Wednesday 17 January 2024

The Last of the Irish Rover: A Tribute to Shane MacGowan

Sad to say I must be on my way
So buy me beer and whiskey ’cause I’m going far away (far away)
I’d like to think of me returning when I can
To the greatest little boozer and to Sally MacLennane

— Shane MacGowan, “Sally MacLennane”

This is written as a tribute to British-born Irish singer-songwriter and musician Shane MacGowan who died November 30, 2023 at the age of 65. I have no privileged knowledge or insight into the man’s life or work, indeed I knew little about him until recently. I want to focus on the impact Shane MacGowan has had on my life. His death has given me a great deal to think about in a number of areas, including political history, national identity, resilience, mental health, and addiction. If you’re interested in more, I’ve included a list of resources at the end of this article.

Fairytale of New York

I must declare up front that I was never into punk rock, though it broke onto the music scene in the mid-70s when I was in my teens. To the extent that I considered punk at all, I found it brash and uncouth. My tastes at the time stretched to Irish singer and songwriter Dana, Neil Sedaka, and The Wombles. My musical credentials established, I’ll begin with the one song everyone knows, whether they’re a fan of MacGowan and The Pogues or not: “Fairytale of New York.” There are so many great recordings but the one I love best is this live performance from 1998 with The Pogues and Kirsty MacColl. As many will know, Kirsty MacColl died under tragic circumstances in December 2000. Watching them perform together is all the more poignant since MacGowan’s death.

In the past few years the song took on some specific and personal resonances. I went so far as to learn the lyrics, should I ever be called upon to perform it in karaoke. (I wasn’t.) Singing those lines to myself until they became part of me taught me the raw brilliance of MacGowan’s writing.

It was Christmas Eve babe
In the drunk tank
An old man said to me, won’t see another one
And then he sang a song
The Rare Old Mountain Dew
I turned my face away
And dreamed about you

— Jem Finer and Shane MacGowan, “Fairytale of New York”

Writing in The Independent in 2017, Roisin O’Connor called it “a drunken hymn for people with broken dreams and abandoned hopes.” I feel that captures the song’s spirit perfectly, and reflects its significance for me personally. Singing it loudly — if not quite drunkenly — on the streets of Newcastle is a memory I treasure. O’Connor’s article was republished in December 2013 following MacGowan’s death. One of the most moving versions of “Fairytale” is this performance by Glen Hansard and Lisa O’Neil at Shane MacGowan’s funeral in St Mary of the Rosary Church in the small town of Nenagh in Co Tipperary, Ireland.

I’m rarely affected by the death of artists, actors, and celebrities. I don’t know why it was different this time, but the outpouring of love, loss, and appreciation at MacGowan’s passing caught me off guard. This man was clearly so much more than the co-writer and performer of the best Christmas song ever. I wanted to know more about him, and why his passing affected me so much.

Last year marked three decades of continuous service at my place of work. It was something of a wake-up call, leading me to consider the inevitability of my eventual demise. I’ve never given much thought to my death and funeral. I won’t be there, so why bother? I’ve come to realise that’s unfair to those I’ll leave behind, and have committed to addressing the basics at least. For certain, the event won’t be televised globally, as Shane MacGowan’s was. There’ll be no live band, dancing, or singing. No eulogies or readings by the likes of Nick Cave and Johnny Depp. No presidential attendees. My name and memory won’t be toasted in pubs and bars around the world. But what kind of legacy would I like? What do I deserve? As I wrote when considering my thirty years service, “these are questions for another day, but at least — at last — I’m asking them.” Unlikely as it might seem, Shane MacGowan is helping me ask them.

My first response to his death was to seek out other songs performed by The Pogues. (Fun fact: the band was originally called Pogue Mahone, an anglicisation of the Irish for kiss my arse.) I’ve linked a number of my favourites at the end of this piece, but I want to mention three in particular: “The Irish Rover,” “And the Band Played Waltzing Matilda,” and “Sally MacLennane.”

The Irish Rover

I was blown away by the energy of “The Irish Rover,” as performed by The Pogues with Irish folk band The Dubliners. Credited to composer J.M. Crofts, the song tells the fantastic tale of The Irish Rover on her voyage from Ireland to America. The ship herself is magnificently if improbably equipped. It boasts thirty-seven masts and a cargo that includes “one million bags of the best Sligo rags, two million barrels of stone, three million sides of old blind horses hides, and four million barrels of bones.” Surviving calamities which at one point reduce the crew to two (“myself and the captain’s old dog”) the ship eventually founders, leaving the narrator as truly the last of The Irish Rover. The very different styles of the bands’ lead singers — Ronnie Drew for the Dubliners and MacGowan for the Pogues — complement each other perfectly. It’s a near flawless performance which deserves to be wider known.

