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Thursday 7 December 2023 Dublin: 11°C
Shane MacGowan belts out Fairytale of New York

Column I found the heart of Ireland in the Fairytale of New York

Englishwoman Sarah Franklin had heard the classic Pogues song many times – but she had never truly experienced its magic until she saw it performed by a club full of emotional Irish people at Christmas.

I’VE ALWAYS BEEN a sucker for those ‘you couldn’t make it up’ moments. We all know these; the stuff that you would dismiss in a movie for being too unrealistic, like the brothers named ‘Winner’ and ‘Loser’ (yes, really).

At a conference in Anchorage one February, I became entranced by an old man in a coat made from a bear he’d shot and killed himself. The man wasn’t that entrancing, still less, let’s face it, was the fact that he’d shot the bear. It was more that, well, how often in your life are you ever going to meet a bear hunter, let alone one dressed for the sub-zero temperatures in a little number he’d skinned himself? Even at the time I knew this was a one-off experience. I’m likely to die never having stroked a bear-coat again, but I’m comfortable in that knowledge.

Two Christmases ago, living in Dublin, I had a similar experience. Don’t worry, nobody had skinned anything. There was a fair amount of bare skin, admittedly, but no bearskins. I discovered that the Irish national anthem is, in fact, this song:

(the inclusion of Matt Dillon in the video is, quite frankly, the final cork popping on Christmas) Video via RhinoUK/

I was in a cheesy club with some of my favourite people on this tiny island. It was the early hours and, as the Irish say in a gloriously euphemistic manner, there had been drink taken. In other words, the entire place was full of rat-arsed Irishfolk holding each other up as they brought the place down. Right towards the end of the night, on came the Pogues (not literally, though that would have been an even better story). Every. Single. Person. in the room suddenly pulled themselves together, stood upright as if at Mass, and burst into pitch-perfect, declamatory, Shane-McGowan-style-swaying song.

As a foreigner, it felt a bit like being shot. The sheer unexpectedness of it; the soundwaves resonating like shockwaves. You could virtually taste the words in the air, so thick it was with their syllables. Every line, every phrase hung there in the smoke-dense room, particles almost visibly woven into the overall smog and lifting it up, transforming this from any-other-evening-down-the-pub to oh-my-God-it’s-Christmas-and-we’re-the-happiest-funniest-luckiest-folk-on-earth-sure-we-are.

Let’s be clear here. It’s not as if I haven’t heard this song before. It would be nigh-on impossible to find anyone between the age of 15 and 50 who couldn’t give you at least the ‘I could have been someone/Well, so could anyone’ call-and-answer in their most soulful warble. As iconic Christmas songs go, it’s right up there in the dubious company of So Here it is, Merry Christmas and Do They Know It’s Christmas? Where it differs, though, is that it’s actually good, reversing the usual trend of Christmas records being a bit rubbish, really.

What made this particular night ‘in the drunk tank’ special for me wasn’t that it was the first time I’d ever heard the song. It wasn’t the first Christmas I’d spent on Irish soil. But it was the first time I’d witnessed what’s apparently perfectly common practice in Ireland; a room of people rising as one and belting it out as if Christmas depended on it. If Richard Curtis had been on hand, he’d have instantly added the scene into the director’s cut of Love Actually. I couldn’t tell you if there was snow floating gently past the windowpanes, illuminated softly by the glow of a Victorian street lamp – it was a cheesy club, remember, the windows were obscured by tinsel and fake mistletoe – but it felt like there should be.

It felt, to be corny about it, like the inside of a hug. And when people ask me what I liked most about living in Ireland, and I fail, so often, to properly articulate it, I give them this story. This, this was something that couldn’t happen anywhere else. This is the heart of Ireland, right here in the fairytale.

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