SHANE MACGOWAN was a punk with the soul of a poet, who fired up Irish music with manic London energy and gave Britain our most beloved Christmas song.

The former Pogues frontman, who has died aged 65, once said his themes were: “God. The Devil. Drink. Life. Death. How funny it all is, and how sad.”

His 1987 masterpiece Fairytale of New York embraced all those subjects at once.

A track about that seems to be about drunks slinging insults at each other, with the least festive lyrics in history (“You scumbag, you maggot”) somehow resolves itself into a Christmas love song that still makes people cry.

It has rocketed back into the Top 20 every December since 2005, and in 2012 was voted the nation’s favourite Christmas song of all time.

Meanwhile, Shane became one of our favourite characters.



Shane MacGowan's wife & family pay emotional tribute after star's death


A look at the life and sad passing of The Pogues star Shane

His teeth, which his dentist once described as “the stuff of legends”,  became a national obsession.

When he finally got them fixed in 2015 they were the subject of an entire documentary on Sky Arts.

Then there was his laugh, likened to “the flush of a portable toilet”.

Most of all, there was his incredible ability to stay alive, despite the obvious ravages of his alcohol and drugs, including heroin.

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His imminent death was first reported back in 1988, when he was 31.

Once, in front of his landlady, he was so high on acid he started eating a copy of The Beach Boys’ greatest hits album.

On another occasion he told a young Kylie Minogue: “F*** off!”.

He was wild, but somehow never frightening – there was always a vulnerability.

And of course there were also those songs, of love, exile and yearning, like A Rainy Night In Soho or A Pair of Brown Eyes.

There were also those of protest, like Streets of Sorrow/Birmingham Six.


Few songwriters of either rock or traditional Irish ballads have ever managed to merge so beautifully literature and music, the two great strands of Irish identity.

And that was Shane’s identity, although he was born and raised in England.

His heart was in his parents’ homeland, and in his London accent often insisted: “I’m completely Irish.”

Ireland loved him too: there he was hailed as a literary giant as well as a musical one.

Shane usually reacted in self-defence to this praise: “I just feel awkward and embarrassed, so I have a drink.”

Shane Patrick Lysaght MacGowan was born on Christmas Day 1957 in the village of Pembury, Kent.

His parents had only recently emigrated, after his Dubliner father Maurice landed a management job at clothing chain C&A.

His mother Therese grew up in a remote part of Tipperary, in a farmhouse where singing and dancing sessions often went on for entire weekends.  

Young Shane spent all his holidays there:  “I did my first gig when I was three, on the kitchen table.”

His parents were also big readers, and he read whatever they were reading: by 12, he had polished off James Joyce’s heavyweight Ulysses.

Teachers at his posh prep school near Tunbridge Wells, Kent, were wowed by his own writing. His English teacher called him “brilliant”.

Then aged 13 he won a scholarship to the even posher Westminster School in London, when his family moved to a flat in the city’s new Barbican complex.

Shane later claimed the headmaster was “on my back from the start because I was Irish.”

After just a year, the long-haired teen was expelled for his part in a school drug-buying ring.

It comes as…

  • Legendary singer Shane MacGowan has died age 65
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  •  Fans have shared their heartbreak for the loss of the Irish frontman
  •  Last ever pic of the Pogues icon revealed

And he began to spend more and more time drifting around Soho’s “pimps, whores and junkies”.

In a 2020 documentary he revealed to long-time friend, Hollywood star Johnny Depp, that he even earned cash as a rent boy.

But he added: “Just hand jobs. It was a job in hand.” Then came that laugh: “Hcccccch!”

In 1975, when he was 17, his family committed him to London’s Bethlem psychiatric hospital for six months.

After his release, the first gig he attended featured the Sex Pistols as a support act: “And that’s when I saw God.”

He recalled years later: “The punk thing f***ing changed my life. It didn’t matter that I was ugly. Nothing mattered.”

