During a concert in Dublin in 2022, Bob Dylan paused between songs to pay tribute to another singer-songwriter who was in attendance that night. ‘I want to say hello to Shane MacGowan,’ said Dylan, praising MacGowan as one of his ‘favourite artists’.
MacGowan, who has died aged 65, came to prominence in the 1980s as the singer and songwriter for The Pogues. In that role, MacGowan became, as the BBC Four documentary The Great Hunger: the Life and Songs of Shane MacGowan explained, ‘the first voice that arose from within the London-Irish to give defiant and poetic expression to a community that had never really felt able to proclaim itself’.
The Pogues gave visibility to the second-generation Irish in England, a facet of migrant life that had previously gone uncharted in mainstream popular culture.
MacGowan was not only pioneering in his evocation of Ireland’s diaspora in England – he composed songs of exceptional quality, attracting enormous critical respect and significant commercial success.
MacGowan was born on 25 December 1957 in Kent, England (where his parents were visiting family), but spent his early years on a farm in County Tipperary. There, the youngster observed regular traditional Irish music sessions, which had – as his late mother Therese explained – ‘a tremendous influence on him’.
During the early 1960s, MacGowan relocated to London where his father had found work, precipitating what the singer called a ‘horrific change of life’. During this time, he would, he said, ‘cry [himself] to sleep’ at night while ‘thinking about Ireland’.
He assuaged his homesickness by attending Irish social clubs and regularly visiting Ireland.
‘Because there’s an Irish scene in London,’ MacGowan later explained, ‘You never forget the fact that you originally came from Ireland. There are lots of Irish pubs, so there was always Irish music in bars and on jukeboxes. Then every summer I would spend my school holidays back in Tipperary.’
This experience of being raised in a migrant Irish environment would animate much of MacGowan’s work with The Pogues.
Becoming ‘my own ethnic’
Despite securing a highly competed-for scholarship at Westminster (a prestigious private school), MacGowan was soon expelled for possessing drugs.
After a spell in London’s Bethlem Royal Hospital for alcohol and drug abuse, he took on work as a porter and barman. MacGowan’s interests became increasingly focused, though, on London’s emergent punk scene, at the centre of which was another second-generation Irish singer, John Lydon (aka Johnny Rotten), the vocalist and lyricist for the Sex Pistols.
‘I probably wouldn’t have been that interested if Johnny Rotten hadn’t been so bloody obviously Irish and made a big noise about it, and made such anti-English records,’ MacGowan later observed.
MacGowan formed his own punk band, The Nips, who achieved moderate success before fragmenting in the early 1980s. During that period, MacGowan began to observe a turn towards “roots” music (later, “world music”) in London. This prompted him to take a radical change of direction. As the singer later explained: ‘I just thought … if people are being “ethnic”, I might as well be my own “ethnic”.’
With this in mind, MacGowan launched The Pogues in 1982, recruiting two other musicians of Irish descent, Cáit O’Riordan (bass) and Andrew Ranken (drums), alongside three non-Irish associates: Jem Finer (banjo), Spider Stacy (tin whistle) and James Fearnley (accordion).
In interviews, MacGowan was keen to stress that he was London-Irish (rather than Ireland-born). Such assertions of Irish ethnicity could be problematic in 80s Britain, where anti-Irish prejudice had been intensified by the IRA’s bombing campaign. The Pogues were not initially well-received in Ireland, where their London-Irishness was viewed with a degree of wariness.
The band released a series of critically acclaimed and commercially successful albums, the best known of which is If I Should Fall from Grace with God (1988). The latter arguably marked the high point of MacGowan’s career, with the album’s lead single, ‘Fairytale of New York‘ (featuring a celebrated duet with the late Kirsty MacColl), reaching number two in the UK chart.
An enduring legacy
Such success would, however, come with a price. As MacGowan’s sister, Siobhan, later explained, the protracted worldwide tour that The Pogues undertook in 1988 ‘really changed him’.
‘He went away,’ she recalled, ‘and he didn’t come back, not the Shane that I ever knew before,’ citing his intensifying consumption of drink and drugs.
MacGowan’s performances became increasingly erratic, and in 1991 he was asked to leave the band. The singer made two albums with a new group, The Popes, in the 1990s, before The Pogues reformed – as a live band – in 2001, performing a series of highly successful concert tours until 2014.
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MacGowan’s songs would continue to resonate powerfully with audiences and critics, prompting Ireland’s president, Michael D Higgins, to present the singer with a Lifetime Achievement Award in 2018. In that same year, MacGowan received an Ivor Novello Inspiration Award in London.
If, as seems likely, Shane MacGowan’s songs are sung for centuries to come, then we’d do well to recall their origins in – and echoes of – Ireland’s often overlooked diaspora in England.