HOW THE IRISH BECAME THE POGUES

by Jack Hamilton

The Pogues

Last March I enjoyed the pleasure (and attendant hangover) of partaking in the annual ritual of alcoholic commerce that is St. Patrick’s Day in Boston.  Although I had grown up in the area, and in a decidedly Irish-American household at that, I had spent the past seven such holidays as a resident of New York City, and while St. Patrick is certainly heartily toasted in New York things haven’t reached the pathological extremes of Boston, where they’ve even gone so far as to cook up a bogus holiday in its honour.  After managing to find a bar which, while crowded, was thankfully free of either a gratuitous cover or any sort of neon leprechauns, my small group of friends and I settled in for an evening of friendly imbibing and spirited conversation, surely two of the more distinguished aspects of the Irish national character.  All night we listened to the Celtic-infused rock ‘n’ roll of the Pogues.  This was not by choice—the bar had no jukebox, merely a bartender’s iPod—yet the selection seemed so obvious that I doubt any objections were raised.  In fact, I doubt many objections were raised in any of the numerous bars throughout the city that most likely played a considerable dose of the Pogues on St. Patrick’s Day, or for that matter in any of the countless establishments around the world who presumably engage their patrons in similar entertainment come March 17.  As the old cliché goes, everyone becomes Irish on St. Patrick’s Day, and a good deal of those busying themselves with “becoming Irish” will find themselves at some point listening to the music of the Pogues.

The issue of how the Irish became the Pogues—or, for that matter, how the Pogues became Irish—is an interesting one that makes their emergence as progenitors of Irish authenticity all the more complex.  Outside of Dublin-born guitarist Phil Chevron, none of the members of the Pogues’ primary line up were Irish by birth: refugees of the dying British punk movement with an affinity for traditional Irish music, singer-songwriter Shane MacGowan¹, tin whistle player Spider Stacy and accordionist James Fearnley formed the Pogues in the early 1980s in North London.  Furthermore, while their music often proudly employs ‘trad’ instrumentation—whistles, pipes, banjo, accordion—the Pogues also prominently feature two crucial pieces you’d be loath to hear while trolling trad sessions in Galway or Cork: namely, an electric bass and drum kit.  Indeed, when one couples their rhythm section—clearly more schooled in American R&B and rockabilly than reels, jigs or hornpipes—with their ragged lead singer, the Pogues have always at their heart been a rock band, closer to the Clash than Turlough O’Carolan.  I bring up these points neither to challenge the Pogues’ claim to Irishness nor slander their authenticity, but rather to point out that the band represents a fascinating example of transnational mobility in which a British band aggressively appropriates Irish musical traditions, imbues them with a punk sensibility then exports the sound around the world, where the result is deemed ‘Irish’. Noel McLaughlin and Martin McLoone have argued that the Pogues’ musical hybridity speaks to diasporic qualities central to Irish cultural identity, noting that

“the Pogues address the Irish emigrant through song narratives that offer an ‘in-betweenness’”

While surely compelling, such an assessment fails to address the Pogues’ massive popularity in Ireland itself, where the band’s frequent touring and Republican political leanings have elevated MacGowan and company to folk-hero status.  It would seem that the Pogues’ greatest musical legacy lies not in their commitment to Celtic musical traditions but rather the affectionate and wilful dragging of these traditions into the foreboding present, and it is through this gesture that the Pogues most effectively lay their claim to a far more meaningful Irish tradition than the sort celebrated with green beer and shamrock tattoos.

Nowhere is this impulse so thoroughly manifested as in the complicated talents of Shane MacGowan.  A gifted melodist and the sort of writer that inspires websites devoted to interpretations of his lyrics, MacGowan holds a place among the finest rock songwriters of his generation.  As a singer MacGowan’s voice is tattered yet full of conviction, reminiscent of Seamus Heaney’s memorable writing that ‘the voice of sanity is growing hoarse’. Of course, it is also with MacGowan that the Pogues’ more problematic notions of Irishness are cultivated.  MacGowan’s infamous alcoholic tirades, run-ins with the law and glorification of the Irish Republican Army have surely re-inforced as many negative Irish stereotypes as his prodigious musical output and knack for verse have brought out positive ones.  While MacGowan has frequently drawn comparisons to the late Irish poet Brendan Behan (a comparison MacGowan himself invokes in the sublime ‘Streams of Whiskey’), there is another, albeit fictional, figure from Irish literature with whom MacGowan shares a resemblance: James Joyce’s Stephen Dedalus, the irascible protagonist of ‘Portrait of the Artist’ who must turn his back on Ireland in order escape the spiral of his homeland’s tormented past.  Whereas Stephen ultimately flees Ireland for Paris, MacGowan and the Pogues sought to flee London to a particular Ireland of their own imagining.  It is this Ireland, one that exists via North London and rock ‘n’ roll, that so many of us visit every St. Patrick’s Day, when the Pogues songs flow from jukeboxes like so many streams of whiskey and we all try a little too hard to become a little more Irish than we probably should.

