A Lament for Shane MacGowan

Eoghan Conway raises a glass to the legacy of the revered musician

I don’t know if Shane MacGowan believed in a God. To be brutally honest, I’d say a God could hardly believe in Shane MacGowan—an intellectual, witty vagabond with the literary credentials of a Nobel laureate. Although Shane would recognise himself more in the proletariat than the laureate I do feel. I can picture the pair having a standoff at the pearly white gates. Shane eyeing up St. Peter acting as the bouncer. I can only wonder, would he be let in? Be told to take a walk around the block to sober up before admission?

I can see Shane going exploring, having a little wander for himself. No doubt he might even find himself down having a whiskey or two in hell, whiskey you’re the devil, after all. Not because he deserves to be in hell, but it’s probably more craic there. It seems apt to be quoting another fantastic lyricist, Billy Joel, and his song, Only the Good Die Young, “they say there’s a heaven for those who will wait/ Some say it’s better, but I say it ain’t,/ I’d rather laugh with the sinners than cry with the saints,/ the sinners are much more fun.”

“Shane’s politically charged and considered lyrics were not just throw away diddly eye expressions of Irishness placed over some hearty jigs and reels”

Shane’s life was hardly a pious pursuit. That wasn’t the way of a punkish frontman. A lot will be said about Shane’s life, his antics and vices, yet regardless of this, Shane’s literary talents and lyrics need to be heralded. I’ve always had a fascination with The Pogues. The punkish 1980s demeanour and literary-laden lyrics, all placed over a beat that is hard not to tap along to. Shane’s politically charged and considered lyrics were not just throw away diddly eye expressions of Irishness placed over some hearty jigs and reels. 

Shane’s literary talents and aptitude were always evident. By the age of 11, he was reading Dostoevsky and Joyce. At 13, he was winning academic scholarships, and his talent even secured him a place in the prestigious Westminster School. This literary preciousness is evident in The Pogues’s third album, If I Should Fall from Grace with God. 

The album’s North American cover features nine men wearing identical suits and Joycean bowler hats, all striking the same pose. The eagle-eyed will notice that the fourth figure from the left amongst the motley crew is Joyce himself, standing beside Shane. All the band’s faces have even been transposed over a picture of Joyce. As Kevin Farrell puts it in his fantastic paper “If I Should Fall from Grace with God”: The Joycean Punk of the Pogues, this “playfully suggests that not only is Joyce a Pogue, but the Pogues are themselves a Joycean band.” This image is no coincidence.

This Joycean notion is one I have no doubt Shane sought to align the band with. The similarities between the two may, on the surface, seem few and far between. Yet Trieste and Tipperary may have more in common than you’d think. The pair shared a particular ideology. As Farrell states, they both professed a “rejection of essentialized Irish identity and (a) consequent preference for polyglot art and mercurial national symbols; (and) secondly, (an) uneasy relationship between sentimental affection and caustic irony, particularly in reference to Ireland itself”.

I can certainly see the similarities between Joyce and Shane. Both rambling around some dirty old town, stumbling down the old main drag, exiled from their native land. James Joyce heading down to the Monto to lose his virginity at age 14. Shane getting expelled from an illustrious private school for selling drugs during his early teens. You could swap the names around in those stories, and I wouldn’t even bat an eyelid.  Both writers have also had their own literal and metaphorical encounters with Icarus, each facing and flying too close to the sun at certain times in their lives.

Joyce wasn’t the only Irish writer MacGowan referenced, read or whose work impacted him; Brendan Behan was another. The Pogues’ version of Behan’s air, The Auld Triangle, on their debut album, Red Rose for Me, is one of the song’s most intoxicating and harrowing renditions. The tune Thousands are Sailing also references Behan, “And in Brendan Behan’s footsteps I danced up and down the street”. MacGowan certainly followed in the poetic and habitual manners of Behan. He even acted as inspiration for the song Streams of Whiskey. The song charts a fictional drunken, rambling and philosophising chat between MacGowan and Behan.

