A Rake’s Progress

Shane MacGowan (1957-2023)

The passing of Shane MacGowan did not come as a complete surprise. Of course, he is famous for having been the riotously drunken and chaotically self-destructive lead singer of the Pogues – a band that fused Irish folk music with the anarchic and angry sound of Punk Rock. Writing in the New York Times, Matt Philipps, referred to MacGowan as a ‘titantically destructive personality’ and a ‘master songsmith whose lyrics painted vivid portraits of the underbelly of Irish immigrant life’. Despite his shambolic appearance, slurred lyrics and woefully out of tune delivery, many consider MacGowan to have been an enigmatic genius who possessed a remarkably poetic soul. His steadfast commitment to living a life of self-indulgent excess marked him out as a roguish but lovable wastrel and he emerged as an unlikely champion of those who found themselves adrift in the sometimes bleak back corners of the Irish Diaspora. Many of his songs resonated with a generation of Irish immigrants who were forced to leave Ireland to seek employment overseas. It was a generation that knew how it felt to be lonely in the likes of Kilburn, Acton or the Bronx – often on the receiving end of unspeakable prejudice, and miserable exploitation in the workplace. In MacGowan’s raw lyrics one can almost taste the despair of those who felt habitually lost in London’s grotty and transient suburbs. His words reflected the grubby operatic messiness of human existence and drink was never far from the equation. As the Irish would say, ‘he was a pure devil for the demon drink’. 

    Public performances were always shambolic and unpredictable. I remember attending a rally in Dublin on the eve of the 2003 invasion of Iraq. The Dean of St Patrick’s Cathedral made an eloquent speech to the assembled crowds in College Green and we politely clapped as he left the stage. The dean was brushed aside by a roaringly drunk Shane MacGowan who staggered onto the stage and screamed some incomprehensible comments into a microphone before shuffling off. On that occasion his presence was spectacularly unhelpful but the crowd responded enthusiastically nevertheless. Like the singer Tom Waits he made an art form out of being perpetually and paralytically drunk. Of course, the drunkenness was in part a studied affectation. However, it was never intended as a masterclass in pure boorishness. Instead it served to shine a light on his vulnerability. He was a fragile soul and there was a relatability in that fragility. Waits on the other hand has now been sober since 1992.

      As a student, my wife recalls turning up at a Shane MacGowan gig in some venue or other in Limerick. She and her friends waited for Shane to make an appearance but he was nowhere to be found and the concert was cancelled. A couple of hours later, Fiona bumped into Shane as he progressed with uncertainty between the pubs of O’Connell Street. His excuse for not bothering to turn up to play for his own gig was rather confused. He was entirely unapologetic, cheerily so, and it was clear that he had simply found a more enjoyable way to pass the evening. 

     A decade or so later, we found ourselves at the Portlaoise Festival in the Irish midlands. Shane exploded onto the stage to give a rendition of ‘Fairytale of New York’ with a little help from the celebrated Irish musician Sharon Shannon. It was past midnight on a hot summer’s evening and the party was in full flow. Despite the unseasonal timing of the performance and the fact that Shane did not appear to know where he was, less still the words to his own hit, there was a real sense of excitement and joy in the crowd. He blasted through the song swaying like a man on the verge of collapse. The crowd went wild and there was no denying Shane’s irresistible and inexplicable charisma. Did they cheer because they were simply impressed and relieved that he was still alive or was it because Fairytale of New York is such a well known song? Personally, I think that it is partly because Shane had an uncanny knack of resonating with that which lies within all of us; that which is wistful and melancholic and that which has the potential to be a little broken. 

    There are times when we are inclined to see the world through a maudlin lens or wallow in a nostalgic longing for home. This intense yearning to be somewhere else permeates much of Irish literature and poetry. Think of W.B. Yeats’ poem, ‘The Lake Isle of Innisfree’. However, it is not all about drunken nostalgia. In a world governed by countless rules, there is also a sense in which Shane’s riotously anarchic disregard for convention seemed strangely alluring. It is perhaps a fantasy which sensible people wisely choose to experience vicariously through a character like Shane rather than actively embrace for themselves. For many years, his ability to simply carry on living seemed little short of miraculous – a triumphant riposte directed towards common sense and established medical wisdom.

  It is difficult to distinguish between Shane the artist and Shane the calamitous drunk. His whole life was a bundle of irreconcilable contradictions. He was erudite and thoughtful and yet he was barely coherent. The whole working class Irish persona (including the accent) was something of an illusion. He was born to Irish parents but he attended Holmewood House Prep School in Tunbridge Wells before winning a scholarship to Westminster School. As a thirteen year old, Shane won the Daily Mirror’s literary competition with a short story that explored the themes of drinking and social ostracisation. Despite his formidable potential, Shane was expelled from Westminster and drifted into the emerging punk scene of the mid 1970s. He later spent time in a psychiatric hospital before starting to use the alarming alias ‘Shane O’Hooligan’. The rest, as they say, is history. 

    Culturally, the reasons for his enduring popularity are complex. Certainly, he had an ability to appear both profane and profound within the same moment. His destructive drinking was a raging addiction but it was also a theatrical crutch. It was his Achilles heel and yet was to become his defining point. Shane made spectacularly poor decisions and was disarmingly honest about his failings. I am not sure that he could stand accused of ‘glorifying’ drink. After all, it robbed him of almost everything, including his dignity and his teeth. 

    There were many aspects of Shane’s behaviour which were problematic but we can learn a good deal from reflecting upon complex, disordered and contradictory lives. What is certain is that Shane MacGowan lived a life of his choosing and he did so without compromise and without undue concern for the opinions of others. At times his behaviour was selfish and offensive but he was a compelling presence and he produced flashes of creative genius. His television appearances were often toe curlingly chaotic; one thinks of his magisterially disastrous appearance with Janet Street-Porter, when he attempted to discuss the newly imposed smoking ban in Ireland. Inebriated beyond reason, Shane lost the ability to speak. Michael Portillo gallantly tried to rescue the situation but it made for awkward and unintentionally brilliant viewing. 

    Shane MacGowan’s life reminds us that chaos is never far from us and there is sometimes poetic beauty to be discerned within that which appears sad, squalid and dysfunctional. As for the anarchy, nihilism and revelry, none of it should detract from the relatable power of his songs. Shane MacGowan is most definitely not a role model in terms of his lifestyle choices and in some respects his life serves as a salient warning against the perils of drugs and alcohol. However, he was a fascinating character who, even in the grips of addiction, inspired a good deal of affection. There was a joyous and mischievous dimension to his personality. 

“What I do is I’m a bandleader, frontman, entertainer”

Jeremy Quartermain
Headmaster of Rossall School