¹ A common misconception is that Shane was born here but he was in fact born in the Premier County and moved to England as a child.

further reading: Noel McLaughlin and Martin McLoone, ‘Hybridity and National Musics: The Case of Irish Rock Music’ (Apr. 2000)

if you’re interested in The Pogues we have a stack of great articles on them:

‘From Oppression To Celebration- The Pogues And The Dropkick Murphys And Celtic Punk’ here 

‘A Wee Biography Of Shane MacGowan’  here 

‘The Pogues And Irish Cultural Continuity’  here

‘Film Review: If I Should Fall From Grace With God- The Shane MacGowan Story’  here

‘Book Review: Irish Blood, English Heart- Second Generation Irish Musicians In England’  here

‘Red Roses For Me And Me’  here

‘Film Review: I’m A Man You Don’t Meet Every Day’  here

‘Book Review: Rum, Sodomy And The Lash’ by Jeffrey T. Roesgen’  here

‘The Pogues On Mastermind- The Questions’  here

The Best Pogues Related Sites

In The Wake Of The Medusa  Paddy Rolling Stone  The Parting Glass  Pogues Facebook Page

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12 thoughts on “HOW THE IRISH BECAME THE POGUES

  1. Seafra O'Cearbhall August 31, 2017 at 6:33 pm Reply

    Some interesting points, except for the cringeful bizarre reference to the Pogues as a “British band”, and the little dig in reference to Shane’s ‘glorification of the Irish Republican Army’ as conforming to a “negative Irish stereotype” Why so? Maybes the writer would be more comfortable if Shane ‘glorified’ British or US Imperialist Armies? Ah well, the Pogues are for everyone and I guess everyone has their own particular take on it all…

    • Eddie Stevenson September 1, 2017 at 9:36 am Reply

      Great points Seafra. I think Americans don’t get that the Irish in England are not English-Irish we are just Irish (or add your city-Irish) whereas they are happy to be both American and Irish.

  2. Joe McCahill September 1, 2017 at 3:31 pm Reply

    As an Irish American I can say the rootless sometimes caricatured Irish identity that the pogues represent falls right in line with the reality of our cultural history and so fall in line with our idea of and love for the pogues. yes, were the most sincere and phonies people you’ll ever meet.

  3. Lubomir Daniel Ramone September 3, 2017 at 2:27 pm Reply

    Saw the pogues EVERY YEAR of my life since 85 (SHOTTS , Lanarkshire ) to 2009 ( Glasgow ) ….. MOST HONEST BAND EVER , EVER !! up there with the RAMONES , and the CLASH and miss JANIS JOPLIN !!! its like watching Celtic score against the huns every minute for two hours – TOTAL UNBRIDLED JOY AND HAPPINESS , , , PHILIP CHEVRON . R.I.P. + .

  4. Carlos September 3, 2017 at 3:13 pm Reply

    Reblogged this on Are we there yet? and commented:
    couldn’t agree more, a great read about the impact of The Pogues, one of my all time favourite bands in the world!

  5. Iain Anglin September 3, 2017 at 10:18 pm Reply

    A slight correction to the article if I may. Terry Woods was born in Dublin, Ireland. Shane MacGowan was born to Irish parents and spent his childhood growing up in Co. Tipperary. The Pogues were originally founded by Shane MacGowan, Spider Stacy, and Jem Finer.

  6. Jeremiah O'Sullivan September 4, 2017 at 11:57 am Reply

    I discovered the Pogues by accident. Their first St.Patrick’s in London was upstairs at the Claridon in Hammersmith. The following year; The Forum, Kentish Town. And many many nights at the Mean Fiddler. How I miss those days

    https://polldaddy.com/js/rating/rating.js

  7. Anatoliy September 4, 2017 at 12:15 pm Reply

    If this site is any indication, you don’t have to be Irish to play Irish music. That’s a testament to the global influence of Irish culture more than anything else. Something to be proud of, I’d say.

    As for the controversy surrounding The Pogues – well, we probably wouldn’t be here talking about them without it, now, would we?

  8. Ratón Macias September 4, 2017 at 5:23 pm Reply

    Was into punk from 79-81/2, then, while wandering in the musical desert for the next several years, listened to and taped a Celtic music show (Kevin with the Celtic Music Show on KSPC 88.7FM) among many genres…enjoyed very much.
    But then the first time I heard the Pogues on that college station, I literally pulled over and stopped the car, awestruck. Punk and Celtic?!
    Saw they had an upcoming show at the Hollywood Palace, drove up with an old punk friend (who couldn’t believe what he was hearing as I played Rum Sodomy & the Lash on the drive up), and saw one of the best, most insane shows of my life (that’s a lot of shows)…
    But it wasn’t over…some force led me to insist we hang around where they were loading out the equipment to see where the party was headed; kind of stupid and a long shot, but someone in the know said the band was heading back to the Hyatt on Sunset. Through perseverance (first knocking on the door of an 80s hairband’s post party–uh, nope), when we were about to give up and leave, we heard a commotion in the hotel bar…worth taking one last look. There was the entire band and Elvis Costello (fiancé of Cait) at 1:45am drinking Kir Royals(?!)–and NO one else!
    We drank with them past 2am (illegal in CA) with Shane bursting out in his guttural laugh and Spider accenting sentences with the tin whistle he pulled out of his blazer pocket every now and then.
    Waking up the next morning, groggy and hurt, I had to laugh…🍀

  9. Eddie Donovan September 4, 2017 at 8:50 pm Reply

    I have seen (or attempted to see them) about ten times, four of which Shane “could not perform”. They could break your heart in that regard but when they were on live, few bands could touch them. With Chevron’s passing not sure they will ever tour again, sadly. 😔

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