Irish music – indeed world music and Irish modern culture writ large – has lost two giants in the latter half of 2023. Shane MacGowan, songwriter, vocalist, as well as body and soul of seminal Irish punk rockers the Pogues passed away on Wednesday at the age of 65. His death comes almost four months to the day after that of his on again/off again friend Sinead O’Connor, among the most distinctive voices in Irish music.
There was an odd symmetry to their lives. MacGowan, who was born in England, died in Dublin. O’Connor, born in Dublin, died last July in England. Both were fiercely Irish, though they differed in their specific political opinions on many of the tactics used in the Irish struggles for independence. And both overcame enormous personal demons to create their art.
MacGowan’s alcohol abuse was the stuff of legends, and it was largely responsible for the break-up of the Pogues, one of the greatest rock bands of all-time. The fact that he was able to at least partially resurrect his career, initially with Shane MacGowan and the Popes, and eventually with a reunited Pogues, is a testament to his passion and his stubbornness.
O’Connor’s struggles with various mental health issues were well-documented, but she was every bit the stubborn fighter that MacGowan was. Her famous run-in with the Catholic church prompted Kris Kristofferson’s beautiful tribute "Sister Sinead."
Shane MacGowan and Sinead O'Connor will both be missed
“And maybe she’s crazy and maybe she ain’t – But so was Picasso and so were the saints.”
Sandra Mallon of the Irish Times noted how the friendship between the two singers was seriously challenged in 2000, when O’Connor, angry and frightened by MacGowan’s use of heroin, reported him to British authorities. It caused a rift, which would eventually be healed.
Before the 2000 incident, they recorded a song together. It was a beautiful love song called "Haunted," released on an expanded edition of MacGowan’s debut album with the Popes, The Snake. To the surprise of many, it was a great album, worthy of the Pogues. MacGowan could still write blistering rockers as well as anyone and also had the ability to mix in tender romances. "Haunted" was such a number. He wrote it back in the 1980s when he was composing music for the movie Sid and Nancy. But the duet with O’Connor would become the definitive version.
Michael H. Little, in his review of The Snake for The Vinyl District, noted how part of the vitality of Haunted grew out of the “Beauty and the Beast contrast” between the two voices – one pure, the other ragged. Both full of emotion.
MacGowan was one of the only writers who could have come up with “The first time I saw you standing in the street – You were so cool you could’ve put out Vietnam.” Hearing him sing it, it makes perfect sense.
Their voices come together on the chorus, repeating the phrase – “I want to be haunted by your ghost” over and over again. Now that they are both gone, it’s a desire a lot of their fans will no doubt have.
U2 probably would exist without the Pogues, but it’s doubtful that Flogging Molly or the Dropkick Murphys would have had the same success. In the same way, O’Connor helped make Alanis Morisette and PJ Harvey possible. Both voices had an outsized influence on Anglo-American music in the fertile period of the mid-1990s, and both were often overlooked because their tabloid personas got in the way of their artistry.
Now that both are gone, those tabloid headlines fade away and we are left with a wealth of great music. Give a listen to Haunted if you get a chance. It’s a nice way to remember two special voices.