Shane MacGowan: the unruly former punk with a literary soul

The Pogues frontman died aged 65

Shane MacGowan performs with The Pogues
The Pogues frontman wrote Britain's most played festive hit, all because of a bet with Elvis Costello
(Image credit: Suzie Gibbons/Redferns)

The London-raised child of Irish parents, Shane MacGowan, who has died aged 65, took the folk music of the old country and imbued it with the snarling energy of punk. Billing himself for a time as Shane O'Hooligan, he formed a band called Pogue Mahone (Gaelic slang for "kiss my arse") in 1982, which became the Pogues. As its rumbustious frontman, MacGowan delighted fans with his wild, boozy antics and growling delivery, while turning out a series of beautifully written songs – "A Pair of Brown Eyes", "Sally MacLennane", "Dark Streets of London". Many of them reflected the emigrant experience, of exile and loneliness, hard living and hard labour, said The Guardian. Yet the atmosphere of these "gutter hymns" was celebratory.

Finding fame

The Pogues won a loyal following, largely among the Irish diaspora; then Elvis Costello bet MacGowan that he couldn't write a Christmas song without it being a slushy sell-out. The result was "Fairytale of New York", co-written by Jem Finer and performed with Kirsty MacColl. A painfully raw story of love, bitterness and regret, it went to No. 2 in the charts in 1987, and is now the most played festive song in Britain. "It was Christmas Eve, babe / in the drunk tank / an old man said to me, won't see another one..."

Alas, MacGowan was too familiar with the drunk tank, said Neil McCormick in The Daily Telegraph. His boozing, which was facilitated by his fame, undermined his "creative force", and took a terrible toll on his health (and his teeth). He'd been given six months to live back in the 1980s, and also suffered a series of serious accidents, including falling out of a fast-moving car.

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The background 

Shane MacGowan was born in Kent on Christmas Day 1957, during a family visit; his parents later settled in England, where his father worked as a manager at C&A. They had high hopes for their son, whose literary promise was evident early on, and sent him to a private prep school. 

From there, he won a scholarship to Westminster School. But Shane had always spent his holidays back at the family farm in Tipperary, and fell in love with the revelry and poetry of his homeland. He was given Guinness aged five and was swigging whiskey aged eight. He was expelled from Westminster for smoking a joint, and aged 17 he was committed to a psychiatric hospital following a drug-induced breakdown.

After The Pogues

Shortly after being discharged, he stumbled into a Sex Pistols gig. He joined a band called the Nipple Erectors (the Nips) before founding the Dubliners-inspired Pogue Mahone. Their instruments, which they learnt as they went along, included a tin whistle and a banjo. They gained a reputation for riotous live shows, and made the charts (as the Pogues) with songs including a cover of Ewan MacColl's "Dirty Old Town". Hit albums – "Rum", "Sodomy & the Lash"; "If I Should Fall from Grace with God" – followed, and they graduated from London pubs to international tours. But by then MacGowan's addictions, to alcohol and heroin, were overshadowing his talent, said the BBC. His idol Brendan Behan described himself as a "drinker with a writing problem", and perhaps the same could have been said of him. Even the unruly Pogues could not cope with the chaos he wrought. In 1991, they fired him during a tour in Japan, after he'd missed two of four concerts. "Tssk, what took you so long?" he demanded.

After that, MacGowan formed The Popes, and collaborated with Nick Cave, Van Morrison and Sinéad O'Connor, between periods in hospital. He took part in Pogues reunion tours in the 2000s; but in 2015 he fractured his pelvis, and after that used a wheelchair. In that year, he had 28 teeth implanted – a procedure dubbed the "Everest of dentistry", which was the subject of a TV documentary. He finally kicked heroin, and in 2018 he married his girlfriend of many years, Victoria Clarke, who survives him.

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