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Shane MacGowan performing at the Brixton Academy London, England - 18.12.08. Alamy Stock Photo
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Tony Duffin Shane MacGowan was more than a Fairytale…

Following the passing of Shane MacGowan, Tony Duffin reflects on the impact of Shane’s work on him in London during the 1980’s.

LAST UPDATE | Nov 30th 2023, 11:55 PM

SHANE MACGOWAN, WAS well known as the male singer in the duet ‘Fairytale of New York’ alongside Kirsty MacColl (RIP). Released in 1987, Shane co-wrote the song with Jem Finer and it is now so popular I can see how some people could be forgiven for thinking that it’s all Shane is known for.

However, Shane MacGowan was many things to many people. I want to tell you what he meant to me way back in 1980s London.

1980s

The UK in the 80s, under Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher’s Conservative government, faced economic recession and social unrest. Implementing divisive policies affecting industries like coal mining, Thatcher’s confrontational style was prominent in domestic policies and during the Falklands War.

legendary-irish-rockstar-singersongwriter-frontman-for-the-pogues-the-popes-shane-macgowan-pictured-drinking-and-smoking-at-his-favourite-london-pub-filthy-macnastys-islington-1994 MacGowan in his favourite London pub, Filthy MacNasty’s, Islington 1994. Alamy Stock Photo Alamy Stock Photo

“The Troubles” in Northern Ireland were marked by increased violence and political tensions, with Margaret Thatcher taking a hardline stance against the IRA and Irish nationalism — leading to heightened security and further polarisation in Northern Ireland.

At the same time, the Irish diaspora in the UK experienced discrimination and exclusion amid these political tensions.

Members of the generation above me have said to me that London was good to them, but the ’50s, ’60s, ’70s and ’80s weren’t easy times to be Irish in the UK. However, in those decades, the Irish diaspora in the UK fostered strong Irish communities and cultural preservation.

1982

In 1982 The Pogues, initially named Pogue Mahone, were founded by Shane MacGowan and others in King’s Cross, London. They were an English and Irish Celtic punk band that fused mostly Irish trad music with the band members’ extensive punk pedigree.

Also, in 1982 I was 12 years old, second-generation Irish and living in South East London — many of my friends were just like me in this regard and, whether we knew it or not, we were looking for our scene.

showbiz-pogues London, 2005. Alamy Stock Photo Alamy Stock Photo

Whilst MTV had debuted on 1 August 1981 most of what was aired seemed far removed and out of touch with my reality… I wasn’t really into it. I was into my tunes though and the place to hear new music was on the radio — specifically listening to John Peel’s show and Janice Long’s show which aired from December 1982. It was around this time, via the radio, that I would’ve first heard The Pogues.

I’d missed the punk years, but here was something that fused punk, London and Ireland. I was hooked by the Pogues’ punk ethic and Shane’s lyrics of a street life narrative that humanised people. These were the people living on the streets that I saw on a daily basis in my late teens — the ones around Soho and its surrounds on the street drinking, using drugs, begging, people who engaged in sex work, etc.

The songs Shane MacGowan wrote in the 1980s had an impact on me in my teenage years and started me on a path that would lead me to work with many people on the streets of Soho, Brixton, Victoria and other areas of London in the 1990s.

1986

Throughout the 1980s The Pogues were an unbelievably energetic live band and, from St Patrick’s Day 1986 onwards, I could be found ‘up the front’ at many a Pogues’ gig. Shane was a great frontman and when he would leave the stage for a song or two mid-gig the crowd would call his name, again and again, in between the songs until he stepped back on stage — even if it was the mighty Joe Strummer that had come onstage… as he often did. No one could replace Shane at the helm of the Pogues!

129File Photo Shane McGowan Has Died_90694248 Shane MacGowan with Victoria Mary Clarke in Dublin, 2007.

I was lucky enough to be at Shane’s 60th Celebration at the National Concert Hall in Dublin on 15 January 2018. With President Michael D. Higgins tapping away to Shane’s songs — the range and diversity of stars that sang and/or played that night was mind-boggling.

The line up on the night included Sinéad O’Connor, Johnny Depp, Bono, Nick Cave, Bobby Gillespie, Glen Hansard, Carl Barat, Lisa O’Neill, Finbar Furey, Imelda May, Glen Matlock, Cáit O’Riordan, Spider Stacy, Jem Finer, Terry Woods and many more. However, the real stars of the evening were Shane’s lyrics.

the-london-based-celtic-punk-folk-band-the-pogues-performs-a-live-concert-at-the-main-stage-at-the-barclaycard-british-summer-time-festival-2014-at-hyde-park-london-uk-05-07-2014 The Pogues perform a live concert at the main stage at the Barclaycard British Summer Time festival 2014 at Hyde Park. Alamy Stock Photo Alamy Stock Photo

That night Lankum covered the song ‘The Old Main Drag’. In it, Shane’s lyrics give an accurate depiction of a life lived on the streets of London — sex work, begging, drug use, violence, chaos, disease and death.

In the 80s I had a morbid fascination with this lyrical insight into another world outside of my own narrow experience at home and in school. Ultimately, my love of Shane’s lyrics and witnessing the growing problem of street homelessness in London city centre in the late 1980s, led me to work in homeless services and drug services.

I am sorry to hear that Shane has passed away, but I am grateful for this opportunity to reflect on how important he was to me personally and professionally.

As Shane once wrote:

“Fare thee well, going away, there’s nothing left to say…”

Tony Duffin is the CEO of Ana Liffey Drug Project, an Irish NGO. First established in 1982, Ana Liffey Drug Project offers services to people who use drugs in the Dublin and the Midwest Region of the country.

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