Shane MacGowan, in 1995 (Niels van Iperen/Getty Images)

December 1, 2023   3 mins

One Christmas on the train home to see my parents, Shane MacGowan was on the same carriage. The children in the carriage were drawn to him like he was Santa Claus, and they broke out into excited giggling every time they heard his peculiar wheezing laugh. It struck me at the time that children instinctually trusted the authentic good nature behind his ragged and rough persona.

More than any artist I can think of, MacGowan captured the feeling of being carried away by all the dangerously beautiful emotions unlocked by alcohol. In his slurring raspy voice, he sang words of unguarded romantic devotion (“You’re the measure of my dreams”) and described a world animated by the drunken imagination (“the wind was gently laughing”).

The Pogues somehow succeeded in blending Irish traditional and rebel music with punk. Watch old footage, and you can still see that their concerts were attended by an unlikely combination of innocent-looking Irish country people and rowdy urban punks. The songs were full of raucousness, mischievous fun, wild misadventures, comedy, regret, pining and romance. Every year, “Fairytale Of New York” still overshadows all other Christmas songs: “It was Christmas Eve babe, in the drunk tank. An old man said to me, ‘won’t see another one’.” The magic of the song is that it undercuts the saccharine sentimentality of most festive fare, only to become the most sentimental and romantic of all Christmas songs: “Can’t make it all alone, I’ve built my dreams around you.”

Shane could only have been London-Irish. Through him a peasant folk tradition was reimagined with a fresh semi-outsider’s perspective in a modern, urban, countercultural form. He saw the potential in things that could have otherwise been dismissed as the old and the stagnant among the young Irish-Irish. The threads of cultural history that he brought together through the power of imagination spoke to new types of people all over the world.

He performed with Nick Cave, Joe Strummer and The Dubliners. Elvis Costello produced Rum Sodomy And The Lash. His most famous duet was with Kirsty MacColl, and he made famous her father Ewan MacColl’s song about Salford, “Dirty Old Town”. He popularised history that his audience was too young to remember, like the devastating depiction of war in the ballad about the Gallipoli campaign, “And the Band Played Waltzing Matilda”. In one of its most memorable and emotional scenes, The Wire featured “Body Of An American” and introduced a whole new American generation to The Pogues.

Ireland has no long and continuous native national aristocratic tradition from which to draw inspiration, so an authentic expression has to be very modern — like James Joyce or folk like Luke Kelly, or a combination of the two. Shane was the archetypal poet of low birth, dwelling in an underclass but with an aristocratic sense of valuing the non-commercial things like life, like leisure and self-reflection. He once said: “The most important thing to remember about drunks is that drunks are far more intelligent than non-drunks — they spend a lot of time talking in pubs, unlike workaholics who concentrate on their careers and ambitions, who never develop their higher spiritual values, who never explore the insides of their head like a drunk does.”

There couldn’t really be a Shane MacGowan today. In the age of ubiquitous video content, you just can’t have teeth like that anymore. With his heavy smoking, his drop-out indifference to respectability, status or even basic self-preservation, we won’t be seeing men like him again. The internet age has created a culture of self-improvement, risk-aversion, neurotic fad diets, biohacking life extension and vain reputation management. Even those not prone to such excesses exist in a top-down “nudged” culture of safety. Have we become too cautious to make great music? We hope not, but it’s definitely not going to be anything like The Pogues.

Sinéad O’Connor, his admiring collaborator, has died. Now Shane has died. The Irish diasporic consciousness he put into musical form is fast fading away. Nothing lasts forever, except through art.

Angela Nagle is a writer and author of the book Kill All Normies.