The music was the code. It was the transliteration of the style. It was not giving a bollocks in a thoroughly musical manner. It was fuck this and fuck that and frankly fuck you. A rockety life came with the territory. You didn’t have to be Irish. Their England had been influenced by that Ireland of the 50’s. Behan, Kavanagh, O’Brien. Roaring Boys all. Drunken, rackety, genius bores. And Shane could be as drunk and boring and rackety or he could write as beautifully as any of them.
Bob Geldof, Waiting for Herb, 2004.
As the ferry lurched out of Dublin port we reminisced on crossings of yore. In response to regretful talk about the withdrawal of the service out of Dun Laoghaire – which at least had a rail connection – Shane MacGowan recalled, with typical belligerence, “Dun Laoghaire was there before a fucking DART line,” before hissing reassuring laughter.
He then spoke wistfully of his grandfather telling him about how ‘lower order’ passengers would have to share decks with the livestock on board. It seemed a very different world to a Stena Lounge bereft of passengers on this night crossing, but at least the wine was complimentary, and Tina didn’t mind a few messers on board.
Indeed, the aesthetic, or anti-aesthetic, of the Pogues was a throwback to a bygone Ireland – and Irish – often scorned by ‘respectable’ people. In particular, those compelled by economic circumstances to take up jobs ‘across the water’.
Shane MacGowan was born in Tunbridge Wells in Kent in 1957 to Irish immigrant parents, but spent his early youth living with maternal aunts and uncles in Puckane, Co. Tipperary. Formative teenage years were spent in 1970s London.
For the emerging poet, rural Ireland – for all its faults – seemed a fairy realm, enlivened by song and alcoholic excess, compared to the industrial decay and entrenched class system of England at that time. Having dabbled in punk with The Nipple Erectors he returned to his musical roots, forming the Pogues (from the Irish phrase póg mo thóin, meaning ‘kiss my arse’) in 1982.
He previously described the ‘Irish look’ the band self-consciously adopted:
The suits, black suits with white shirts which we wore, were Brendan Behan uniform and that’s why we chose them, not to look smart, but to look as if we could have come from any decade … We could have looked like people from the fifties, sixties, or seventies … we just looked like classic Paddies.[i]
As the night wore on, in particularly good cheer, Shane began humming a medley, beginning with the ‘Rocky Road to Dublin’, “When off Holyhead wished meself was dead / Or better far instead”, culminating in a vision of Irish inclusivity – at least before the men in the mohair suits moved in – at the ‘Galway Races’:
There were half a million people there
Of all denominations
The Catholic, the Protestant, the Jew,
Yet not animosity
No matter what the persuasion
But failte hospitality
Inducing fresh acquaintance
With me wack fol do fol
The diddle idle day
This evocation of carnival wherein social hierarchies disappear in joyful Bacchanalia helps understand what Shane MacGowan engendered with the Pogues during the 1980s: a two-fingered reaction to Thatcherism that helped define our Irish identity.
As the cultural critic Joe Cleary put it in Outrageous Fortune: Capital and Culture in Modern Ireland (Field Day, 2007) in the music of the Pogues: ‘The [Irish] nation is imagined as a kind of extended fairground.’[ii]
He adds, however, that with the Pogues: ‘this version of carnival is never allowed to become cosily celebratory because it is always shot through with sentiments of anger and aggression, sometimes strident, sometimes more muted.’[iii]
The word hooligan derives from the surname of a fictional rowdy Irish family in a music-hall song from the 1890s. Later, applied to the antics of English football fans, steeped in post-imperial hubris, it took on angry connotations.
But the Pogues were all about the hoolie – a big noisy party – and unashamedly “Up the RA”, when it was still risqué to be so. Their song ‘Streets of Sorrow / Birmingham Six ‘refers to the plight of the Birmingham Six and Guilford Four and was censored by the BBC.
Their old school, rumbunctious hooliganism, fused elements of punk and traditional Irish music with the incantations that arouse from Shane MacGowan’s errant soul.
