Shane MacGowan, the boozy, rabble-rousing singer and chief songwriter of The Pogues, who infused traditional Irish music with the energy and spirit of punk, died Thursday, his family said. He was 65.
MacGowan’s songwriting and persona made him an iconic figure in contemporary Irish culture, and some of his compositions have become classics — most notably the bittersweet Christmas ballad “Fairytale of New York,” which Irish President Michael D. Higgins said “will be listened to every Christmas for the next century or more.”
“It is with the deepest sorrow and heaviest of hearts that we announce the passing of our most beautiful, darling and dearly beloved Shane MacGowan,” his wife Victoria Clarke, his sister Siobhan and father Maurice said in a statement.
The singer died peacefully with his family by his side, the statement added.
The musician had been hospitalized in Dublin for several months after being diagnosed with viral encephalitis in late 2022. He was discharged last week, ahead of his upcoming birthday on Christmas Day.
The Pogues melded Irish folk and rock ‘n’ roll into a unique, intoxicating blend, though MacGowan became as famous for his sozzled, slurred performances as for his powerful songwriting.
His songs blended the scabrous and the sentimental, ranging from carousing anthems to snapshots of life in the gutter to unexpectedly tender love songs. The Pogues’ most famous song, “Fairytale of New York” is a tale of down-on-their-luck immigrant lovers that opens with the decidedly unfestive words: “It was Christmas Eve, babe, in the drunk tank.” The duet between the raspy-voiced MacGowan and the velvet tones of the late Kirsty MacColl is by far the most beloved Pogues song in both Ireland and the U.K.
Singer-songwriter Nick Cave called Shane MacGowan “a true friend and the greatest songwriter of his generation.”
Higgins, the Irish president, said “his songs capture within them, as Shane would put it, the measure of our dreams.”
“His words have connected Irish people all over the globe to their culture and history, encompassing so many human emotions in the most poetic of ways,” Higgins said.
Irish Prime Minister Leo Varadkar said MacGowan’s songs “beautifully captured the Irish experience, especially the experience of being Irish abroad.”
Sinn Fein President Mary Lou McDonald said: “Nobody told the Irish story like Shane — stories of emigration, heartache, dislocation, redemption, love and joy.”
Born on Christmas Day 1957 in England to Irish parents, MacGowan spent his early years in rural Ireland before the family moved back to London. Ireland remained the lifelong center of his imagination and his yearning. He grew up steeped in Irish music absorbed from family and neighbors, along with the sounds of rock, Motown, reggae and jazz.
He attended the elite Westminster School in London, from which he was expelled, and spent time in a psychiatric hospital after a breakdown in his teens.
MacGowan embraced the punk scene that exploded in Britain in the mid-1970s. He joined a band called the Nipple Erectors, performing under the name Shane O’Hooligan, before forming The Pogues alongside musicians including Jem Finer and Spider Stacey.
The Pogues — shortened from the original name Pogue Mahone, a rude Irish phrase — fused punk’s furious energy with traditional Irish melodies and instruments including banjo, tin whistle and accordion.
“It never occurred to me that you could play Irish music to a rock audience,” MacGowan recalled in “A Drink with Shane MacGowan,” a 2001 memoir co-authored 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.”
The band’s first album, “Red Roses for Me,” was released in 1984 and featured raucous versions of Irish folk songs alongside originals including “Boys from the County Hell,” “Dark Streets of London” and “Streams of Whisky.”
Playing pubs and clubs in London and beyond, the band earned a loyal following and praise from music critics and fellow musicians from Bono to Bob Dylan.
MacGowan wrote 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), ranging from rollicking rousers like the latter album’s title track to ballads like “A Pair of Brown Eyes” and “The Broad Majestic Shannon.”
The band also released a 1986 EP, “Poguetry in Motion,” which contained two of MacGowan’s finest songs, “A Rainy Night in Soho” and “The Body of an American.” The latter featured prominently in early-2000s TV series “The Wire,” sung at the wakes 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 recalled in his memoir.
The Pogues were briefly on top of the world, with sold-out tours and appearances on U.S. television, but the band’s output and appearances grew more erratic, due in part to MacGowan’s struggles with alcohol and drugs. He was fired by the other band members in 1991 after they became fed up with a string of no-shows, including when The Pogues were opening for Dylan. The band briefly replaced MacGowan with Clash frontman Joe Strummer before breaking up.
MacGowan performed with a new band, Shane MacGowan and the Popes, with whom he put out two albums: “The Snake” in 1995 and “The Crock Of Gold” in 1997. He reunited with The Pogues in 2001 for a series of concerts and tours, despite his well-documented problems with drinking and performances that regularly included slurred lyrics and at least one fall on stage.
MacGowan had years of health problems and used a wheelchair after breaking his pelvis a decade ago. He was long famous for his broken, rotten teeth until receiving a full set of implants in 2015 from a dental surgeon who described the procedure as “the Everest of dentistry.”
MacGowan received a lifetime achievement award from the Irish president on his 60th birthday. The occasion was marked with a celebratory concert at the National Concert Hall in Dublin with performers including Bono, Nick Cave, Sinead O’Connor and Johnny Depp.
Clarke wrote 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.