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In Pictures: Turbulent troubadour Shane MacGowan reinvented Irish music

Shane MacGowan of The Pogues, performing at the St Patrick’s Day concert in Belfast city centre (PauL Faith/PA)
Shane MacGowan of The Pogues, performing at the St Patrick’s Day concert in Belfast city centre (PauL Faith/PA)

Shane MacGowan’s career was notable for health issues that were often self-inflicted but they never obscured the musical and lyrical talent that saw him help reinvent Irish music for a new generation.

Although born in the Home Counties to Irish immigrants and educated at establishments including Westminster School, his songbook was one steeped in the experiences of the Irish diaspora’s struggles to forge a life at home or abroad despite colonial-era prejudice and extreme poverty.

With the emergence of bands like U2 and The Boomtown Rats it helped put Irish music very firmly on the world map but with a fresher look.

He was born in 1957, appropriately enough on Christmas Day, with Fairytale Of New York, the song he co-wrote with Pogues bandmate Jem Finer and performed with the late Kirsty MacColl, becoming one of the all-time festive favourites.

The lyrics, telling of a disillusioned couple hurling insults at each other, caused controversy but perhaps struck a chord with people whose experience of Christmas Day is not always a happy one.

Shane MacGowan
Shane MacGowan’s life of excess did not diminish his talent as a performer (Archive/PA)
Music – Self Aid – Irish Embassy – London
Pop stars fronted by Bob Geldof, at the Irish Embassy in London with Ambassador Noel Dorr. From left: Pete Briquette (Boomtown Rats), Shane MacGowan (The Pogues), Van Morrison, Spider Stacey, Jem Finer (both Pogues), Noel Dorr, James Fearnley (The Pogues), Bob Geldof, Elvis Costello, Cait O’Riordan (Pogues, hidden) and Paul Brady (PA)
Fleadh/Shane MacGowan
Former Pogues member Shane MacGowan when he was part of his group The Popes, at the 10th annual Fleadh, in Finsbury Park, north London (Michael Walter/AP)

The Pogues were a new-wave Irish band but still used all the elements of trad music, including banjos, fiddles, an accordion and tin whistles with MacGowan’s voice and the band’s on-stage outfits all giving a Hibernian feel with lyrics drawing from Catholicism, pub culture and the struggles of the Irish at home or setting out to try and make a new life abroad in the UK or the new world.

Songs like If I Should Fall From Grace With God and The Sick Bed Of Cuchulainn (an Irish mythological warrior) also hinted at the issues that blighted MacGowan’s health whereas other tracks spoke of Irish working class life at dog racing tracks or at the pub.

The band also performed old favourite The Irish Rover with The Dubliners with MacGowan sharing vocals with the late Ronnie Drew in a tale of Irish builders sailing to New York to help build City Hall only for fate to intervene.

He also sang Dirty Old Town, a song written about Salford by MacColl’s father Ewan MacColl in 1949.

St. Patrick’s Day MacGowan
Shane MacGowan and the Popes performing on stage at the Olympia Theatre in Dublin (Hayden West/PA)
Shane MacGowan – St Patricks Day Concert – Belfast
Shane MacGowan of The Pogues, takes a refreshment break (Paul Faith/PA)
Shane MacGowan on stage during the 2010 NME Awards at the O2 Academy Brixton, London (Ian West/PA)
Shane MacGowan on stage during the 2010 NME Awards at the O2 Academy Brixton, London (Ian West/PA)
British Summertime Festival – London
Shane MacGowan lead singer of The Pogues as the band performs at the Barclaycard British Summer Time Festival in Hyde Park, London (Laura Lean/PA)
The Clash/ Documentary
Shane McGowan at the premiere of the BBC2 documentary Westway To The World in Notting Hill in London (Peter Jordan/PA)

MacGowan’s very evident health issues would mean anyone buying a ticket for a Pogues gig would be betting on him having a good day.

The band carried on without him at times and MacGowan performed for a while with another outfit, the Popes.

His most-widely known song was kept off the number one spot by The Pet Shop Boys’ cover of Always On My Mind back in 1987 but it is now hard to imagine a Christmas without it, whether with more toned-down lyrics or the no-holds-barred original version.

Johnny Depp with Shane MacGowan
Johnny Depp performed bass guitar for the Pogues during their performance on the BBC’s Top Of The Pops (Neil Munns/PA)
Pogues live at Brixton Academy – London
Shane MacGowan of the Pogues performs at Brixton Academy (Joel Ryan/PA)
Therese MacGowan funeral
Singer Shane MacGowan is helped from the church as the funeral of his mother Therese MacGowan, 87, at Our Lady of Lourdes Church, Silvermines County Tipperary (NIall Carson/PA)