As Cleary puts it the Pogues, ‘merged the ‘modernist’- and ‘avant-garde’-coded aesthetics of punk with the ‘romantically’-coded idioms of the Irish musical forms.’
For the Pogues to yoke together … the avant-garde future-orientated metropolitan aesthetics of punk, with the retro aesthetics of céilí and the broadly political edginess of the pub-ballad scene was an inspired act not only of musical synthesis but of semantic sabotage as well.[iv]
Alongside self-destructive excess there was something serious going on, ‘saving folk from the folkies’ as Elvis Costello put it[v], while asserting a brash, yet accommodating Irish identity – after all, many of the band were not even Irish – notwithstanding an unashamed approval of violent Republicanism, based on a long historical memory of famine, torture and resistance.
The success of the Pogues and Shane MacGowan – who transcended traditional Irish music to become a rockstar celebrity – may go some way to explaining an enduring, relative openness among Irish people to new cultural encounters – even multiculturalism – at least by comparison with erstwhile colonisers.
Like it or not, any witness to an average Saturday night in Dublin can testify to the presence of a carnival of sexual deviancy, donnybrooks and nonsensical pranks. This has become a generally inclusive ritual for Irish self-expression.
In The Dawn of Everything: A New History of Humanity (London, 2021), David Graeber and David Wengrow suggest ‘[t]he really powerful ritual moments are those of collective chaos, effervescence, liminality or creative play, out of which new social forms can come into the world.’[vi] That just about sums up the Pogues’ contribution to Irish culture.
After the Pogues, along with their precursors and followers, we would wear a distinctively wild Irishness as a badge of honour, invite everyone to the party, then regale each other with far-fetched stories of nights that should have ended sooner, at least before the cops turned up, when the fun really started.
The Big Red Fun Bus
With the Irish Sea bathed in pale moonlight on a blissfully calm night, conversation turned to Westerns. With a glint in his eye Shane reeled off his favourites – ‘The Life and Times of Judge Roy Beans’ (1972), ‘The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance’ (1962), “with Jimmy Stewart and John Wayne competing for the same girl”, and ‘The Searchers’ (1956).
But fittingly for a bard whose songs are steeped in tales of underdogs – like the navigators who ‘died in their hundreds with no sign to mark where / Save the brass in the pocket of the entrepreneur’ – his favourite was the more recent ‘Geronimo: An American Legend’ (1993), in which, unusually, a Native American victim is the hero.
By now the rest of our posse seemed to be asleep – it must have been passed 4am – but Shane’s mind was racing in this liminal phase. The high life of London beckoned and the rockstar in him was growing giddy.
We had another Brendan to thank for the drive to London. He and Shane’s full-time carer Elizabeth provide vital assistance and crucially, a sense of humour, in support of Victoria, Shane’s loving wife.
Once installed in the hotel room there was a chance for more songs, including a few Percy French ditties. Then an overlooked classic from his underrated period with the Popes: a homage to the nineteenth century poet James Clarence Mangan: ‘The Snake with Eyes of Garnett.’
It begins fittingly:
Last night as I lay dreaming
My way across the sea
James Mangan brought me comfort
With laudnum and poitin
The vision moves to the scene of a public execution being held on Stephen’s Green in 1819, before another crossing
If you miss me on the harbour
For the boat, it leaves at three
Take this snake with eyes of garnet
My mother gave to me!
The snake is a symbol of renewal, and for Shane perhaps the republican ideal. It also reveals his engagement with the literary canon. After all, he did once earn a scholarship to the exclusive Westminster public school.
He chimed in:
This snake cannot be captured
This snake cannot be tied
This snake cannot be tortured, or
Hung or crucified
It came down through the ages
It belongs to you and me
So pass it on and pass it on
‘Till all mankind is free
Contrary to the association of the snake with deceit and temptation – a phallic devil – according to Chevalier and Gheerbant’s Dictionary of Symbols, the serpent is ‘a continuation of the infinite materialization which is none other than primordial formlessness, the storehouse of latency which underlies the manifest world.’