It awakens in me a yearning only truly great folk music can inspire. Part of me wishes I could claim Irish, Welsh, or Scottish descent, because those nations seem to have more or less clearly defined national identities and sense of collective pride. That may be naive but it’s how it appears to me from outside. I’m British / English but I’ve never known that kind of rootedness. I’ve written of this before, in such posts as Like a Rootless Tree (Where Are Your Roots?), and Belonging (Longing to Be). Born in England to Irish parents, MacGowan was proud of his Irish republican ancestry. Former Sinn Féin President Gerry Adams delivered a reading at his funeral, which was also attended by Irish president Michael D. Higgins. His life and music have inspired me to become better informed about world history, especially the World Wars, the Middle-East, and the long and bloody history of Anglo-Irish politics.

And the Band Played Waltzing Matilda

Written in 1972 by Scottish-born Australian singer-songwriter Eric Bogle, “And the Band Played Waltzing Matilda” tells the tale of a young Australian soldier who is maimed in the Gallipoli campaign in World War I. It carries huge significance for the ANZAC veteran community, and is a powerful expression of the futility of war.

And as our ship pulled into Circular Quay
I looked at the place where my legs used to be
And thank Christ there was nobody waiting for me
To grieve and to mourn and to pity

There are many recordings of the song, including this one by Bogle himself, but for me this live version by The Pogues captures the pain and pointlessness of the conflict better than any. It inspired me to learn more about the courage of those who fell in the ill-fated Gallipoli campaign.

Sally MacLennane

It’s impossible to talk about MacGowan without addressing his long-term addiction to drugs and alcohol. Both are well documented. In an obituary piece in The New York Times Matt Phillips described MacGowan as “a titanically destructive personality and a master songsmith whose lyrics painted vivid portraits of the underbelly of Irish immigrant life.”

His wife, Victoria Clarke once stated that “his whole career has revolved around [drinking] and, indeed, been both enhanced and simultaneously inhibited by it.” There’s no denying the devastating effect addiction had on his life. It led to him being dismissed from The Pogues in 1991 due to the impact of drugs and alcohol on the band’s live performances. He was arrested in 1999 in London after being reported to the emergency services by Irish singer, songwriter, and activist Sinéad O’Connor. He later credited her intervention as helping him ultimately to beat his drug addiction. He was sober from around 2016 following treatment for a fall which fractured his pelvis. In 2004, Shane MacGowan told The Guardian that he’d been given six weeks to live, “about 25 years ago.” He outlived the prediction by more than forty years.

Alcohol and drink culture run through much of The Pogues’ repertoire. Another of my favourite songs, “Sally MacLennane,” was allegedly inspired by drinking sessions MacGowan had with friends in London before boarding the boat train home to Ireland. The title refers to a dry Irish stout brewed by Redlight Redlight Beer Parlour & Brewery. My favourite version is this live performance from 1985.

We walked him to the station in the rain
We kissed him as we put him on the train
And we sang him a song of times long gone
Though we knew that we’d be seeing him again

Sad to say I must be on my way
So buy me beer and whiskey ’cause I’m going far away (far away)
I’d like to think of me returning when I can
To the greatest little boozer and to Sally MacLennane

The lyrics evoke the kind of drunken camaraderie I’ve scarcely experienced. (One session at the end of my final year at university is a possible exception.) I’ve never smoked, nor taken recreational drugs of any kind. That’s not to claim any moral superiority or willpower on my part. No one in my family smoked or drank more than occasionally. None of my school or university friends smoked. At university, I drank beer at the pub and white wine at parties. I occasionally got drunk but never considered it something to be proud of. I’ve been offered drugs once in my life, by a stranger within minutes of arriving with a friend at the Glastonbury Festival site in 1983. It was probably marijuana but neither of us were tempted or interested enough to ask. We declined, politely.

In more recent years, I’ve known a few people who smoke. Fran has occasionally self-medicated with alcohol and cigarettes. Our book recalls is a chat conversation from 2013, while Fran was on a very stressful three month road trip in Europe.

Martin: Tell me three things you want to accomplish today.

Fran: Charge my phone, smoke, breakfast, rest.. I will quit smoking on the boat home.. For now it helps take the edge off my stress..

Martin: The cigarettes are self-medication for stress? Like drink is for mania and depression?

Fran: Yeah.. I’m using them now to make it through hell..

Fran stopped smoking on her return home and reduced her drinking to social levels. She’s recently given up alcohol altogether. I consider myself fortunate never to have taken up smoking or drugs, or drinking excessively. I’m aware enough to recognise I might easily have become dependent if I’d been exposed to them. Fran was able to stop smoking and drinking without too much trouble but I’ve known other friends for whom smoking and other addictions have been far harder to address. I applaud and support anyone battling addiction and other compulsive behaviours, however they manifest.

I’m reminded of other artists I admire whose lives have been affected by addiction. The first to come to mind is Amy Winehouse, who died of alcohol poisoning in 2011. Performing as RØRY, Roxanne Emery is another. I wrote of my love of her music last year in a post which also discussed German band AnnenMayKantereit. In an interview for Underground Emery said, “I got sober in 2018, and then a load of therapy in 2020 when I realised being sober was HARD. I processed a lot of trauma, from the death of my mother at 22, to the dysfunctional dynamics and addictions in my family.”

