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Shane MacGowan, fast-living, hard-drinking lead singer of Irish folk punk band the Pogues – obituary

MacGowan, at 19, when editor of punk rock magazine Bondage, in 1977
MacGowan at 19, when editor of punk rock magazine Bondage, in 1977 - Sydney O'Meara/Getty Images

Shane MacGowan, who has died aged 65, was the truculent, hard-living lead singer of the Pogues; he was revered as much for his excessive alcohol consumption as for his dark, unsparing but lyrical vision of Irish life.

His growling vocals, drawled through crooked, rotten teeth, explored the dark side of the Irish diaspora. His front teeth, a girlfriend claimed, were lost when he ate a copy of the Beach Boys’ Greatest Hits Volume 3 while under the influence of LSD. In October 2006, another two bit the dust when he fell over a wall in Ireland, having got out of a car to be sick.

MacGowan enlivened traditional Irish song with punk-rock attitude, stirring up the stagnant cultural backwater of folk music and inspiring a new generation of Irish musicians to experiment with new musical styles. But the English-born ex-public schoolboy, who became the epitome of the proud, working-class Irishman, diluted his songwriting genius in gallons of Guinness, whiskey and Martini.

Shane MacGowan performing in 1999 at Finsbury Park, London
MacGowan in 1999 at Finsbury Park, London - Redferns

Shane Patrick Lysaght MacGowan was born to Irish parents – but, to his chagrin, in England, at Pembury in Kent – on Christmas Day 1957. His father, Maurice, worked in a department store, while his mother, Therese, was a singer and traditional dancer who had been a model in Dublin.

At three months, he was taken to his mother’s family home in Tipperary while his parents worked in England. He was brought up by his Auntie Nora, who introduced him at an early age to the seminal influences of drink, cigarettes, religion and the Irish Sweepstake. Auntie Nora, he later claimed, turned him into “a religious maniac and a total hedonist”, condemning him to swing between piety and sin for the rest of his life.

When he was six, MacGowan’s Irish idyll ended when he was sent to join his parents in London. He described the years that followed as “a miserable, stinking, boring, useless waste of time”.

MacGowan’s father was a heavy drinker and his mother, who was working as a typist, was often confined to bed with arthritis and depression, forcing their son to take care of himself and his younger sister, Siobhan. At the age of eight, MacGowan was introduced to Powers’ whiskey and by the time he was 14, he was rarely spending a day sober.

With Kirsty MacColl in 1987, the year of the Pogues's Christmas hit Fairytale of New York
With Kirsty MacColl in 1987, the year of the Pogues's Christmas hit Fairytale of New York - Tim Roney/Getty Images

He attended Holmewood House prep school, near Tunbridge Wells, then won a scholarship to Westminster School. His prep school headmaster, Robert Bairamian, recalled: “He was very unusual indeed, one of the most unusual personalities I’ve ever, ever met. I thought he would end up in the drama scene. At Westminster School, they asked whether I’d written his English paper. They said they’d never seen anything like this before.”

He spent only a year at Westminster, however, before being expelled for drug use. He then worked illegally as a shelf-filler, warehouseman, maintenance man at the Indian embassy and, inevitably, as a barman. At 17, he had a drink- and drug-induced mental breakdown and was admitted to a psychiatric hospital for six months. He was diagnosed with acute situational anxiety, which he blamed on living in London.

MacGowan found his musical vocation while working another odd job, at a record shop, where he discovered the shocking new sound of punk rock. He flung himself headlong into London’s emerging punk scene, and in 1976 a picture appeared in a paper of him pouring with blood after his ear was bitten at a gig, He struck up friendships with the Sex Pistols and the Clash and sang (as Shane O’Hooligan) with his own band, the Nipple Erectors (later shortened to the Nips), who supported the Jam and the Clash.

He met Spider Stacy at a Ramones gig and performed occasionally with Stacy’s band, the Millwall Chainsaws, who renamed themselves the New Republicans. They played a gig as part of Richard Strange’s Cabaret Futura, but their Irish rebel songs went largely unappreciated: the audience began pelting them with chips, so the management pulled the plug on them.

MacGowan also played in another band with Jem Finer, and the pair began rehearsing his songs together; at one point they applied to busk in Covent Garden but were turned down. They were joined by Stacy and the former Nips guitarist, James Fearnley.

Searching for a name, Stacey came up with Pogue Mahone (“kiss my a---” in Gaelic); they played their first gig in October 1982, and were soon joined by Cait O’Riordan on bass. In 1984, the band released their first single, The Dark Streets of London. Their name was diplomatically shortened when David “Kid” Jensen began calling them the Pogues on his radio show after being told that he was saying “kiss my a---” on live radio.

