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30 November 2023

Hard-drinking poet/singer Shane MacGowan hit creative highs in The Pogues

30 November 2023

Following in the wayward footsteps of James Mangan, Brendan Behan and Luke Kelly, Shane MacGowan first inherited and then took ownership of the concept of the raucous Irish poet/singer.

The songwriter, who found fame as the lead singer of London Irish punk/folk band The Pogues, has died aged 65.

While many knew MacGowan primarily for his Christmas ballad Fairytale Of New York and his famously rotten teeth, he was in fact a deep thinker who drew on various elements of Ireland’s literary traditions to create an unorthodox musical alchemy which blended the traditional and modern to create something which was original, fearless and often exhilarating.

Born on Christmas Day in Pembury, Kent, in 1957 to Irish parents (his father worked in retail and his mother was an Irish dancer), he soon moved to rural Tipperary where he was immersed in an Irish culture of ceili bands and showbands.

The family later moved back to England and MacGowan earned a literature scholarship to the prestigious Westminster School in London but was expelled in his second year when he was caught in possession of drugs.

MacGowan became involved with the burgeoning punk movement in 1970s England. He formed his own punk band before a revival in ethnic musical influences led him to form The Pogues in 1982.

The band played traditional Irish and rebel songs given new life by an injection of the energy, anger and anarchy of punk.

Dismissed by many initially as an embarrassing slice of Paddywhackery, the Pogues survived and then thrived due to the unexpected quality and depth of MacGowan’s songwriting.

The band reached their critical peak with the 1985 album Rum, Sodomy and the Lash, and their commercial peak with 1988’s If I Should Fall from Grace with God.

The latter provided the band with their biggest hit, MacGowan duetting  with Kirsty MacColl on Fairytale of New York. Although it was kept off the coveted festive number one spot by The Pet Shop Boys, Fairytale regularly tops polls for the best Christmas song.

However, MacGowan’s erratic lifestyle and prodigious drinking began to dim his creative output and limited his ability to fulfil live commitments and promotional activities.

Eventually, The Pogues sacked him in 1991 for his increasingly unreliable behaviour. He later claimed he had not been sober a single day in his life since he was 14.

MacGowan formed his own band The Popes and toured extensively. In 2001, Sinead O’Connor reported him to the police for drug possession – in what she said was an attempt to discourage him from using heroin.

MacGowan began performing with The Pogues again in 2001 and continued to tour with the band for several years, although no new music was recorded.

In 2009 he appeared in his own reality TV show on RTE with long-time girlfriend Victoria Mary Clarke which featured their attempts to grow their own food. A later documentary followed a nine-hour medical procedure in which he had 28 new dentures fitted.

In his later years MacGowan was plagued by ill-health linked to his years of alcohol and substance abuse. In 2015 he fell when leaving a Dublin studio and broke his pelvis, which led to him subsequently having to use a wheelchair.

One of his last public appearances was in 2018 at a special 60th birthday celebration at the National Concert Hall in Dublin.

Celebrities such as Johnny Depp, Bono, Sinead O’Connor and Cerys Matthews performed his songs while President Michael D Higgins presented him with a Lifetime Achievement Award.

In late November the same year, amid growing fears of MacGowan’s failing health, he and Clarke married in a quiet ceremony watched by guests including close friend Johnny Depp.

They tied the knot in Copenhagen, Denmark, after 32 years together, while Depp sang and plucked a guitar.

But despite the ongoing concerns over his health, MacGowan, who by now had all but cemented himself as Ireland’s most unlikely national treasure, was not finished just yet.

In 2019 he returned to the stage, appearing at the RDS Arena in Dublin as a guest for Chrissie Hynde and the Pretenders, though it was clear that his best performance days were some way behind him.

In September 2020 a new documentary, Crock of Gold: A Few Rounds with Shane MacGowan, was released Directed by Julien Temple and produced by Johnny Depp, it featured unseen archival footage from the band and MacGowan’s family, as well as animation from illustrator Ralph Steadman.

In 2021 it was revealed by Mick Cronin of Irish rock indie band Cronin that MacGowan had recorded with them in May.

“Once he’s in the studio, he’s all guns blazing,” the drummer told the New York Times.

In November 2022 MacGowan released his first art book. The book, titled The Eternal Buzz and the Crock of Gold, included never-before-seen artwork, handwritten lyrics and school essays.

But things took a turn just one month later, when Clarke announced that he had returned to hospital.

“Please send prayers and healing vibes to @ShaneMacGowan. In hospital again and really hoping to get out asap!! Thank you,” she wrote on Twitter.

Clarke updated fans on his subsequent health battles, sharing photos of him in his hospital bed.

In July 2023 she wrote: “I just wanted to thank everyone who is sending love and prayers for ⁦@ShaneMacGowan.

“We really appreciate it and bless all of you and anyone anywhere who is having health challenges! ⁦@poguesofficial.”

In November 2023 she shared a photo of MacGowan with tubes up his nose and a monitor clipped on to his ear.

She wrote: “I just wanted to say a massive thanks to everyone who has been messaging me and ⁦@ShaneMacGowan and thank you ⁦@spiderstacy⁩ and Terry Woods for coming to visit him love and prayers for everyone who is struggling right now hang in there!”

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