Shane MacGowan, hard-drinking poet of The Pogues, dies

Shane MacGowan at the family home in Tipperary, Ireland, in  1997.

Shane MacGowan at the family home in Tipperary, Ireland, in 1997. Photo: Getty

Shane MacGowan, the London-Irish punk who transformed Irish traditional music with The Pogues and penned some of the most haunting ballads of the 1980s before sinking into alcohol and drug addiction, has died aged 65.

MacGowan brought Irish traditional music to a huge new audience in the late 1980s by splicing it with punk, and achieved mainstream success with his bittersweet, expletive-strewn 1987 Christmas anthem Fairytale of New York.

But he became just as well known for his slurred speech, missing teeth and on-stage meltdowns, with drug and alcohol abuse leading to The Pogues firing him at the height of the group’s success in 1991.

With his health near collapse in his 30s, few at the time expected him to survive into old age.

MacGowan’s wife Victoria Mary Clarke posted on Instagram on Thursday (British time) that the singer had gone to be with: “Jesus and Mary, and his beautiful mother Therese”.

“Thank you for your presence in this world, you made it so very bright and you gave so much joy to so many people with your heart and soul and your music,” she wrote.

Born in the English county of Kent to Irish parents on Christmas Day 1957, MacGowan in his autobiography described early childhood summers spent at an Irish farmhouse with his extended family, drinking, smoking and singing traditional songs.

“It was like living in a pub,” he told The Guardian in 2013.

Despite winning a scholarship to the prestigious Westminster School in London, by 17 he had been expelled and his alcohol and drug use had helped trigger a mental breakdown. He was kept in a psychiatric hospital for six months.

After recovering, he embraced the eruption of punk in London in the late 1970s and early 80s.

Following a fad for fusions of traditional music from around the world, MacGowan started screaming Irish ballads over distorted guitars, setting up a band called Pogue Mahone – Gaelic for “kiss my ass”.

The band, which later shortened its name to The Pogues, released their debut album in 1984, catching the attention of the British music press with its irreverent lyrics about drinking and fighting with penniless Irish immigrants on the streets of London.

But it was A Pair of Brown Eyes on their 1985 follow-up album – the Elvis Costello-produced Rum Sodomy & the Lash – that demonstrated MacGowan’s immense talents as a songwriter, a song that paved the way for later classics like A Rainy Night in Soho and Summer in Siam.

The Clash’s Joe Strummer, who later played with the Pogues and briefly replaced MacGowan as lead singer, described MacGowan at the time as a visionary, a poet and “one of the finest writers of the century”.

The height of the Pogues success came in 1987 with Fairytale of New York, which MacGowan sang in a duet with Kirsty MacColl to create an instant Christmas classic, despite radio unfriendly lyrics in which the estranged couple exchange insults.

Candles burn for The Pogues frontman Shane MacGowan at the Mansion House, in Dublin. Photo: Getty

After a series of hallucinogenic benders, including one night in New Zealand when he stripped naked and painted himself blue, MacGowan was fired by The Pogues during a 1991 tour of Japan.

Following a decade with a new band, The Popes, MacGowan and the Pogues reunited and toured regularly until 2014.

In 2018 singers Bono, Nick Cave and Sinead O’Connor, Sex Pistols bassist Glen Matlock and actor Johnny Depp joined MacGowan on stage in the refined surroundings of Dublin’s National Concert Hall for a show to celebrate his 60th birthday.

“I regard Shane as easily the best lyric writer of our generation,” Cave, also a close friend of MacGowan’s, told the Guardian shortly after the concert.

“He has a very natural, unadorned, crystalline way with language. There is a compassion in his words that is always tender, often brutal, and completely his own.”

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