Writing exclusively for the Irish Examiner, Shane MacGowan recalls the festive seasons of his childhood in Tipperary and London.
IN The Commons, which is my family home in Tipperary, every fucking night was like Christmas, except Christmas itself, which was pretty dull in comparison. It was a party house, there was singing and dancing and drinking and gambling every night of the week.
I was born on Christmas Day, which is a good thing because it means I never have to have a birthday party. My Ma would always impress upon the family that it was my birthday as well as Christmas Day, And they would sing Happy Birthday and blow out candles. It was very embarrassing because I don’t like being the centre of attention, even though I am a lead singer.
The idea for The Pogues was that Spider and Cait would be the sex symbols and do all the centre stage stuff. And in The Nips, I was originally meant to be the guitar player, but we couldn’t get a decent singer so I ended up being the bloody singer and as you can see, I turned out to be a hell of an act, a really amazing front man.
So I didn’t have birthday parties often. And I’m not into getting presents. When I was a kid nobody had any money so people gave what they could, people just had a Mass said for you or gave you a pair of socks.
I always felt that it was more important that it was Jesus’s birthday than that it was my birthday. And in Ireland in those days Christmas wasn’t celebrated the way it is now, Easter was the big thing. There are so many more important things in Christ’s life than Christmas. In England, the kids were always on about Christmas presents without ever mentioning Christ, and they didn’t really celebrate Easter.
Christmas was supposed to be one of the days where you couldn’t get a drink but you could always get a drink when I was a kid. We used to get pissed as rats on Christmas Eve. I used to bring out the “it’s my birthday” card on Christmas Eve, so people would buy me drinks.
And then on Christmas Day we would just booze at home, but there would always be hotels and bars where you could get a drink. They’d be crammed. It was in the days when Irish people just didn’t obey the law. In fact making things illegal was a way of making them more popular.
The English kids got a lot of presents at Christmas, presents that we couldn’t afford, but they got sick of their presents after a couple of weeks. My parents were doing the best they could to get me stuff too.
Television had just come in, we didn’t have it in Ireland yet, but it came in in England, so I used to see it. There was this programme called Fireball XL5 about a spaceship. It had a robot on it called Robert the Robot and a character called Steve Zodiac. Everybody had Steve Zodiac dolls, so I wanted one, but I only wanted one because everybody else had one.
My mother used to ask me if I wanted something special, like a Christmas and birthday present. I got a Scalectrix when I was about ten. My Dad wanted one as well. And I eventually got my own record player which I had to share with my Dad. I didn’t play with toys much, I was more into records and reading and drinking with the adults.
For me, the lead up to Christmas was the fun part. I liked getting the advent calendar. My parents were always really good about giving me sick notes to lob off the last or first two weeks of a term so I could go back to Ireland.
We had good times in England too; we would all go out to a Bernie Inn where you could gamble on the one-arm bandit. My sister was always a brilliant gambler because she’s psychic, which came from the O’Flahertys, which is my great grandmother’s family. But the Lynches were very psychic as well. That was my mother’s side. Actually most people were psychic in Ireland at the time.
My Dad had loads of great Irish party games which were generally to do with cards and stuff. Really brilliant games. You didn’t have to buy a kit, all you needed was a packet of cards, and a keen imagination.
We did get a Christmas tree, and I remember it was always a big hassle, getting the tree. My Ma used to decorate it. She wanted us to be middle class. She persuaded me to take up golfing by saying she would have a round herself. So one day we went and had two rounds of golf, two holes each, and got so bored we went back to the bar. But if you were Irish you couldn’t become middle class in England, even if your father had a middle-class job. You were still scum, as far as they were concerned. But I was always taught to be proud to be Irish, never take any crap for being Irish.
I always thought that Midnight Mass was the best thing about Christmas, because it’s a wonderful ceremony, it’s so mystical, and in Ireland they still used to say it in Irish when I was very young.
They had Midnight Mass in England too; the English Catholics are very Catholic. The Irish Catholics were as well, you didn’t have all this crap that you have nowadays where people are all cynical.
WE generally had goose at Christmas, that was the traditional dish. I never liked mince pies and I didn’t like plum pudding either; I do like Christmas cake, but I have never been a big eater, unlike my girlfriend Victoria who never stops eating. I am actually writing a book called My Life Watching My Girlfriend Eat.
I don’t like most of the Christmas songs, but I have always loved carol singing and I used to do it for money when I was a kid. I love ‘Away In A Manger’ and ‘Come All Ye Faithful’, although I hate ‘Silent Night’.
Carol singing was the part of Christmas that I loved because it involved religion, and religion is fun, at least I have always found it fun. This myth about Catholic guilt is such a load of crap! You’re absolved immediately you’ve committed a sin, and anyway drinking, taking drugs, gambling, none of them are sins.
Given that I don’t particularly like Christmas songs — I don’t even like ‘White Christmas’ — it is strange that I ended up writing ‘A Fairytale of New York’, a Christmas song that gets played every year. I am grateful that people like it so much, I’m very grateful to Christ and his Holy Mother and Joseph and all the saints, including my family, that have passed on. And I was very grateful to Kirsty MacColl. It would never have been such a big hit without her contribution.
For me, ‘Fairytale’ will always be a tribute to Kirsty.
* Shane MacGowan was born on Christmas Day, 1957. He spent his early childhood in Tipperary, and returned there often after his family returned to England.
A masterwork in all its shabby glory
SOMETHING strange and wonderful happened shortly before Christmas 1987 — London-Irish cult heroes, The Pogues, released ‘Fairytale of New York’.
There had been some half-decent Christmas songs — John Lennon’s ‘Happy Xmas (War Is Over)’, Jona Lewie’s ‘Stop the Cavalry’, and David Bowie’s improbable duet with Bing Crosby on ‘The Little Drummer Boy/Peace On Earth’ were about the best of them — but no one had ever before released a track that so encapsulated the joys and sorrows of the season.
Certainly, no one had ever thought to set a Christmas song in the drunk tank in a New York City police station. Nor had it occurred to anyone that such a track might describe an unholy row between a couple of lushes, in this case voiced by Shane MacGowan and the late Kirsty MacColl.
Fairytale was a tragic romance like no other. When MacGowan recalled how “the boys of the NYPD choir were singing Galway Bay”, no one minded at all that no such choir existed — the image of New York’s finest belting out an Irish emigration ballad is too beautiful to be tarnished by anything as mundane as factuality.
The Pogues had already clocked up some almighty singles. MacGowan’s ‘A Pair of Brown Eyes’ in ’84 and ‘Sally MacLennane’ in ’85. A cover of Ewan MacColl’s ‘Dirty Old Town’, again in ’85. ‘Haunted’ in ’86. And early in 1987, a collaboration with The Dubliners on ‘The Irish Rover’. But ‘Fairytale of New York’ is their masterwork, staggering around each year in all its shabby glory, always assured of its place as the life and soul of the party.
Nollaig Shona daoibh.
- Marc O’Sullivan, Arts Editor
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