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Rebel Yell

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Source: The Irish Post
Author: Johnny Rogan
Contributor: Roger Spratt
Copyright: (c) The Irish Post 1998

Shane MacGowan is profiled in the last of our seven-part series by Johnny Rogan on Irish singers/musicians who have helped shape British music.

In concluding this series, it is fitting that the final subject should be Shane MacGowan. The subtitle Dislocation & Celebration could have been invented for the man whose troubled Anglo-Irish history has inspired several indisputably great compositions and helped fashion an often self-destructive personality whose lifestyle and attitude bring to mind a cross between Brendan Behan and Johnny Rotten.

Unravelling Shane’s psyche would require a book-length study but the crux of his identity lies somewhere in that conflict between English experience and Irish heritage. The more you consider MacGowan’s remarkable early life, the deeper the mysteries become.

The importance of Shane in the history of popular music was underlined by the BBC’s excellent documentary, The Great Hunger, which paid tribute to his songwriting while trying to make sense of his life. As martinis flowed and MacGowan reflected on times past, fact and fiction intermingled in a strange fashion.

According to the programme Shane “was born on the banks of the Shannon in rural Ireland”. A few weeks ago in this very paper the singer voted 70th most influential Irish person of all time was said to have been “born in Tipperary”.

Either account might have disqualified him from this study of second- generation Irish, but the fact is that he was actually English-born. The public register confirms that Shane P.L. MacGowan was born in Tonbridge, Kent, on Christmas Day, 1957. “But I’m first-generation Irish,” MacGowan insists. “Tipperary is my home.”

Within months of his birth, his family returned to Tipperary where Shane spent his early childhood. It was here that he was exposed to traditional music. His mother Therese (née Cahill) was an accomplished singer and weekend sessions at the house, including set dancing, were commonplace.

“I’d be put on a table and told to sing,” MacGowan remembered. “My repertoire gradually increased. I did my first gig when I was three.”

While his contemporaries across the water grew up with pop radio and beat groups, Shane had a strong grounding in Irish folk, with a particular affection for The Dubliners. Who knows what might have happened if MacGowan had remained in rural Ireland but, in 1964, the family relocated to England. It was from this point onwards that Shane began to experience a sense of cultural dislocation.

In contrast to his idyllic early childhood, living in London brought problems. Both his parents and his sister Siobhan have admitted that they found it difficult to adjust to mainstream English life and were left feeling unhappy and lonely. Shane found the transition particularly traumatic. “We moved all the time,” he told me. “I never settled down. In my head it was a complete scramble. Completely confused. I didn’t know what I was doing there.”

MacGowan’s maladjustment was remarkably similar to the testimonies of Morrissey, Lydon and Rowland, who also seemed trapped between two cultures. In Shane’s case, the rift was greater as he had spent his infancy and early childhood in Ireland. An avid reader, he enjoyed Irish literature and subsequently won a scholarship to Westminster School.

This largely undocumented part of his life provokes more questions than answers. It is almost inconceivable to imagine MacGowan at one of Britain’s most famous and expensive public schools let alone imagine the effect it must have had on his psyche.

Did he once speak like Prince Charles? If not, how did he survive the ribbing from teachers and pupils? Was he bullied? Could he still relate to people on his street after spending all day surrounded by toffs? As the questions multiply, the vision of Shane at Westminster becomes even more incredible and disconcerting.

“My accent changed,” MacGowan admits. “There were a few others like me at Westminster. They let in a bit of rough now and then. I’d already had one huge culture shock coming over here, so I was getting used to culture shock. There were huge anti-Irish feelings at the time.”

According to MacGowan, he was expelled from this privileged bastion of the British establishment for various drugs dalliances. “The first drugs I took were at Westminster,” he stresses. At 17, he was hospitalised in order to kick valium and clean up. It was an horrific experience that left a lasting impression. Thereafter, he drifted into various jobs, a lost soul in Soho.

Already his life story was a tale of extraordinary extremes – a rural child relocated to the big city; an Irish working-class boy at a top British public school; a potential Oxbridge scholar whose specialist subject was drink and drugs. Trapped between so many conflicting roles and warring identities, it’s doubtful if MacGowan knew who he was during adolescence.

By 1976, however, MacGowan had become a minor celebrity on the London punk scene. Although he had yet to form a group, his speed-fuelled audience antics were often more memorable than the performances he witnessed.

It now seems incongruous to imagine the Republican Shane swanning around in a Union Jack suit but in wearing the uniform of the oppressor he was simultaneously shaming their flag.

In his new role as Shane O’Hooligan he summed up the cultural contradictions of an uprooted Irish sensibility transplanted into a harsh London setting. Significantly, it was the anarchic chaos of punk which provided him with an outlet for his creative energies and it was another Anglo-Irish icon, Johnny Rotten, that most attracted his attention.

In the grand DIY punk tradition, MacGowan went on to form his own group, The Nipple Erectors, later The Nips. When they split, he went back to pick-up jobs between periods on the dole and drank more than ever. He might have been forgotten as a footnote in the history of British punk but for his determination to pursue the Irish music that had characterised his childhood. After playing a provocative repertoire of rebel songs in London pubs, Pogue Mahone emerged in 1983. The following year they shortened their name to The Pogues after the BBC realised that their original title was Irish for “kiss my arse”.

Initially, the group was greeted with suspicion in Ireland, particularly among the more conservative members of the folk community. For the London-Irish, however, they represented a perfect fusion of old and new values – the longing for a lost Ireland combined with a punkish celebration of the present. In short, The Pogues were great craic and their live performances were among the most exciting spectacles of the period.

More important still was the revelation of Shane MacGowan as a songwriter of intelligence and distinction. Soon, he was receiving accolades from celebrated balladeers, including Christy Moore and Ronnie Drew, both of whom recorded his material and performed with him.

While the music press regaled their readership with lurid tales of Shane’s excesses, a solid and exemplary body of work was emerging. MacGowan translated traditional Irish folk for a new generation and revitalised the form in the process. Some of his most powerful songs have dealt with the plight of the Irish immigrant – the doomed rent boy in The Old Main Drag, the down and out fantasist in Fairytale Of New York and the chilling fate of the legally abused in Birmingham Six.

MacGowan’s own lifestyle has sometimes echoed that of his heroes and distracted from his considerable achievements. After five albums with The Pogues, his enduring hedonism finally prompted a parting of the ways in 1991. Thereafter, he was seen as a prime candidate for rock ‘n’ roll’s next casualty.

Many of his live shows with new backing group, The Popes, seemed shambolic but visit any Fleadh and the chances are MacGowan will still receive the biggest ovation of the day.

Hardline critics maintain that his best work is past – ignoring some of the great compositions that followed his departure from The Pogues such as The Song With No Name, Aisling and That Woman’s Got Me Drinking. As long as he continues to write and record, a high proportion of MacGowan classics lie waiting.

Whereas his contemporaneous Anglo-Irish singer-songwriters drew from the well of their Irish heritage, Shane MacGowan has used his country’s traditional music as the very lifeblood of his art.