- 30 Nov 23
When we were approached to get involved in a celebration of the music of The Pogues and Shane MacGowan, it seemed like a good and proper thing to do. As dark clouds gather, in different forms, across Ireland and further afield, the feeling has grown that we really do have a lot to learn from a band that wrote marvellous songs – and created their own utterly unique sound and vision. *Updated 12 noon, 30th November 2023. This article was published in advance of the sad news of the death of Shane MacGowan, which has just been just announced...
When we were asked by EPIC, the Irish Emigration Museum, to get involved in a seasonal exhibition on the music of The Pogues and Shane MacGowan, with ‘Fairytale Of New York’ as a kind of celebratory mid-winter fulcrum, the picture seemed relatively bright. It was an idea that appealed enormously.
Thinking about it, and our various close encounters with Shane MacGowan, Cáit O’Riordan, Philip Chevron, Frank Murray, Victoria Mary Clarke and the many moving parts of the Pogues posse over the years, brought a smile to our faces. Dark as The Pogues’ music was – and is – a lot of the time, they always retained a powerful sense of fun that was enthusiastically shared by their audience, especially when the band were doing their wild live thing and throwing any semblance of inhibition to the wind. At their best – and that was most of the time – The Pogues defined the idea of devil-may-care.
Since their inception, we have been close to different members of the band and their management and entourage. There was history between us, and a lot of affection. It’s important, we reflected collectively, even as the embers lose their glow, to keep a flame like that alive. We relished the thought of digging into the archives, not least because the music made by The Pogues really mattered. The beauty of it is that it still does.
CHASING THE SPONDOOLICKS
Rewind. Shane MacGowan had been lead singer with The Nipple Erectors, who shortened their name to The Nips – a band that also included one James Fearnley on guitar. Shane had also joined forces with Spider Stacy and Jem Finer in The Millwall Chainsaws.
Out of the ashes of both bands, by adding Cáit O’Riordan (bass) and Andrew Ranken (drums), The Pogues grappled their way into proper existence just as the London punk scene finally ran aground. They were determined to try something completely original and they did. With Shane MacGowan as the lyrical driving force, they looked, first and foremost, to the Irish music that the lead singer and main songwriter had grown up with. In all sorts of ways, that was a brave move.
One likely obstacle was that, back in Ireland, the folk and trad police were an unforgiving bunch, who could be scornful of anything which was less than either purist or virtuoso – or preferably both. In contrast, The Pogues – or Poguemahone as they were originally named – were the whooping, hollering embodiment of a rawer, earthier and far less pious and self-regarding approach to life and to music.
Secondly, a sustained, successful international pop career had never been forged out of Irish folk music. There had been one-off successes, most notably when, in 1967, The Dubliners hit Top Of The Pops with the marvellously silly song of a two-timing Dublin woman, ‘Seven Drunken Nights’. The song reached No.1 in Ireland and No.7 in the UK.
In 1973, Thin Lizzy had a hit with ‘Whiskey In The Jar’, which also reached No.1 in Ireland, but went one better than The Dubliners in the UK, peaking at No.6. In 1979, the more musically predictable Foster & Allen – ‘Fester & Alien’ to their detractors – breached the Top 20 with ‘A Bunch Of Thyme’. And Clannad achieved a stunning breakthrough in 1982, the year The Pogues coalesced into existence, with the atmospheric gaelic-language mouth music of ‘Theme From Harry’s Game’.
But all of these were one-off hits. Celtic rock pioneers Horslips knocked on the door consistently without ever selling heaps of records in the UK, the US or elsewhere outside Ireland. And Poguemahone were never going to replicate the drawing room cultural respectability of The Chieftains. Which begged the question: where would they find an audience?
Meanwhile, in the early 1980s, the Provisional IRA were carrying out a bloody bombing campaign in the UK, often with appalling consequences for ordinary citizens. With grim inevitability, the finger of suspicion was pointed at anyone and everyone who declared their Irishness. As a calling card, you might have thought it was the equivalent of the two of diamonds.
The alarm bells might have been ringing on all three fronts, but the gang carried on regardless. Shane MacGowan and his new comrades were driven by the creative possibilities. If they made no money, so what? The band’s manager Frank Murray got stuck in. He knew they were onto something, though he wasn’t yet sure exactly where it would take them. No one could ever accuse The Pogues of merely chasing the spondoolicks.