“Last night as I slept, I dreamt I met with Behan …

When questioned on his views on the crux of life’s philosophies
He had but these few clear and simple words to say…

I am going, I am going
Where streams of whiskey are flowing.”

Behan quite succinctly called himself a drinker with writing problems. So, too, was Shane. Yet a problem shared is a problem halved, and we can all be very grateful to have been privy to Shane’s writing problems.  

“Being an outspoken Irishman in London during the 80’s was no mean feat. That said, I do believe a task has never been more suited to an individual”

Republicanism had always been at the forefront of Shane’s writing. The song The Streets of Sorrow/ Birmingham Six speaks of the conflict in Northern Ireland and unjust political persecution. The first part of the song portrays the heightened sadness on the streets of Northern Ireland at the height of the Troubles. The song’s second part expresses solidarity for the Birmingham Six and Guilford Four with the view that they were victims of a miscarriage of justice. A verse from the song reads, “There were six men in Birmingham/ In Guildford there’s four/ That were picked up and tortured/ And framed by the lawBut they’re still doing time/ For being Irish in the wrong place and at the wrong time.”. The song was eventually banned by the British Independent Broadcasting Authority in 1988. Shane always spoke for justice regardless of the repercussions of it. Being an outspoken Irishman in London during the 80’s was no mean feat. That said, I do believe a task has never been more suited to an individual.

Irish mythology, more specifically the myth of Cú Chullain, also imposed itself on Shane’s writing, as it has on many Irish writers, most notably Yeats, who saw Cú Chullain as the embodiment of the ideals he envisioned for the Irish people. The Pogues’ song The Sick Bed of Cúchulainn off the album Rum Sodomy & The Lash, my own personal favourite tune of theirs, is a playful, rambling reflection of this. References to Irish tenors John McCormack and Richard Tauber, banshees, British xenophobia and Irish myths are all embodied in this three-minute powerhouse of a tune. Yet Shane’s poetry wasn’t like Yeats. It was doggerel for the dejected. It is a song for the emigrant, outsider and the ostracised.

Upon the mentioning of doggerel, I must give a nod of the head to Dublin band Fontaines DC.  Frontman Grian Chattan, in a poignant Instagram post after the death of MacGowan, stated, “So long, North Star. I will love you forever.” For those who haven’t heard Fontaines DC’s cover of The Pogues’ I’m a Man You Don’t Meet Every Day on SiriusXM’s YouTube channel, I would highly recommend giving it a listen. 

“A tattooed boisterous band with bodhráns and a national bród became idolised by many”

Shane and The Pogues paved the way for both punk and trad in Ireland. They are undoubtedly a heavy influence on Irish bands such as Fontaines DC, The Mary Wallopers and The Murder Capital. Not only was punk cool, but punk was also Irish. Trad was always Irish, but now it was cool. A tattooed boisterous band with bodhráns and a national bród became idolised by many.

I alluded to doggerel above, but it’s not the debut album of Fontaines DC that I’d like to mention; it’s their sophomore one, A Hero’s Death. Its album cover frames Oliver Shepard’s statue of The Dying Cuchulain, housed in the General Post Office of Dublin. Just like Cú Chullain and the faithful martyrs of 1916, I do like to think of the passing of Shane as that of a hero’s death.

As a Spanish student, I have always had an acute fascination for The Pogues and their Hispanic affinity. I’d like to return to the song The Sick Bed of Cúchulainn and its lyric, “Frank Ryan bought you whiskey in a brothel in Madrid”. Frank Ryan was an anti-treaty IRA member. He also led the Irish division or the Connolly Column of the International Brigade to fight for the republican cause in the Spanish Civil War. Whilst fighting against the fascist Francoist forces, he was captured and sentenced to death in Spain before eventually dying under controversial circumstances in Nazi Germany. This intellect of MacGowan could go unmissed by many.

The Iberian influence seeped deep into many of The Pogues’ songs. Most of the band’s members spent time in Almería, in Andalucía in southern Spain, while filming the indie action comic picture Straight to Hell. The influence of Andalucían duende, a sense of folkloric heightened emotion, flowed into their music. A clear expression of this is the song Fiesta, off the album If I Should Fall from Grace with God. Founding Pogues member Jem Finer based the song off a Spanish fairground melody that he and MacGowan had listened to during their time there.

