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John Whelan: A fond farewell for Shane, a folk hero like no other from Soho to Shinrone

Shane MacGowan John Whelan

It was a rainy night in Dublin. We spilled out onto Dame Street. 

Oblivious of the spills of rain and spray from the passing traffic we were already soaked to the skin, from the inside out. Sweating. We were euphoric, emerging from the legendary Pogues Christmas gig at the Olympia. Memorable as always, for as much of it we could later recall.

Nell McCafferty, with her mad woolly head of hair, beaming smile, and like Shane always armed with a cigarette, was slagging the shite out of us. 

Hard men how are ye, youse are all Mammy’s boys at the back of it all, Mammy’s boys the lot of ye,” in her Derriest of accents.

That was Nell being nice, paying us a compliment. We were all a bit emotional for sure. She was referencing the closing song of the otherwise boisterous set.

Shane’s mother Therese had joined him for the duet on Fairytale of New York. She waltzed him in place of Kirsty.

The London-Irish outsider, the irreverent, rebellious, rabble-rousing punk, the mad hatter, shy boy Shane McGowan, whose heart and soul were back in Tipp, where his ashes will now be scattered along the banks of the broad majestic Shannon, was a Mammy’s boy at the back of it all. 

Nell knew. For MacGowan, Mother Mo Chroí, Mother Ireland, his own mother, and his mother’s peoples place in Tipperary were always guiding forces for Shane MacGowan.

So, it turns out was the Virgin Mary to who he had a devout devotion. Who knew? For MacGowan is only understood, if at all, if we dare to unconditionally embrace his many complexities and contradictions.

One cannot help but think that the man himself will be getting one last characteristic chuckle out of seeing everyone on their knees in St Mary’s of the Rosary Church on the Feast of the Immaculate Conception, to the strains of I’ll Take You Home Again Kathleen.

Poetic to the last, or poetic licence from a man who never flinched in favour of fashion, who could greet family, friend or foe and take them as he found them, frailties, flaws and all whatever the failings and fallibilities.

Picture: Alf Harvey

All week this unlikely folk hero, who was no pin-up, but our punk poet poster boy for a life lived to the last, on your own terms, has filled the front pages with eulogies and tributes.

Everyone wants one last snap with Shane, one last song from Shane. Pop stars, poets and presidents lining up to pay homage and join the great unwashed to say farewell; that they too were there the day Shane MacGowan was laid to rest.

It will be a wake like no other, for a folk hero like no other. There’s no doubt he must be breaking his arse laughing at the sight of a horse drawn hearse from Ballsbridge parading around Dublin before he brings everyone on a pilgrimage to Nenagh. His friend, undertaker and publican, Philly Ryan fulfilling his dying wishes.

And while MacGowan first cut his teeth (and most likely broke a few) in the manic moshing mayhem of the Soho punk scene, and the Pogues Christmas gigs at the Olympia are the stuff of legend, it was to Shinrone he came for his homecoming gigs. Just like when the Tuam shams, The Saw Doctors tog out in the Big Top in St Jarlath’s College or the Fisheries Field in Galway, the Pogues Shinrone shows were weeklong affairs now enshrined in folklore.

For the Shinrone gigs we have Tom Stapleton to thank. Another Tipp man to the core, Tom Stapleton and his wife Lucy, devoted their lives to promoting great performers, music and songs in the Pathe in Roscrea, at the Kilkeny Roots and in Shinrone.

It was on the day of one of these concerts, I think in 1989, as with so many things Pogues, much of it is a blur, that I first met Shane MacGowan. He was at the height of his powers, his musical prowess, the 80s his most prolific.

I was interviewing him for the Myles Dungan presented drivetime programme on RTE Radio, I think it was called 5-7 Live back then. In any event Shane seemed weary, certainly wary of someone he didn’t know, or trust.

In this case a journalist with a Marantz and a microphone. MacGowan wasn’t one to be pandering to the press.

I barely managed to squeeze three broadcast minutes out of it thanks to James Fearnley who was due to get married at the time to American girl, Danielle von Zerneck. We did a piece about the impending nuptials. Pógs all round.

For MacGowan he largely reserved what he had to say for his songs. After seeing him dozens of times since Shinrone he can often appear distant, disinterested, detached, disenchanted even, before he performs.

But once he steps out on that stage and take hold of that mic he’s a different man. With impeccable timing and delivery his snarling voice dominating the opening chords as he lights the fuse to the raucous revelry on the dancefloor, his frenzied fans mouthing the lyrics word for word.

