With The Pogues, Shane MacGowan perhaps proved himself the most important Irish writer since James Joyce

With The Pogues, Shane MacGowan perhaps proved himself the most important Irish writer since James Joyce

Known for his music with The Pogues, and perhaps the most important Irish writer since James Joyce, the venerated and critically acclaimed Shane MacGowan has died in Dublin at the age of 65.

MacGowan was the primary songwriter and lead singer of the folk-punk band who formed in London in 1982 and became best known for their chart-topping single, Fairytale of New York.

A mordantly comedic ballad sung by MacGowan and Kirsty MacColl, this unlikely Christmas favourite – which takes its title from a 1973 novel by the American-Irish writer J.P. Donleavy – is the fourth track on If I Should Fall With Grace From God.

Released to critical and commercial acclaim on January 18 1988, The Pogues’ third album provides us with a helpful means to better appreciate the rich musical and lyrical legacy the complex and notoriously unreliable MacGowan leaves behind.

MacGowan holds a mirrored plaque
Shane MacGowan in 1984.
Steve Rapport/Getty Images

This album, as with the four others MacGowan recorded with The Pogues, is an intoxicating admixture of the old and new, a heady concoction of the traditional and modern.

The opening song on the record – also called If I Should Fall With Grace From God – is proof. The track, which rattles along at furious pace and features a typically raspy vocal delivery by MacGowan, takes the traditional Scottish song The Bonnie Banks o’ Loch Lomond as a primary point of musical reference.

The thematic preoccupations of the lyrics leave little doubt as to MacGowan’s political affinities:

This land was always ours
Was the proud land of our fathers
It belongs to us and them
Not to any of the others.

Accordion player James Fearnley published an excellent memoir about his tenure as a member of The Pogues in 2012, and has this to say about the album’s opening number:

The song was as element as the best of all Shane’s songs. It had mud and land and rivers and oceans and corpses in it, in a landscape as expansive and ancient and threatening as the melody, bringing to mind the high road and low road, one of which – after the Jacobite Rising of 1745 – led to death.

All this, it should be added, in under two and a half minutes.

Read more:
Shane MacGowan: a timeless voice for Ireland’s diaspora in England

A lover of literature

Shane Patrick Lysaght MacGowan was born in Kent, England, on Christmas Day in 1957. His parents were Irish immigrants who moved to England for work. As a child, MacGowan divided his time between the south-east of England and Tipperary, where he first learnt to play and sing Irish music.

A gifted writer, MacGowan won a scholarship to Westminster School in London in 1971, but was expelled for drug possession in his second year.

MacGowan’s passion for reading and writing was evident to his family and teachers. By the age of 12, he was reading Fyodor Dostoyevsky, Jean Paul Sartre and D. H. Lawrence.

MacGowan when he was the 19-year-old editor of punk rock magazine Bondage, in 1977.
Photo by Sydney O’Meara/Evening Standard/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

MacGowan’s love of literature and prowess with language comes to the fore in the songs he wrote while in The Pogues. MacGowan took lyrical inspiration from transgressive and rebellious writers like Jean Genet and Federico García Lorca, both of whom are name-checked on The Pogues’ 1990 album, Hell’s Ditch.

The Irish republican writer and activist Brenden Behan was another enduring literary touchstone for MacGowan. His version of The Auld Triangle, popularised by Behan, can be found on The Pogues first album, Red Roses for Me, from 1984.

With his father, MacGowan read Joyce’s Ulysses and Finnegans Wake. Joyce’s influence on MacGowan and The Pogues was profound and lasting. (He quite literally appears on the cover of If I Should Fall With Grace From God.)

The academic Kevin Farrell reminds us, at the outset of their career, “the band called itself Pogue Mahone, a playful – and Joycean – attempt to slip Irish language vulgarity past the BBC censors”.

The Gaelic phrase póg mo thóin translates as “kiss my arse”, and a variation of the expression can be found in the Aeolus episode of Joyce’s modernist masterpiece, Ulysses. While they couldn’t get the reference past the censors, it is a clear indicator of the band’s love of Joyce, who also struggled against the suppression of expression.

Shane MacGowan with his mother, Therese, at the family home in Nenagh, Tipperary, Ireland, 1997.
Photo by Martyn Goodacre/Getty Images

The influence of Joyce

Joyce’s influence on MacGowan can be felt in the lyrics of The Sick Bed of Cuchulainn.

This song, the first track of 1985’s Rum, Sodomy & the Lash, serves as a lyrical statement of artistic and political intent: it fuses Celtic mythology with anti-fascist action. Here is a representative slice of the lyrics, which MacGowan delivers at a suitably frenzied pace:

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

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.

Cuchulainn is a central figure in The Ulster Cycle, a key work of Celtic mythology. A renowned fighter, the heroic Cuchulainn is often romanticised and deified.

The Pogues perform on stage at Apollo, Manchester, in 2013.
Photo by Shirlaine Forrest/WireImage

MacGowan, who sees affinities between the mythological Cuchulainn and historical figures like the Irish republican Frank Ryan, takes a very different, and overtly Joycean tack.

Deftly toggling back and forth across temporalities, MacGowan foregrounds and celebrates the corporeal. And as with Joyce’s everyman hero, Leopold Bloom, MacGowan’s Cuchulainn is, as music critic Jeffrey T. Roesgen tells us:

made human, assuming the same misadventures, indulgences, and internal struggles between virtue and vice that consume us.

This also serves, I think, as a fitting description of MacGowan himself.

Read more:
Ulysses at 100: why it was banned for being obscene

Post Comment