A GOOD AND RIGHTEOUS THING
Their first album, Red Roses For Me – named after a Sean O’Casey play – was very good, with ‘Boys From The County Hell’, ‘Streams Of Whiskey’ and ‘Down In The Ground Where The Dead Men Go’ among the highlights. The follow-up, Rum, Sodomy And The Lash – produced by Elvis Costello – was a classic, packed with songs of great heft and emotional depth.
‘The Old Main Drag’, in particular, is an unforgettable, poetic evocation of life on the margin of the margins, marking Shane MacGowan out as one of the finest lyricists of his generation. But not just that: it was clear from the tale of a young fella turning tricks to pay the rent that Shane had a unique empathy with the outsiders, the marginalised and those who were down on their luck.
That, it turned out, was just one marvellous song on an album of crackers. The first side alone contained ‘The Sick Bed Of Cuchulainn’; the instrumental ‘The Wild Cats Of Kilkenny’; ‘I’m A Man You Don’t Meet Every Day’; ‘A Pair Of Brown Eyes’ and ‘Sally McLennane’ – not a dud among them.
“McCormack and Richard Tauber are singing by the bed,” ‘The Sick Bed of Cúchulainn’ opens. “There’s a glass of punch below your feet and an angel at your head / There’s devils on each side of you with bottles in their hands / You need one more drop of poison and you’ll dream of foreign lands.
“When you pissed yourself in Frankfurt and got syph down in Cologne / And you heard the rattling death trains as you lay there all alone / Frank Ryan bought you whiskey in a brothel in Madrid / And you decked some fucking black shirt who was cursing all the Yids.”
And then the refrain…
“At the sick bed of Cúchulainn / We’ll kneel and say a prayer / But the ghosts are rattling at the door / And the devil’s in the chair, whoa!”
Very few contemporary songwriters could spin a yarn like Shane MacGowan. It was incomparable stuff.
And yet there are those who argue that the album was trumped by its successor, If I Should Fall From Grace With God. It’s a debate I’m not going to get into here. Enough to say that If I Should Fall… is the record on which the glorious ‘Fairytale Of New York’ appears – and that it also includes a series of magnificent toutings, including the title track, ‘Thousands Are Sailing’, ‘Bottle Of Smoke’ and ‘The Broad Majestic Shannon’.
In those heady days between 1985 and 1988, The Pogues were making like Barry McGuigan, who became World Featherweight Champion on 8 June 1985. Top of the world, ma! Except, in artistic terms, this was for real. They were on a roll.
With a slip into addiction on Shane’s part, it couldn’t last at full pelt, and it didn’t. But for a while, they were right up there at the top of the premiership, a fact which is reflected in the reputation that Shane MacGowan – and his comrades – earned among other world-leading songwriters. It was sheer, blazing talent that turned them into a phenomenon. And also hugely accomplished musicianship. No wonder the idea of an exhibition was appealing.
We spoke to the people that mattered most immediately – to Shane’s wife Victoria Mary Clarke; to his sister Siobhan MacGowan; to the co-writer of ‘Fairytale Of New York’, Jem Finer; to former Pogue and current member of Poguetry, Cáit O’Riordan; to the family of the late Frank Murray, the band’s original manager, and to the band’s current management. There was agreement that it was a good and righteous thing for Hot Press to join forces with EPIC. The relevant permissions were given.
There wasn’t a lot of time, but there was a great story to tell. And so we threw ourselves into it.
DARKNESS IS ENCROACHING
By October 7, the dark clouds had arrived. Crossing the border into Israel, Hamas launched a surprise attack that would see 1,200 people butchered and 250 taken hostage. It was predictable that the unconscionable savagery of that appalling attack on civilians would provoke a vicious response from the Israeli government and military. The assumption has to be that some version of this had been factored into the political equation by Hamas – and, indeed, by their likely co-conspirators in Iran and perhaps even Russia.
Whatever the background, their cynical calculations have proven crushingly inept. What has happened since October 7 has gone far beyond what might be considered a proportionate response. On the instructions of the flailing, discredited President Benjamin Netanyahu – desperate to manipulate the situation so that he can hold onto power as long as possible – the Israeli army has carried out a relentlessly indiscriminate and brutally destructive bombing campaign that has killed over 15,000 people, the majority of them women and children, triggering widespread though not universal revulsion and condemnation across the world.
In truth, the death toll is probably far higher – using their vastly superior military arsenal, the Israelis have rained bombs down across huge areas of Gaza, levelling residential buildings, schools and hospitals in an orgy of vengefulness, burying who knows how many more people of all ages in the rubble. The United Nations has spoken openly about genocide. Even the United States, Israel’s staunchest ally, is desperate to rein-in the grotesque excesses of a savage campaign.