It is an archetype representing ‘an “Old God”, the first god to be found at the start of all cosmogenesis, before religions of the spirit dethroned him.’[vii]
This becomes the moving spirit of another vagabond poet, James Clarence Mangan who as a Young Irelander renews the spirt of the nation, suffers and dies, apparently of malnutrition at the height of a cholera epidemic, but re-appears in spectral form.
He swung, his face went purple
A roar came from the crowd
But Mangan laughed and pushed me
And we got back on the cloud
He dropped me off in London
Back in this dying land
But my eyes were filled with wonder
At the ring still in my hand
‘this dying land’
Arriving in central London I am struck by the imperial grandeur. The scale and ambition of the architecture makes Dublin seem like a provincial town, but there’s a cold reserve that used to send a shiver down my spine when I lived here.
So many buildings appear uninhabited; unimaginably grand hotels seem more like fortresses with concierge-sentries posted outside to keep the hoi poloi at bay; uttering “can I help you sir,” with a snarl. We’d have to make our own fun.
The launch of Shane MacGowans’s art exhibition ‘The Eternal Buzz and the Crock of Gold’ took place at the boutique Andipa gallery in Knightsbridge, a stone’s throw from Harrods, where his art resides alongside that of Banksy’s.
Walking in I pass Bob Geldof, an unlikely presence, given his aversion to Irish nationalism, but he has credited Shane and the Pogues with awakening an interest in traditional Irish musical forms that he had previously disparaged.
In the relatively narrow confines of the gallery, with the king sitting contentedly on his throne, a carnival atmosphere asserts itself. He had escaped from all this, but that night he was enjoying a return to the crazy celebrity madness, which in England is built on a bedrock of aristocracy.
The champagne flowed, as minor celebrities converged – “he’s Liam Gallagher’s brother you know” – when the ocean parted before the eternal beauty of Kate Moss. A face to launch a thousand camera phones, and sell a few paintings.
Then on to Soho, where the weather at least remained dry. The police were even called. It took seven of them to take old Tom down, or so they say: never let the truth get in the way of a good yearn…
— Shane MacGowan (@ShaneMacGowan) October 13, 2022
Acording to Joe Cleary:
Ever since the Great Famine and the Devotional Revolution, and especially when they came to power after the establishment of the Free State, the traditionalists had been concerned to make Irish culture more refined and respectable by filtering out, as ‘inauthentic’ or ‘degraded’, all its more licentious and anarchic or uncouth elements – those very elements that were to make such a whoopingly triumphant return of the repressed in the Pogues’ music.[viii]
In many respects, the unapologetic Shane MacGowan remains an embarrassment to the Official Ireland narrative, now principally articulated in the Irish Times, which inculcates a new breed of conformity that brooks no divergence.
Previously, Irish Times journalist Joe Breen suggested that his distaste for the Pogues resembled the attitude of contemporary African-Americans who preferred contemporary music to a musical tradition obsessed with the miseries of slavery and Jim Crow.
Breen’s reference to American culture betrays the apparent objective of many Irish neoliberal cheerleaders to establish a deracinated Americana in Hibernia, a tax haven for multinationals where the atmosphere of the carnival is strictly commodified. Here, Irish history is reduced to the struggle of modernisers against religious authority – with nothing in between – and where celebration of the national struggle is associated with Populism, or even an exclusive ‘white’ nationalism.
The art of Shane MacGowan and the Pogues offer a rowdy alternative to a creeping homogenisation. He endures, seemingly just to spite them, and even in the dying land he can still revive the spirit of the carnival.
[i] Clarke and MacGowan, A Drink with Shane MacGowan, (London, 2001), p.168
[ii] Cleary, p.283
[iii] Cleary, p.277
[iv] Cleary, p.271
[v] Nuala O’Connor, Bringing it All Back Home: The Influence of Irish Music at Home and Overseas (Dublin, 2001), p.159.
[vi] Greaber and Wengrow, p.54
[vii] Jean Chevalier and Alain Gheerbrant, Dictionary of Symbols, trans. John Buchanan, (London, 1996), p.845
[viii] Cleary, p.290