The Boys in the NYPD Choir | JIM FURLONG

We all have a favourite Christmas song. Mine has always been Silent Night. My second favourite, though, isn’t Adeste Fideles or Little Town of Bethlehem. It certainly isn’t The Little Drummer Boy or even Royal David’s City. It is instead the dark and mournful Fairytale of New York. It is a song that speaks to loss and excess and broken relationships all played out in the shadow of Christmas and New York City. Shane McGowan, at the time the song was released, was the lead singer of The Pogues and the song struck a chord familiar in the hearts of all those who are of Irish descent (or at least wished they were). MacGowan is dead now and his death, at the age of 65, was pushed along by a taste for alcohol and drugs. He said his first drink was around the age of five. It is a minor miracle he lived as long as he did.

MacGowan was more Irish than the River Liffy that runs through the middle of Dublin in the Republic of Ireland, but he was actually born in Kent, England of Irish parents. Shane was the frontman and co-founder and chief songwriter of the Celtic punk band The Pogues. His songs were of Irish nationalism, Irish history and the Irish diaspora. There was often a hint of sadness to the music.

That is the way it is with the Irish. They were driven across the globe in the 19th century by a failed potato crop, and by poverty and the search for a better life. We know all about that in Newfoundland and many other places like Boston and New York. It was “the shanty Irish” that came here and made us who we are in many ways. One Irish eye is always cast to the past and the Irish know that if you live long enough eventually the world will break your heart.

Shane could have done better for sure. His appetites took him to difficult places where creativity was not easy, at least in terms of volume of finished product. He did give us Dirty Old Town, Rainy Night in Soho and a few more. The high-water mark for sure though was Fairytale of New York. It wasn’t written over night. There were several early versions and demos of it – each one better than the one before. The song did capture the loneliness of Christmas in a strange and distant land. The boys in the NYPD choir were singing Galway Bay. It is an economy of words that says so much to the Irish diaspora.

MacGowan and The Pogues eventually parted ways and went in different directions although they did reunite in latter years. Too many drunken appearances had taken their toll on Shane. He joined a new group, but his Pogues fame eluded him in later life although he remained an elder statesman of Celtic punk. He was much flawed as we all are, but you know his place in musical history is assured. A century from now Fairytale of New York will still be part of Christmas. He died at the age of 65, but it is not that he died young but that he managed to live as long as he did.

Wherever he was born, Shane MacGowan and his music will always be part of Ireland.

You can contact Jim Furlong at [email protected]