The Pogues vocalist and songwriter Shane MacGowan has died, aged 65

Singer and musician Shane MacGowan, of the Pogues, at the family home in Nenagh, Tipperary, Ireland, 1997. MacGowan's parents moved back to Ireland in 1988 after thirty years in England, where Shane was born and grew up
(Image credit: Martyn Goodacre/Getty Images)

Shane MacGowen, one of Irish music's most iconic musicians, has passed away in Dublin at the age of 65 after a long illness. The Pogues singer-songwriter, guitar, banjo and bodhrán player is most famous for his co-written Christmas song A Fairytale Of New York, a duet with the late Kirsty MacColl, but leaves a legacy of songs, legendary shows and punk rock spirit that will cement his status as a key figure in Anglo-Irish music.

MacGowen was born to Irish immigrant parents in near Tunbridge Wells on Christmas Day, 1957. Raised in a musical family and learned the songs of his heritage from a young age, making his debut performance as a singer on a kitchen table at three years old. Despite growing up in England, he would spend his school holidays on his grandparents’ farm in Tipperary.

His flair for writing, and trouble, were evident early on. He received a scholarship to Westminster school for his literary skills but was expelled in his second year, aged 14, for selling drugs. His struggles with mental health were evident from a young age and he would spend his 18th birthday at a psychiatric hospital during a six-month stay following a breakdown. MacGowan would suffer the effects of anxiety throughout his life but in music, he would find a channel for artistic expression. 

In the wave of punk, he formed his band the Nipple Erectors, performing under the name Shane O’Hooligan, the band recorded a Paul Weller-produced demo for Polydor in 1980 before a live album that year for Soho Records. The band would later perform a 2008 reunion gig at London's 100 Club under their later name The Nips. 

By 1982 MacGowan had broken away to form another band, Pogue Mahone (a take on the Gaelic póg mo thóin for 'Kidd my arse). They would change their name to The Pogues and their fierce live reputation and drinking in London would become the stuff of legend. Often overshadowing their gifts for nuance and MacGowan's lyrical prowess. 

"I miss the early days of the Pogues. That was a lot of fun,” he reflected in a particularly difficult interview with The Guardian in 2022. 

Writing from the perspective of being from Irish descent and living in London, he celebrated the culture of his parents' homeland, with guitarist Spider Stacy bringing the punk element to MacGowan's traditional Irish influences. 

Despite being at their commercial peak at the time after five albums, the singer was sacked in 1991 for his increasing unreliability, forming the Popes the following year. MacGowan recorded two albums with them before before reuniting with The Pogues in 2001 as a live entity only and splitting again in 2014.

"I've done a hell of a lot of touring. I've had enough of it," the singer reflected to Vice magazine in 2015. Nevertheless, he would play live again as recently as 2019 as a guest with The Pretenders at their Dublin RDS Arena show. In December of that year he made his last TV appearance on a special episode of Ireland's Late Late Show, performing a number of songs, including Fairytale Of New York. 

By then he was using a wheelchair following a 2015 fall that left him with a broken pelvis. More recently, he revealed in early 2022 that he had been diagnosed with viral encephalitis and hospitalised at St Vincent's in Dublin, before being discharged last week.

His wife and partner of over three decades Victoria Mary Clarke, shared the following tribute in the wake of MacGowan's passing.

"I don't know how to say this so I am just going to say it,"' Victoria wrote. "Shane who will always be the light that I hold before me and the measure of my dreams and the love of my life and the most beautiful soul and beautiful angel and the sun and the moon and the start and end of everything that I hold dear has gone to be with Jesus and Mary and his beautiful mother Therese.

"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."

Rob Laing
Guitars Editor, MusicRadar

I'm the Guitars Editor for MusicRadar, handling news, reviews, features, tuition, advice for the strings side of the site and everything in between. Before MusicRadar I worked on guitar magazines for 15 years, including Editor of Total Guitar in the UK. When I'm not rejigging pedalboards I'm usually thinking about rejigging pedalboards.