Shane MacGowan: Irish Music’s Beautifully Messy Soul

The front man of the Pogues, who was born on Christmas Day in England, captured the essence of Irish culture for listeners worldwide while firmly pushing Irish music into the future. music icon MacGowan.

When I was a child,

in the days before streaming services, whenever we were in the car, my dad insisted on playing oldies stations. At that time, it drove me crazy, but later I realized he had given me a great gift: an easy and profound knowledge of every fundamental hit in rock and roll.

So, when I became a father myself—late in life, some might say, at the age of 45—I spent some time pondering what kind of music I could introduce to my daughter. They say the songs you play for children in their early years stay with them for life, so it felt like an important choice.

Being a bit rebellious, I chose two poignant, angry protest songs to include in the repertoire of more traditional lullabies: Bob Dylan’s “The Times They Are A-Changin'” and The Pogues’ “Navigator.” I assume you already know everything there is to know about these classics, so I won’t say much except that it still gives me a rebellious thrill to sing lines like “Mothers and fathers of the country, come / And don’t criticize” to a child who will be 25 years old in the year I turn 70.

But you might not be familiar with “Navigator,” and since the main figure of The Pogues, Shane Shane MacGowan, passed away at the age of 65 after a life filled with terrifying beauty, I feel like this might be my only chance to discuss it in the public domain.

MacGowan didn’t write the song

—it’s the handiwork of Philip Chevron, who managed MacGowan’s first band, The Nips—but his vocals infuse it with a powerful blend of mournful sorrow, righteous anger, and triumphant revenge, perhaps with a glimpse of how envy might have struck us. It’s a song about navvies, or in short, sailors: wandering laborers, many of them Irish, who undertook cruel, painful, sometimes deadly work in the construction of the famous railways of 19th-century Great Britain.

I won’t go into too much detail. You see how this concludes.. You see how it ends. The entrepreneur has been forgotten for a long time. The empires built on cheap transportation of goods to far-flung places have been torn apart by popular revolutions worldwide. But what those anonymous laborers created—the railway itself—endures. So, we must remember who built it, how, and at what cost. We should reflect on what is still being created in this crazy world today, by whom, in what unjust circumstances, yet still holds true beauty and value, offering us a real opportunity to rise above our current circumstances.

I believe people with Irish backgrounds like us occasionally find themselves in a good position to remind others of such things. At the very least, we can remind ourselves.

Anyway, you might still want to call me for hair security services, and if so, that’s fine. But let’s talk about the late, great Shane MacGowan.

In a way, it’s remarkable that he lived for such a long time. Twenty years ago, a documentary crew captured his father saying, “His mind was very sharp. There are still a few million brain cells left.” The phrase “a few million” stuck with me, and frankly, in the end, it was probably a more accurate match. But in recent years, he also cleaned up his act, and it was illness, not ongoing substance abuse, that took his life.

Speaking of his Irishness, it’s amusing to note that MacGowan was born in England—Kent, to be precise—on Christmas Day in 1957. However, his parents were Irish, and he incorporated traditional music into his heritage as a musician. Punk energy in a vibrant dose. In his worst state, he was falling into addiction, heroin (a drug Sinéad O’Connor openly assisted him in kicking), so severe that The Pogues, founded by him in 1982, ousted him a decade later. (He rejoined the band in 2001 and performed with them until 2014.)

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