The shock death of Dolores O’Riordan of The Cranberries earlier in the evening was emotionally acknowledged, with host John Kelly dedicating a performance of the ‘Broad Majestic Shannon’, by Cerys Matthews, to the late Limerick native.
But the tone was otherwise exuberant, if not rowdy.
Bono belted out ‘A Rainy Night In Soho’, while Nick Cave and Johnny Depp were among the other A-listers and kindred spirits lined up to honour MacGowan, the London-Irish maverick regarded as one of rock’s last true outlaws.
The night began with a punk sneer as a rocking supergroup including Blondie drummer Clem Burke, Sex Pistols bassist Glen Matlock, and Spider Stacy of The Pogues kicked up a ruckus.
"Come on — stand up!” yelled the leather-clad Jesse Malin, plunging into the crowd by way of encouraging the audience out of their seats.
“Everyone wanted to play this gig and everyone wanted to see this gig,” said MC Kelly, acknowledging the presence of President Michael D Higgins on the balcony. “It is a special night and a special talent.”
The capacity turnout was in a boisterous mood, spirits elevated by rafter-troubling outtakes from The Pogues catalogue, including ‘If I Should Fall From Grace With God’, delivered by Carl Barat of The Libertines.
It has been a time of anniversaries for the mercurial MacGowan. Last Christmas marked the 30th anniversary of ‘Fairytale of New York’, the iconic Pogues single.
“From ‘A Pair of Brown Eyes’ to ‘Fairytale of New York’, Shane MacGowan is widely recognised as a poet of modern music and one of the great international songwriters,”
the NCH had said, announcing the birthday event.
MacGowan’s life and career unquestionably merit celebration. Emerging from the late ’70s punk scene, The Pogues grafted the energy of punk to the melancholy of Irish traditional music. This brought immediate acclaim — while also making them figures of controversy, with some in Ireland accusing the group of pandering to outmoded stereotypes.
MacGowan was born in Kent to Irish parents and spent some of his early childhood in Tipperary — though he moved back to the UK aged six and was largely raised there.
He excelled as a student at private school and won a scholarship to prestigious Westminster School, from which he was expelled after being found in possession of drugs.
A concert by The Clash is the event he credits with turning him ontorock’nroll — and he soon formed his first band, The Nips.
With The Pogues, he looked to his Irish roots, name-checking the similarly hard-living Brendan Behan as an influence.
MacGowan suffered a shattered pelvis in 2015 when he fell leaving a recording studio in Dublin — after which he was required to use a wheelchair for some time.
Full-throated turns by Camille O’Sullivan, Damien Dempsey, and others ensured this was a party to remember.
Yet the most affecting moment was arguably Matthews’ keening revisiting of the ‘Mighty River Shannon’. “For Dolores,” she said quietly as applause swirled down.