Performing with Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds in Kentish Town, London, 1992
Performing with Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds in Kentish Town, London, 1992 - Redferns

Their first album, Red Roses for Me, angered purists who accused them of debasing Irish music. But by injecting it with punkish verve and irreverence, they brought it to a new audience and inspired an Irish musical renaissance.

MacGowan was the principal lyricist on the Pogues’ two best albums, Rum, Sodomy and the Lash in 1985 (the title was Sir Winston Churchill’s succinct summary of life in the Navy) and If I Should Fall From Grace With God (1987), which included the chart-topping Christmas song, Fairy Tale of New York, a duet with Kirsty MacColl, which has become a standard performed wherever the Irish gather around the world.

Despite their recording success, the Pogues remained a quintessentially live band and MacGowan’s captivating drunken, fumbling, onstage antics became legendary. But by the late 1980s he had begun to suffer from his excesses. In 1988, he collapsed in Heathrow Airport and missed the first 10 days of a US tour.

He began to forget lyrics on stage, would vomit profusely and had difficulty locating the microphone. Rumours circulated that he had six months to live, had 25 per cent of his liver left and lived on a pure alcohol drip. At the height of speculation, a book appeared entitled Is Shane MacGowan Still Alive?

Tensions within the band peaked in 1991 during a tour of Japan. A sake binge left MacGowan incapable of singing, and after he fell out of the tour bus, damaging his already ravaged face, he was sacked. For the next year, he recuperated in a Martello Tower in Bray, a guest of its owner, U2’s lead singer, Bono. He also travelled, spending long periods in Thailand, Portugal and Spain.

In 1994, MacGowan formed the Popes, whose first two albums, The Snake (1994) and The Crock of Gold (1997), were moderately successful. MacGowan, made several attempts to tackle his addictions, becoming a regular at the Priory clinic in London and the Dublin drying-out home, St John of God.

He continued, however, to take heavy doses of prescription tranquillisers and drink whole pints of Martini. In 1999, his fellow singer, Sinead O’Connor, reported him to the police after finding him in a heroin-induced coma. He claimed he was resting on his sofa, drinking gin and tonic, and no charges were brought.

With his friend Johnny Depp, who made a guest appearance on MacGowan's first solo album, The Snake, in 1994
With his friend Johnny Depp, who made a guest appearance on MacGowan's first solo album, The Snake, in 1994 - MIrrorpix

By the end of the 1990s, MacGowan’s musical gifts seemed to have been eclipsed by his alcohol-saturated reputation. He felt ill at ease in the new, economically prosperous Ireland, which was at odds with the booze and bonhomie of his songs. He became a nostalgic figure, the last link in Ireland’s history of drunken bards, his distinctive voice drowned out by the roar of the “Celtic Tiger”.

In 2001, however, the Pogues reformed, staying together until 2014; the following year, MacGowan, asked if they were still together, replied, “We’re not, no ... we grew to hate each other all over again... We’re friends as long as we don’t tour together.”

In 2015, MacGowan fell as he was leaving a Dublin studio and broke his pelvis, putting him in a wheelchair. That year he had his teeth fixed – including, at his insistence, one gold tooth. The dentist who undertook the Herculean task described the course of treatment as “the Everest of dentistry”. The following year he announced that he had finally given up drinking.

In 2009, with his long-term girlfriend, the journalist Victoria Mary Clarke
In 2009, with his long-term girlfriend, the journalist Victoria Mary Clarke - Lee Carter/Avalon/Getty Images

In 1999, MacGowan had published Poguetry, his collected lyrics, and in 2001 a memoir, A Drink With Shane MacGowan, written with his long-term girlfriend, the journalist and writer Victoria Mary Clarke, They eventually married in 2018 in a ceremony at Copenhagen City Hall at which his friend Johnny Depp played guitar.

MacGowan’s 60th birthday was celebrated at the National Concert Hall in Dublin, where he was presented with a Lifetime Achievement Award by the Irish president Michael Higgins. In 2020 Depp made an appearance in Julien Temple’s documentary, Crock of Gold: A Few Rounds with Shane MacGowan, which also featured Gerry Adams and Tony Blair.

Shane MacGowan is survived by his wife Victoria. They had no children, though he is believed to have fathered several with other women, though he never knew how many.

Shane MacGowan, born December 25 1957, death announced November 30 2023