Remembering Shane MacGowan, the Gorgeously Messy Soul of Irish Music

Remembering Shane MacGowan, the Gorgeously Messy Soul of Irish Music

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Remembering Shane MacGowan, the Gorgeously Messy Soul of Irish Music
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When I was a kid, in those days before streaming services, my dad would insist on playing the oldies station every time we were in the car. At the time, it drove me nuts, but later I realized he had given me a great gift: an effortless and intimate knowledge of every foundational hit of the rock-and-roll canon.

So when I became a dad myself—belatedly, one might say, at age 45—I spent some time thinking about what kinds of music I could inflict on my daughter. They say the songs you introduce to a child as a baby stay with them for the rest of their lives, so it felt like an important choice.

Being half-crazy, I chose two prickly, angry rebel songs to include among the more customary bedtime tunes: Bob Dylan’s “The Times They Are A-Changin’” and the Pogues’ “Navigator.” You already know all about the former, I assume, so I won’t say much about it except to mention that it still gives me a contrarian thrill to sing lines like “Come, mothers and fathers throughout the land / And don’t criticize what you can’t understand / Your sons and your daughters are beyond your command / Your old road is rapidly aging” to a child who will turn 25 the year I turn 70.

But you may not be familiar with the song “Navigator,” and since Shane MacGowan, the Pogues front man, has just died at age 65 after a life overflowing with terrible beauty, I think this might be my only chance to sneak a discussion of it into the public sphere.

MacGowan didn’t write the song—it’s the handiwork of Philip Gaston, who managed MacGowan’s first band, the Nips—but his vocals infuse it with a potent blend of elegiac sorrow, righteous rage, and triumphant vindication, with maybe a dash of how-did-we-miss-this envy. It’s a song about navigators, or “navvies” for short: itinerant laborers, many of them Irish, who did the brutal, bruising, sometimes fatal hands-on work of building Great Britain’s celebrated railroads in the 19th century.

Here’s the first verse:

The canals and the bridges, the embankments and cuts
They blasted and dug with their sweat and their guts
They never drank water but whisky by pints
And the shanty towns rang with their songs and their fights

You can see right away what a weird dad I am. Who sings this to a baby? But I had my reasons. At a time when way too many Irish Americans have signed up for the MAGA crusade against immigrants, and even Ireland itself is being convulsed by riots against transplants from elsewhere in the EU, I wanted my kid to know, deep in her bones, that our ancestors were the nameless people doing thankless, unforgiving work for an empire that was indifferent at best to their welfare, and that such people, whatever their background, wherever they may be, will always be our people.

And if those people don’t always observe the finer points of decorum, well, neither did we.

In the second verse, we learn more about the hell these workers went through:

They died in their hundreds with no sign to mark where
Save the brass in the pocket of the entrepreneur
By landslide and rock blast, they got buried so deep
That in death if not life they’ll have peace while they sleep



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Remembering Shane MacGowan, the Gorgeously Messy Soul of Irish Music

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