Shane MacGowan was one of the great Irish writers. His death, sending us back to his incredible body of work, brings focus on what he created.
Though born in Kent – on Christmas day, fitting given the nature of his biggest hit – his entire being was Irish. His parents, Maurice and Therese, moved from rural Tipperary to southern England for work, as many did before them, ahead of MacGowan’s birth. And it was back in Puckane, Tipperary where he spent his first few years, and subsequently where he felt most at peace on the many trips back. It was also there, amongst his family, that he learned the traditional Irish tunes he would wrestle into such a unique sound with The Pogues.
Fiercely intelligent, he was also fiercely tempted. He was booted out of Westminster School, where he’d gone on scholarship, for possession, in his early teens. His addictions would remain with him. They are well documented.
It is the songs, though, that are his rich testament. He cited Brendan Behan as an influence, and the poetic tradition of words about hard living run rich with Shane MacGowan. His distillation of the lives of those on society’s edge starts at Transmetropolitan, the rampaging opening track on Pogues debut Red Roses for Me, detailing the day in a life of those without a roof, who decide to face down polite society, as did The Dark Streets of London, The Pogues evocation of an itinerant immigrant, through to Hell’s Ditch, their last great album of note that began to play more with wider themes and the poetry of Lorca.
But equally is the poetry of place that MacGowan could conjure, coming, it felt from the tradition of Patrick Kavanagh, another rough round the edges 20th century Irish great. And that place could be the idealised memory of Ireland while you’re held fast, miles away, like in Broad Majestic Shannon, maybe his masterwork, or in A Rainy Night in Soho, when the memory of friends and love is tied to place. That is a reductive description of an incredible song. London was always a rich canvas for MacGowan, and always the less seen, and less seemly, London. But one that you can picture keenly. In many ways he was the greatest teller that the London Irish community produced.
Nothing was ever straight for Shane, and his family worried. I remember his father ringing me around 20 years ago to ask if I’d investigate one particular man who Maurice felt was leeching Shane dry. Sadly the story went nowhere, but Shane, ever the survivor, got through it.