This is no rehearsal; this is the real deal. There’ll be jostling and swinging and swilling and, in the age old tradition of the dancehalls in Camden or Kilburn, Shane will send them home sweatin’.

No doubt once the wake is over and as we won’t speak ill of the dead it will be a week at least before the revisionism and raking over the coals of MacGowan’s life and lifestyle begins.

We’re Irish, that’s what we do and the irony of it wouldn’t be lost on the bard himself. What is undisputable is the amazing body of work which runs deeper on every reading, mesmerising in its depth and range, poetry, which when set to music transforms into poetry in motion, irresistible in its insistence that we all get up and dance together in one brazen and bauld hooley, words set in song, more inebriating than the wine, and that’s without even mentioning his unlikely Christmas classic which is finally and deservedly making its way to number one as we speak.

A fitting epitaph and present for Shane who shares his birthday with none other than the Baby Jesus.

MacGowan is nothing if not full of contradictions, totally unpredictable. Like Kavanagh he could see the magnificence, the magic in the miserable and mundane and magnify, elevate it out of all proportion, with a killer line to turn the whole world on its head, us scratching our heads as to what did the poet have in mind.

Just when we thought we had mined and divined its meaning he was only leading us up the garden path and turns our world upside down, our emotions inside out… ‘I could have been someone. Well, so could anyone.’

MacGowan to my mind is not guilty as charged of romanticising the gargle and the ganja, but rather like fellow boozer Behan the lived experience. The fascinating and delicate frailty of the human condition itself in the fever pitch of the mosh pit of life, amid the mayhem where everyone is looking out for each other, rather than looking down or looking over their shoulder.

MacGowan was everyman, enunciating the empathy of the shared experience, while embedded in his Irishness, Irish roots, London-Irish upbringing, yet always held a universal resonance, not least for the outsider. We’ll drink to that.

One night the Shane MacGowan gig in the Black Box at the Galway Arts Festival had to be put back twice. The second delay from the scheduled start time so long that the organisers suggested people take a break from the venue.

If it was anyone else, there would have been uproar, but people just strolled into the city and had another drink. When MacGowan did finally grace the stage hours later and growled out the opening bars of Sally MacLennane he had the audience in the palm of his hand in dreamy delirious delight on the dancefloor.

Their love for him unconditional. When Shane was on stage, he was infallible and sung ex-cathedra to his fans. 

Round these parts we’re fortunate to be able to celebrate the life and work Shane MacGowan’s inter-generational talent in the company of such fans as James ‘Jazz’ McKeon who forged a friendship while on tour a long number of years ago.

Picture: Alf Harvey

Jazz has an encyclopaedic knowledge of the Pogue’s catalogue and a forensic insight into MacGowan’s lyrics which always makes for riveting and intriguing conversations, even more so now as family, friends and fans gather to say adieu.

Then there’s Brendan Fitzpatrick who has been a constant companion and Shane’s driver in recent years, affording us some rare and unique insights.

Then there’s Pogueology. The Brian O’ Mahoney fronted troupe of incredibly talented musicians are the finest tribute band in the world. The authenticity of the Pogues music and tradition will not be lost wherever they play.

Not even the great Joe Strummer could match Shane as the Pogues front man, but Pogueology are the closest you’re ever going to come now to the raw energy and excitement of a Pogues gig.

Brian O’Mahony leads Pogueology in The Old Fort Quarter Portlaoise hosted by Kavanagh’s Pub as part of their Festival of Gigs. Picture: Alf Harvey.

Pogueology don’t mime or mimic the songs, not for them sanitised cover versions but rather they, like their devoted audiences, are totally immersed in the essence and energy, heart, and soul of the Pogues music. Small wonder that their Christmas gigs in Ballintubbert House and in Kavanaghs, Portlaoise were completely sold out, well in advance, even before news of Shane’s passing filtered through last week.

While Shane MacGowan had the knack of infusing a richness and another dimension into traditional standards and even come all ye sing-a-longs, his abiding legacy are his lyrics and songbook.

Many are already classics, and his work is destined to join the great Irish folksong catalogue to be sung and relished, and in some cases slaughtered for generations to come. Shane will live on in his lyrics and music, of that there is no doubt. 

Shane Patrick Lysaght MacGowan, songwriter, punk, poet, prodigy and prodigal son, December 25th, 1957 – November 30th, 2023.

Codladh sámh buachaill ón Eirne. May you rest in peace Shane.

  SEE ALSO – Check out more of John Whelan’s work here