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Sleep Easy, Shane

With humour, warmth and delicate beauty, Shane MacGowan's lyricism profoundly shaped the culture of England's Irish diaspora — and was never afraid to denounce injustice, no matter how unpopular this made him with the powerful.

(Photo by Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images)

If Shane MacGowan had a hero, it was the Irish writer and playwright Brendan Behan. When the New Musical Express sought out Brendan’s mugshot for a 1984 feature on the working-class Dublin writer, the image credit went to ‘Shane MacGowan’. The image had been on the wall in his London apartment, part of a shrine to MacGowan’s heritage. NME readers were informed, in a quote from the novelist Flann O’Brien, that Brendan was ‘proprietor of the biggest heart that has beaten in Ireland for the past forty years.’  Tragically, Brendan died at just 41. The theatre director Joan Littlewood, recounting her feelings on hearing the news of Behan’s passing in 1964, said she was so angry she wanted to go to Dublin and kick the coffin. 

For Shane MacGowan, getting Behan into the pages of the NME was an honour in itself. In his memoir he remembered how ‘all I said was I was an Irish Republican, and that was enough. I said that one of my favourite writers was Brendan Behan. And that made them have an article about Brendan in the NME.’ There is a certain tragedy in Shane passing on in the centenary year of his idol’s birth. Both contributed much to the cultural understanding of the Irish in Britain, and both battled the same demons of addiction. 

Born in Kent on Christmas Day 1957, MacGowan’s background was in some ways typical of the Irish migrant experience. It was estimated that half of those born in the Ireland of the 1930s had left the country, the majority for the neighbouring island. What E.P. Thompson had observed of the nineteenth-century Irish emigrant, that ‘it is not the friction but the relative ease with which the Irish were absorbed into the working-class community which is remarkable’, remained true, as Mary E. Daly notes in her history of Irish population decline. In cities like Manchester, Liverpool and London, Irish migrants established a strong cultural presence. Indeed, when the great ethnomusicologist Alan Lomax travelled Ireland in the 1950s, he did so because he felt ‘the last notes of the old, high, and beautiful Irish civilization are dying away — a civilization which produced an epic, lyric, and musical literature as noble as any in the world.’ He would find as many Irish voices to record, and as much evidence of that important culture, amidst the emigrants who settled in Britain.

Of Tipperary stock, MacGowan was proud of the republican pedigree of his family, recalling how ‘they were all safehouses, all our family houses.’ He remembered being raised around relations who had fought in the Irish War of Independence, and taught ‘the real stories about what happened to them in the Black and Tan war, and the Civil War.’ Some of these stories would find their way into the music of The Pogues, like the song ‘Kitty’, recently recorded by the folk singer John Francis Flynn. In it, an IRA Volunteer tells a heartbroken lover that ‘In a day now I’ll be over the mountain.’ It captures the spirit of an army without banners, moving across a rural terrain. Frequent visits home to Tipperary in his youth would shape his imagination and identity.  

In some ways, MacGowan’s upbringing was different from many of the young Irish around him, attending an English public school and winning a scholarship to attend the prestigious Westminster School. Still, MacGowan was drawn towards the emerging punk rock movement in the 1970s, editing the fanzine Bondage and singing in the band The Nipple Erectors. MacGowan achieved a sort of notoriety in that capacity, under the name of Shane O’Hooligan.

Together with Peter Richard Stacy, Jem Finer and James Fearnley, Shane would be a founding member of the band first known as ‘Pogue Mahone.’ Fearnley, in his entertaining memoir of his time in the band, recalled time spent in MacGowan’s apartment before their launch, and how ‘we spent hours talking — or rather, he spent hours talking to me, about the hostage-taking in Iran, Rupert Murdoch’s recent acquisition of The Times, Bobby Sands’s hunger strike, but then veered off onto subjects as far apart as Finnegans Wake and the Khmer Rouge.’ He, like all the others, was drawn towards MacGowan’s intellect and strong personality.

Some have described The Pogues as a defining Irish band, while to others they belong to London. In truth, they were a band of the Irish Diaspora, reflecting the coming together of first and second-generation Irish musicians, and the unique experiences that come with being a migrant in such a city. Philip Chevron had previously belonged to Dublin punk band The Radiators From Space, while Terry Woods had been part of the acclaimed Sweeney’s Man, a band who emerged against the backdrop of the Dublin folk revival that also produced The Dubliners. To the immensely talented concertina player Noel Hill, their music amounted to a ‘terrible abortion.’ Such criticisms had little impact on the band, with Andrew Ranken (born in London to Irish parents) later recalling how ‘he said that we couldn’t play Irish music and we were a bunch of upstarts and we shouldn’t be allowed to get away with it. We were murdering traditional Irish music, or something along those lines.’ Such condemnation meant little to the band, and to the listening public. It was a strange sort of tribute that led the band to title a track ‘Planxty Noel Hill’.

The Pogues arrived into public consciousness with the 1984 album Red Roses For Me, complete with an album cover that showed the band before a framed image of President John Fitzgerald Kennedy in the London Irish Centre. The album captured the London-Irish emigrant experience, with songs like ‘Boys from the County Hell’ and ‘Transmetropolitan’ describing the topography of a city that was at once alien and familiar. Just as Joyce could describe Dublin in minute detail, insisting that in the particular was contained the universal, Shane’s lyrical odyssey brought the listener ‘From Brixton’s lovely boulevard, to Hammersmith’s sightly shores’ and right throughout the city of London.

That The Pogues were such a proud manifestation of Irish Diaspora identity was in itself politically important, but the band also aligned themselves with important causes, like the campaign for the release of the Birmingham Six, wrongfully convicted in 1975 for a bombing in which they played no part. The song ‘Streets of Sorrow/Birmingham Six’ noted how:

There were six men in Birmingham

In Guildford there’s four

That were picked up and tortured and framed by the law

And the filth got promotion, but they’re still doing time

For being Irish in the wrong place and at the wrong time.

When invited onto the Friday Night Live television programme, the producers made the decision to cut to a commercial break before the offending lyrics. There were collections at concerts for the families of the innocent men, with Fearnley recounting how ‘I like to think that we helped not only to point out the noxiousness of the broadcast ban, but also contributed, by stirring public opinion, the eventual release of the Guildford Four and the Birmingham Six.’

Ranken later recalled hostility to the band from the far-right, and how ‘we got tear-gassed by the National Front in Swansea once. The gig was packed, and I think we’d heard there were some skinheads in the place, which wasn’t anything new.’ In Carol Clerk’s excellent history of the band, Philip Chevron recalled an occasion when bass player Cait O’Riordan confronted neo-Nazi skinheads at a Berlin Pogues show, and how ‘she lashed out a couple of them with her bass.’ The Pogues firmly understood their music to be rooted in the migrant experience.

Over the course of seven albums, The Pogues left an extraordinary imprint on British popular music. MacGowan, in his evocation of Ireland’s Diaspora, deserves to be remembered as a poet of great lyric and emotional ability. That he left the world on the same date as Oscar Wilde is something in which he would find pride. Both were outsiders on the London stage, and both captivated the audience.