Shane MacGowan, the Absurd Man

I recently explored my response to the philosophy of Albert Camus. Specifically, his approach to the existential absurdity of seeking meaning and purpose in a universe that offers neither. For me, MacGowan exemplifies Camus’ Absurd Man better than anyone I can think of. This may seem presumptuous, if not ridiculous, but it’s not the first time parallels have been drawn between punk and existentialism. In Existentialism as Punk Philosophy Stuart Hanscomb identifies a common spirit of rebellion. “Punk is music that is anti-music,” he declares. “Existentialism is a philosophy that is anti-philosophy.”

Rebellion is a central theme in Camus’ work. In The Myth of Sisyphus he asserts “The only way to deal with an unfree world is to become so absolutely free that your very existence is an act of rebellion.” It’s hard not to think of MacGowan when you read those words. The following is from a tribute piece in The Guardian by Sean O’Hagan titled “Chaos? This is natural living!” The genius of Shane MacGowan.

More than anyone else I have ever met, he lived entirely in the moment, the eternal present as he understood it, inextricably linked to an altered state of consciousness: alcoholic, chemical or hallucinogenic.

O’Hagan recalls a conversation with MacGowan which is especially pertinent to Camus.

“I believe in the dignity of the human soul,” [Shane] once told me, when asked about his spirituality. “People who can put up with incredible hardship and still not be depressed, still enjoy themselves.”

This is the essence of the Absurd Man. Condemned by the gods to forever push a boulder to the top of a mountain, only for it to roll down again, Sisyphus finds a way to escape the futility and hopelessness of his situation. Camus writes:

Each atom of that stone, each mineral flake of that night filled mountain, in itself forms a world. The struggle itself toward the heights is enough to fill a man’s heart. One must imagine Sisyphus happy.

We must likewise imagine Shane MacGowan happy. Certainly he drank deeply of life. I’m reminded of the poem “And Thus in Nineveh” by Ezra Pound.

“It is not, Raana, that my song rings highest
Or more sweet in tone than any, but that I
Am here a Poet, that doth drink of life
As lesser men drink wine.”

I’ve no idea if MacGowan knew of Pound’s work, but it’s an epitaph of which he might have approved. There’s a wonderful YouTube video on Camus titled Absurdism. How to Party at the End of Meaning. Its irreverent and engaging narration ends as follows:

Absurdism isn’t an answer to the mysteries of life, why bad things happen, where the universe came from or how to survive this shit. It’s just asking the question, oh god what if we never achieve final explanations, what if we never see the big picture, what if we go our whole lives without ever having known what it was all about, and replying to oneself — oh look, it’s a puffin! It’s a nice puffin. It’s a nice day. Oh, we’re alive. That’s unprecedentedly weird and cool, whether it’s fully explained or not. Let’s go for a beer.

In this piece I’ve explored aspects of Shane MacGowan’s life and work as they resonate for me. I hope I’ve brought an awareness of his genius — and flaws — to others who, like me until very recently, knew him only as the front man in a punk band who sang that song about Christmas. I hope I’ve shown there was much much more to the man, his music, and his life. At the end of that life, he was and remains loved and feted by millions. Absurd or not, that’s a life well-lived.

I’ll close with a quotation from author Neil Gaiman’s charge to artists everywhere (which is to say, all of us) in his commencement address at Philadelphia’s University of the Arts.

Now go and make interesting mistakes, make amazing mistakes, make glorious and fantastic mistakes. Break rules. Leave the world more interesting for your being here.

Shane MacGowan more than met that charge. The onus is on us to do the same.


Further Reading and Listening

The following links are provided for anyone wanting to further explore the life and works of Shane McGowan.


A Drink with Shane MacGowan by Shane MacGowan and Victoria Mary Clarke

A Furious Devotion: The Life of Shane MacGowan by Richard Balls


Shane MacGowan (Wikipedia)

Victoria Mary Clarke on her husband Shane MacGowan

“Chaos? This is natural living!” The genius of Shane MacGowan

Fairytale of New York

Fairytale of New York (Wikipedia)

Fairytale of New York lyrics

Fairytale of New York Official video

Fairytale of New York with Kirsty MacColl 1998

Fairytale of New York The Pogues and Ella Finer

Fairytale of New York played at Shane MacGowan’s funeral (Glen Hansard and Lisa O’Neill)

Other Songs and Performances

Spancil Hill (Shane MacGowan and Christy Moore)

The Rare Old Mountain Dew (The Dubliners and The Pogues)

The Irish Rover (The Dubliners and The Pogues) The Late Show 1987

Sally MacLennane (album version)

Sally MacLennane (Live)

And the Band Played Walzing Matilda (Live)

And the Band Played Walzing Matilda (Eric Bogle)

A Rainy Night in Soho (Live)

A Pair of Brown Eyes (Live)


Photo 185240628 | Shane MacGowan in concert. Milan, Italy. June 2009. © Fabio Diena |


No comments:

Post a Comment