Shane MacGowan, the legendary leader of The Pogues, dies at 65

Shane MacGowan, the legendary leader of The Pogues, dies at 65
Shane MacGowan - Getty Images

Shane MacGowan, the celebrated singer-songwriter and frontman of The Pogues, the band that pioneered the genre of “Celtic Punk” and gave the world the Christmas classic “Fairytale of New York,” passed away on Thursday, according to his family. He was 65 years old.

“We are heartbroken and devastated to announce the death of our most beautiful, darling and dearly beloved Shane MacGowan,” his wife Victoria Clarke, his sister Siobhan and father Maurice said in a statement.

They said the singer died peacefully with his loved ones by his side.

MacGowan had been in a Dublin hospital for several months after being diagnosed with viral encephalitis, a brain inflammation, in late 2022. He was discharged last week, just before his birthday on Christmas Day.

MacGowan and The Pogues created a distinctive and intoxicating sound by combining Irish traditional music and rock’n’roll, with MacGowan’s raspy voice and poetic lyrics as the focal point. His songs ranged from rowdy anthems to gritty portraits of life on the margins to surprisingly tender love songs. The band’s most famous song, “Fairytale of New York,” is a bittersweet duet between two lovers that starts with the memorable line: “It was Christmas Eve, babe, in the drunk tank.”

Many people in Ireland paid tribute to MacGowan, including Sinn Fein president Mary Lou McDonald.

“Shane was a poet, a dreamer and a champion of social justice,” McDonald said. “He told the Irish story like no one else — stories of emigration, heartache, dislocation, redemption, love and joy.”

MacGowan was born on Christmas Day 1957 in England to Irish parents. He spent his early years in rural Ireland before the family moved back to London. Ireland remained the lifelong source of his inspiration and his longing. He grew up immersed in Irish music learned from family and neighbors, as well as the sounds of rock, Motown, reggae and jazz.

He attended the prestigious Westminster School in London, but was expelled, and spent time in a psychiatric hospital after a breakdown in his teens.

MacGowan joined the punk movement that erupted in Britain in the mid-1970s. He formed a band called the Nipple Erectors, performing under the name Shane O’Hooligan, before founding The Pogues with musicians such as Jem Finer and Spider Stacey.

The Pogues — a shortened version of the original name Pogue Mahone, a vulgar Irish expression — blended punk’s fiery energy with traditional Irish tunes and instruments such as banjo, tin whistle and accordion.

“I never thought you could play Irish music to a rock audience,” MacGowan said in “A Drink with Shane MacGowan,” a 2001 memoir co-written with Clarke. “Then it finally clicked. Start a London Irish band playing Irish music with a rock and roll beat. The original idea was just to rock up old ones but then I started writing.”

Shane MacGowan
Shane MacGowan – Getty Images

The band’s debut album, “Red Roses for Me,” came out in 1984 and featured lively versions of Irish folk songs along with originals such as “Boys from the County Hell,” “Dark Streets of London” and “Streams of Whisky.”

MacGowan penned many of the songs on the next two albums, “Rum, Sodomy and the Lash” (1985) and “If I Should Fall from Grace with God” (1988), from upbeat numbers like the latter album’s title track to ballads such as “A Pair of Brown Eyes” and “The Broad Majestic Shannon.”

The band also released a 1986 EP, “Poguetry in Motion,” which included two of MacGowan’s finest songs, “A Rainy Night in Soho” and “The Body of an American.” The latter was featured prominently in the early-2000s TV series “The Wire,” sung at the funerals of Baltimore police officers.

“I wanted to make pure music that could be from any time, to make time irrelevant, to make generations and decades irrelevant,” he said in his memoir.

The Pogues reached the peak of their fame, with packed shows and appearances on U.S. television, but the band’s performance and consistency declined, partly due to MacGowan’s issues with alcohol and drugs. He was dismissed by the other band members in 1991.

He formed a new band, Shane MacGowan and the Popes, before rejoining The Pogues in 2001 for a number of concerts and tours.

MacGowan suffered from health problems for years and used a wheelchair after fracturing his pelvis a decade ago. He was well known for his damaged, decayed teeth until getting a complete set of implants in 2015 from a dental surgeon who called the procedure “the Everest of dentistry.”

MacGowan was honored with a lifetime achievement award from Irish President Michael D. Higgins on his 60th birthday. The event was celebrated with a tribute concert at the National Concert Hall in Dublin with performers such as Bono, Nick Cave, Sinead O’Connor and Johnny Depp.

Clarke posted on Instagram that “there’s no way to describe the loss that I am feeling and the longing for just one more of his smiles that lit up my world.”

“I am blessed beyond words to have met him and to have loved him and to have been so endlessly and unconditionally loved by him and to have had so many years of life and love and joy and fun and laughter and so many adventures,” she wrote.