In October that year he had his first brush with notoriety when he was photographed at a punk show, one sticky-out ear gushing with blood where a fellow fan had bit it.

The headline in music mag NME was: “Cannibalism at Clash gig”.

He began calling himself Shane O’Hooligan and joined punk band The Nipple Erectors – later The Nips – as frontman in 1977.

It fizzled out in 1980, but by the following year he had the idea that would change music and his life.

He still loved the traditional Irish songs he had grown up with, and wondered what they would sound like if they were played with the energy of punk.

He gathered a group of musician friends and tried it out.

A friend said of their first gig in the spring of 1981: “You did know you were watching something extraordinary.”

By the following year, the group had the name Pogue Mahone, from the Irish phrase “póg mo thóin”, meaning “kiss my arse”.

But after they began to get radio play, a BBC Scotland producer alerted his bosses to the translation.

So as Shane later explained: “We just changed to The Pogues and got on with it.”

Soon he was writing his own songs, to add to their repertoire of ballads and old rebel tunes.

It was the height of the Troubles, with IRA bombs going off around England.

Irish people in London, even second-generation ones, lived in an atmosphere of suspicion and abuse.

Shane put their experience as “Paddys” into words.

The band’s biggest success came in 1987, with Fairytale of New York.

Shane co-wrote the music with the group’s banjo player Jem Finer, but the lyrics were his own.

It took him two years to get them right, by which time bassist Cait O’Riordan, who he planned to sing the duet with, had left the band.

So their new producer Steve Lillywhite suggested his wife, singer-songwriter Kirsty MacColl.

Shane had already recorded his own part, so Kirsty recorded the female part at home.

When Steve played him the result the next day, Shane said: “I have to sing the part again.”

Kirsty had just taken the song into a different league, and he knew he had to try to reach her heights.

By the end of the recording session Shane was lying in a pool of vomit on the studio floor, and The Pogues had a masterpiece.

However, it only reached No2 in the UK, kept off 1987’s Christmas top spot by the Pet Shop Boys’ cover of Always On My Mind.

Meanwhile Shane, 30, had fallen in love with Irish writer and journalist Victoria Mary Clarke, nine years his junior.

Apart from a break of around seven years, they would be together for rest of his life. They finally married in November 2018.

The break was caused by the drug use that spun out of control after the success of Fairytale of New York.

She later said: “It was very scary. It was hell on earth.”

He was also downing a bottle and a half of gin a day, and missing shows, wandering off halfway to hit the bar, or singing a different song to the rest of the band.

Finally, during a tour of Japan in the summer of 1991, the other members sacked him.


He retaliated with a new group in 1992, Shane MacGowan and the Popes.

He also collaborated with other musicians including Sinéad O’Connor, who recorded single Haunted with him in 1995.

She later recalled: “Shane was nodding out on smack in between the verses.”

In November 1999 she ended up calling police on him: he went to rehab and managed to kick heroin by 2002.

However, he remained a heavy drinker.

The Pogues asked him to return to the band in 2001, and he stayed until the band’s break up in 2014.

But he never again hit the song-writing heights of the group’s early years.

And he was haunted by the horrific death of duet partner Kirsty MacColl, mowed down by a powerboat while swimming in December 2000, aged 41.

He said of his best-loved song: “Basically I stopped singing it when Kirsty went.”

Shane broke his pelvis in a 2015 fall in Dublin, where he and Victoria eventually moved.

He was confined to a wheelchair for the rest of his life, and in December 2022 he was hospitalised with encephalitis, which causes swelling to the brain.

By July 2023 he was still there, in intensive care.

Shane, who never had children, once admitted: “I have lived a totally irresponsible existence.”

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But he also insisted: “I’m just following the Irish tradition of songwriting, the Irish way of life, the human way of life.

“Cram as much pleasure into life, and rail against the pain you have to suffer as a result.”

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