with the righteous defiance of the Clash. (After MacGowan’s ouster, the Pogues replaced him with the Clash’s Joe Strummer.)

Produced by Elvis Costello, the band’s second studio album, “Rum Sodomy & the Lash” (1985), featured several of the band’s signature songs, including MacGowan’s “A Pair of Brown Eyes,” loosely based on the Scottish-Irish folk song “Wild Mountain Thyme,” and their version of Ewan MacColl’s “Dirty Old Town.”

In addition to dozens of original songs recorded over the decade that MacGowan was in the group, the Pogues recorded flinty versions of “The Auld Triangle” (associated with another well-known Irish carouser, Brendan Behan), “The Parting Glass,” and “Whiskey in the Jar,” to name a few.


Shane MacGowan and Victoria Mary Clarke.Courtesy Victoria Mary Clarke

“The crusade was to make Irish music hip,” MacGowan explained in his unusual 2001 memoir, written as an epic question-and-answer session with the journalist Victoria Mary Clarke, the longtime girlfriend and caretaker he would marry in 2018. The book is called “A Drink with Shane MacGowan.”

The aim, he continued, was “for the Irish music to make the language hip again. And the literature hip. In other words, to build Irish self-esteem, right? And for the whole world to know what an incredible wealth of culture we’ve contributed to the world, for such a small nation.”

The Pogues drew their name from a slang term, “pogue mahone,” which roughly translates to “kiss my arse.” Casual fans know the band best for the grouchy romance of their 1988 holiday song “Fairytale of New York,” on which MacGowan sang a duet with Kirsty MacColl, Ewan’s daughter. MacGowan was born on Christmas day, 1957.

After his departure from the group, MacGowan recorded a sentimental, if shaky, version of “What a Wonderful World” with Nick Cave in 1992. A few years later he remade “Haunted,” a Pogues track recorded in 1986 for the “Sid and Nancy” soundtrack, with Sinead O’Connor. In 2001 he appeared on the Dropkick Murphys’ third album, “Sing Loud, Sing Proud,” on the song “Good Rats.”

Eventually he did return to the Pogues, until the band hung up its winklepickers around 2014. The following year he fractured his pelvis in a fall, which led to increasing health difficulties.


Though he devoted his life to music, MacGowan was never a fan of the business of it. Making music is “sublime and ethereal, and to do with your higher self,” as he explained in his memoir. The industry treats its product — and the people who make it — “just like corned beef, know what I mean.”

Shane MacGowan performs with The Pogues in Boston on March 10, 2007. ERIK JACOBS/NYT

“A harp is a very sensitive instrument,” he said. You don’t force it through a mixer “and expect it to sound all right when it comes out the other end. You don’t get a highly tuned person, like Kurt Cobain or Laura Nyro, and just shove them through a [bleeping] mincing machine.”

On the title track of “If I Should Fall from Grace with God,” the Pogues’ third album (1988), MacGowan revealed the depth of his poetry, and also his fatalism.

If I should fall from grace with God

Where no doctor can relieve me

If I’m buried ‘neath the sod

But the angels won’t receive me

Let me go, boys

Let me go, boys

Let me go down in the mud

Where the rivers all run dry

James Sullivan can be reached at jamesgsullivan@gmail.com. Follow him @sullivanjames.