Many good Jewish people across the world have recoiled in horror. Thousands of Jews, and people of Jewish background, have joined in the protest marches against the bombardment of Gaza, in America, in England and in parts of Europe. “Not in our name,” they proclaim.
There are no antidotes that can cure the heartbreaking sense of disillusionment we feel when all we can do is watch in horror. But it is a story unfolding, about which you’d love to hear a brand new Shane MacGowan song.
“A curse on the judges, the coppers and screws,” he sang in ‘Streets of Sorrow/The Birmingham Six’ (written with Terry Woods), pillorying the enforcers of injustice. “Who tortured the innocent, wrongly accused / For the price of promotion and justice to sell / May be judged by their judges when they rot down in hell.”
But darkness has been encroaching here at home too. There is unlikely to be a new song. Shane has fought and won many battles over the years and his friends keep willing him on, hoping that he’ll be the one to prove that cats actually have ten lives or even eleven. But the update is that the great song-poet’s reserves are running low.
The ravages of the years of wildness and excess have taken their toll and been complicated by the impact of a fractured pelvis that has incapacitated him badly for a long time now. Shane’s health has deteriorated significantly over the past few months. We wake up every day in hope, and think – let him rally again. But there is a part of us that – even as these words are typed – fears the worst.
AGAINST THE MOBS AND THE BULLIES
Not that there has been great encouragement to embrace the moment on the streets of Dublin this past week. It will be some time before we hear the real facts behind the knife attack that occurred outside Gaelscoil Coláiste Mhuire, on Parnell Square, in which five people, including three children were stabbed. At the time of writing, over four days later, a five-year old remains in a serious condition in hospital. And a suspect is likely to be charged.
What happened in the immediate aftermath of the incident was straight out of the racist playbook. Bad luck played a part. As it happened, a demonstration had been planned by the fringe nasties of the Irish far-right starting in the Parnell Square area. When the word was spread on social media that a so-called ‘foreign national’ was involved in the stabbing, the racists mobilised early.
With messages whizzing around on WhatsApp and Telegram specifically designed to stoke hostility and violence, they exploited the availability of local youths with time on their hands, an excess of bile in their systems and a desire to have a go at the cops.
Riots ensued, in which buses, Garda cars and a Luas train were burnt. Shops were looted. People who looked ‘non-national’ were threatened. It was sordid stuff, perpetrated by a small number of opportunists who decided that they could use the incident, and lie maliciously, to fuel a racist response.
The Gardai who had to face down the thugs acted bravely and the streets were eventually calmed and cleared. But senior Garda management were clearly badly unprepared. It shouldn’t have become as ugly as it did. But the fact is that the number of people involved was small. And lots of them were simply out to rob and loot.
The truth is that the real narrative doesn’t fit with the lies spread by the racist sheep of the far-right. Proportionally, most violent crime in Ireland is carried out by Irish people; and this incident may well have a root in mental health issues of a kind that have caused thousands of purely local acts of violence over the years. Besides, it was ‘foreign nationals’, like the Brazilian Deliveroo driver Caio Benicio, and the French teenager Alan Loren-Guille, who risked their lives to save the children who were being stabbed.
Which brings us back to The Pogues. The band’s music – and in particular Shane’s lyrics – were driven by a fierce sense of Irishness. But it was generous and inclusive, and stretched to accommodate a multitude of influences from all over the world. And, politically, as ‘The Sick Bed of Cuchulainn’ amply demonstrates – it was deeply hostile to the fascism that ran rampant in Europe during the 1930s and 1940s. It was, and is, also utterly opposed to the modern version peddled by the far-right.
The band’s music was for those on the margins. It was for the migrants and the gays. It was resolutely against the prejudice, bigotry and ultimately horrific, murderous violence that was aimed at Jewish people by the Nazis and their sympathisers. And it still works, as an encouragement to take the same approach today. Racism is poisonous. Anti-semitism is vile. So too is the appalling inhumanity being shown towards the people of Gaza.
The Pogues’ music was on the side of the small guy against the mobs and the bullies. It was – and is – on the side of compassion. Which is something we need far more of just now, in a world that is at risk of spinning entirely off its axis, if we don’t do what’s necessary to restore a fundamental commitment to the inter-connected ideas of equality, democracy, mutual respect, shared responsibility and accountability to the global order.
The Pogues: they gave the walls a talking and we listened in awe. We salute them, one and all…
The new issue of Hot Press – featuring cover stars The Pogues, to coincide with the upcoming exhibition at EPIC, the Irish Emigration Museum – is out now.
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- 23 Dec 23