“The lyrics of Fiesta read as if Beckett had strayed across the Pyrenees and been obliged to take up Castilian, leaving a piece of his manuscript there for us to read”

With his quintessentially slurry voice, MacGowan even goes as far as to sing an original verse in Spanish. Castilian words such as sin gas, acordeón and, of course, fiesta permeate the rest of the song. Allusions to the classic Andalucían chochona doll won during the summer fairs are also included. The lyrics of Fiesta read as if Beckett had strayed across the Pyrenees and been obliged to take up Castilian, leaving a piece of his manuscript there for us to read. It feels like I am playing Irish male literary figure bingo in this reflection on MacGowan’s life. Apologies, that’s the Trinity wanker in my speaking. Yet I firmly believe MacGowan does need to be held in the same regard as the likes of Beckett, Yeats and Joyce.

The music video for Fiesta is quite the spectacle as well. It’s like an Almodovar film on acid. We see MacGowan dressed up as a matador, donning the traditional trajes de luces (the matador’s traditional clothing). Shane also imitates the bullfighters of Spain and their red cape, also known as a muleta. Shane’s muleta, however, is a red and black flag adorned with the face of Che Guevara. Viva Shane.

There is one Spanish figure who impacted Shane the most. That was undoubtedly the poet and playwright Federico García Lorca. Two of The Pogues’ songs directly reference his work and even go so far as to name him in the title. Night Train to Lorca emulated the style of Lorca’s verse and his surrealist imagery. In my humble opinion, the song contains some of the finest and most poetic lyrics ever penned by MacGowan.

“Across the dark and dusty plain
Where scars of old dry rivers run
Night unfolds, a coal-black shroud
Across the hard and stony ground…

The flames are in the fireman’s eye
Orange in the engines glow
Gleaming pistons whirling cranks
Wait for dawn and the rooster’s crow.”

The Spaniard was a poet of the people. He vocalised the concerns and the state of the unheard and voiceless in early 20th-century Spain; the gay community, the gypsies and women. Shane was also a poet of the people.  Both Lorca and MacGowan shared this devotion to being the messengers of the disregarded. Lyricism and musicality can arguably carry the plight and passions of a people far further than prose ever can.  

Shane was undoubtedly well acquainted with Lorca’s work. Lorca’s cannon informed thematic concerns of many of The Pogues’ songs and contributed to their underlying emotive feeling. The poem Llanto por Ignacio Sánchez Mejías./ Lament for Ignacio Sánchez Mejías is a lament written by Lorca for his close friend and bullfighter who was killed in the ring. The song Lorca’s Novena MacGowan references this, “ Ignacio lay dying in the sand/ A single red rose clutched in a dying hand.” The poem also alludes to Lorca’s own self-prophesied killing, “But Lorca’s corpse, as he had prophesied, just walked away/ And the only sound was the women in the chapel praying.”

Yet last Friday at MacGowan’s funeral, the sounds in the chapel were that of the beautifully poetic words of Shane’s and the tapping of feet of those who loved him. In my opening, I talked about Shane and God. If we do live in a secular world, God forgive me for saying that, then the secular version of an afterlife is a legacy. I’m certain Shane will have some legacy, one that will inspire future generations. As the lyric goes, “I could have been someone, well so could anyone.” Shane was certainly someone, someone special.

As a closing remark, I’d like to reference Lorca as Shane so often did. The Spaniard said, “como no me he preocupado de nacer, no me preocupo de morir”. This line roughly translates to, “Just as I didn’t worry about being born, I’m not worried about dying.” This feels like quite a fitting mantra, one which Shane certainly lived by. It’s also one which we all should live by a bit more as well. Rest easy, Shane.

A Lament for Shane MacGowan

In the land of Saints and Scholars

There is no greater honour,

To be born a saint and die a sinner,

Piety – one must squander.