Pictured is Shane MacGowan. Photo courtesy of Frans Schellekens for Redferns.
Bryce Russell | Contributing Writer
This past Thursday, November 30th 2023, legendary Irish singer, songwriter, and poet Shane MacGowan passed away in Dublin, Ireland, surrounded by his family, at the age of 65. Shane MacGowan was one of the most influential Irish artists ever, being the front-man for the first-ever Celtic Punk band, The Pogues. You’ve probably heard a song or two of theirs walking through the student neighborhood while we all celebrate St. Patrick’s Day every spring.
Shane, originally a straightforward punk rocker in the late 1970s in the band the Nipple Erectors, took the anger, energy, and wild nature of punk music and combined it with the Irish music and heritage he had grown up with. Shane MacGowan was born in London to Irish immigrants, and his songs frequently spoke of the struggle of being Irish in England at a time when the British discriminated against the Irish. The Pogues first album, “Red Roses for Me”, was released in 1984 to critical acclaim, but it was their sophomore album, 1985’s “Rum Sodomy and the Lash” that put them on that map and showcased Shane’s songwriting abilities; it’s also one of my favorite albums of all time.
Shane MacGowan, though a wild rocker, was a poet at heart. Carrying on the Irish musical tradition, he created songs that have been entered into the canon of Irish folk music itself. Songs like “A Pair of Brown Eyes,” “A Rainy Night in Soho,” and “Sally MacLennane,” are classic examples of his amazing songwriting. They show how varied his abilities are, being able to write soft sweet songs about love slow, sad ballads of Irish struggle and high-energy rocking songs to belt out at the pub with your friends and a couple of pints.
The Pogues were a controversial group, prone to being drunk on and off-stage antics, as well as controversial song subject matter. One of their most important songs, 1988’s “Streets of Sorrow / Birmingham Six,” speaks on the pain and terror felt by those living in Northern Ireland at the height of the Troubles, the ethno-nationalist conflict that took place in Northern Ireland from the 1960s until 1998. It directly called out the English for the wrongful imprisonment of the “Birmingham Six” and the “Guildford Four,” the name given to six Irish men convicted for the bombing of a pub in Birmingham and four others for a bombing in Guildford. This song was banned from broadcast on British radio.
The Pogues performed the song live on a Friday night British television show but were censored by the broadcast being abruptly cut to advertising. The Birmingham Six and Guildford Four were freed in the 1990s, following an overturning of their conviction and the allegations of their torture found to be true. There’s no doubt the publicity surrounding the song had something to do with the public outcry for these men’s release.
Another important song in the history of Shane MacGowan is “Fairytale of New York,” one of the most popular Christmas songs in Ireland as well as in the UK. The song is a duet with singer Kirsty MacColl and tells the story of two people falling in and out of love through the years, specifically around Christmas time. In the song, the two are slinging insults at each other, and the next pleading to be taken back by their love. It remains the most-played Christmas song in the UK during the 21st century.
MacGowan left The Pogues in 1991 due to drinking problems, though both the band and Shane continued releasing music separately. Shane would go on to form a new band, Shane MacGowan and the Popes, and release their first album, “The Snake”, in 1994. A highlight of this album is the duet with Sinéad O’Connor, “Haunted,” a cover of a previously released Pogues song made for the movie “Sid and Nancy” in 1986. It is especially sad listening to this song in 2023, as Sinéad O’Connor passed away on July 26 earlier this year.
For me, Shane MacGowan had a huge impact on my life. When I first heard of The Pogues in high school, coming into the music from the point of view of a punk rock fan, I was instantly enamored with the sounds of Irish traditional music within the music, and from then I developed a strong love for Irish music. This was one of the driving reasons for my decision to study abroad in Ireland during the spring semester of 2023, having the greatest experience of my life. Without Shane MacGowan, I don’t know if I would have gone on that journey, and I will forever be grateful for that.
So, please, take some time to listen to the music of Shane MacGowan. Find some songs you like, throw them on a playlist for next St. Patrick’s Day, pour a Guinness, and blast them out of every speaker on Lowes Street. Below is a list of songs, some he wrote as well as classic Irish traditional songs, I highly recommend. I’d love it if you gave a few of them a listen.
- “A Pair of Brown Eyes” – The Pogues
- “Dirty Old Town” – The Pogues (cover)
- “If I Should Fall from Grace with God” – The Pogues
- “Haunted” – Shane MacGowan and the Popes
- “The Wild Rover” – The Pogues (traditional)
- “Streets of Sorrow / Birmingham Six” – The Pogues
- “The Body of an American” – The Pogues
- “A Rainy Night in Soho” – The Pogues
- “Sally MacLennane” – The Pogues
- “Irish Rover” – The Dubliners featuring the Pogues (traditional)
- “Dark Streets of London” – The Pogues
- “Fairytale of New York” – The Pogues (trigger warning for offensive language)
- “You’re The One” – Shane MacGowan featuring Moya Brennan
I’ll end this remembrance of Shane with lyrics from a traditional Irish and Scottish song that dates back to the 1600s. It’s a parting song, typically sung at the end of a gathering with friends.
But since it falls unto my lot
That I should rise and you should not
I’ll gently rise and softly call
Goodnight, and joy be with you all
- “The Parting Glass”