The funeral of Shane MacGowan, frontman of The Pogues, was held December 8 at the Saint Mary of the Rosary Church in the small town of Nenagh in County Tipperary – 100 miles west from Dublin. The beloved singer died on November 30, at age 65, from complications of pneumonia. His wife and sister were by his side. Prayers and the last rites were read during his passing.
The funeral procession began earlier on the day of the funeral with a two-mile trek through the center of Dublin.
His passing was sad, but not-surprising, news to fans around the globe. Spotlighted during this season of the year, listeners are able to hear his unlikely holiday hit played on the radio. “Fairytale of New York” opens with the unforgettable lines: “It was Christmas Eve babe/In the drunk tank/An old man said to me, won’t see another one.”
Like so many other American fans, I watched his funeral online.
The church in Nenagh was filled with luminaries including Irish President Michael D. Higgins, former Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adams, Game Of Thrones actor Aidan Gillen, and actor Johnny Depp (a pallbearer).
The music was spot-on. At various times in the service, Nick Cave performed “Rainy Night in Soho,” Imelda May sang “You’re the One” with Declan O’Rourke and Liam Ó Maonlaí, the Hothouse Flowers frontman. Cait O’Riordan, The Pogues bassist, and musician, John Francis Flynn delivered “I’m a Man You Don’t Meet Every Day,” recorded by the band in 1985.
An audiotape recording of Bono reading from 1 Corinthians 13:11-13 (The Message) for the occasion was played during the service. Verse 12: “We don’t yet see things clearly. We’re squinting in a fog, peering through a mist. But it won’t be long before the weather clears and the sun shines bright! We’ll see it all then, see it all as clearly as God sees us, knowing him directly just as he knows us!”
Waltzing in church. Only moments after celebrating communion, some mourners unconventionally jumped the front pew and joyfully waltzed in the church as Glen Hansard and Lisa O’Neill performed a rousing version of the 1987 hit “Fairytale of New York.”
Shane’s sister, Siobhan, delivered a eulogy after the joyfully raucous performance. With a grin, she said, “Wow, I think Shane would have enjoyed that.”
In her remarks, she observed, “Shane absorbed the magical mayhem of this place, and along with the musical talents of his mother, the literary leanings of his father, and their enduring love for their son, it would be the greatest influence on his life.”
Celebrating his many passions, Victoria Mary Clarke, MacGowan’s wife introduced items that were very special to her husband: a Led Zeppelin II album, another by the Pogues, a Tipparany flag (representing his mother’s childhood home where MacGowan’s sister Siobhan said he found “his spiritual home”), a Bodhran drum, a Gaelic Athletic Association (GAA) Shannon Rovers jersey, a hurling stick, and a silver tray that fellow band member “Spider [Stacy] bashed over his heading during a Pogues gig.”
There was also small statue of Mary, the mother of Jesus. “He had a small statue of Our Lady on his hospital tray and if anyone tried to obscure it, he would say, ‘You’re blocking the Madonna, You’re blocking the Madonna,’” recalled Clarke.
Busted for Holy Communion. During her eulogy, Victoria spoke forthrightly about Shane’s experimentation with a wide assortment of drugs. This was held in tension, she noted, with the fact that he also had an insatiable religious hunger.
“I think music, in a way, was like God to Shane – and John Coltrane and various other musicians. … He was intensely religious. We all know that about him … Shane got an actual physical visceral buzz out of the Holy Communion – which was almost as good as a drug for him. He just loved it. He absolutely loved it.” She told the story of a priest who visited them at the hospital and was horrified to discover that Shane had been receiving Holy Communion every day. “Where does he get it?” the priest asked incredulously as he confiscated the communion elements.
“I thought he must be the only man in the world who’s been busted for Holy Communion,” remarked Victoria.
Shane was “grateful for the gift of life every morning. When he woke up, he gave thanks and prayed to God for giving him another day. And he also prayed for people – all kinds of people – all the time, every day, all day.” She continued, “His devotion was very beautiful – but it was also very radical.” Victoria noted that he read deeply on most of the other world religions. “He distilled the essence of that into love I mean he just loved humanity and he believed that God is love and ultimately God is compassion and God is forgiveness.”
“I guess you know he always wore a crucifix and he always had a bunch of scapulars [similar to a religious woolen cloth necklace] and sometimes he had so many religious medals and scapulars that they turned into this kind of a mess around his neck,” she reported. “It was like this big BLOB of metals and scapulars. I think he was trying to convey to people that there is something in this stuff. You know, there’s something in Jesus that’s worth thinking about, it’s worth valuing, it’s worth exploring. That Jesus is real. That Jesus is a real force. And love is real and it transcends all barriers of race, class, you know, nationality – any of that stuff. It’s just everything. Love is everything.”
Book of Revelation. Through the haze of life, the legendary singer’s faith ran deep. “Shane had a wide interest in so many things, in life generally and in religion, definitely,” said Dave Coon, MacGowan’s father-in-law, earlier in the service.
“The book of the New Testament that he favored was the Book of Revelation,” Coon reported. “Fascinated by its magic and by its mystery and also by the symbolism in it – that ran through it – but also the amazing imagery in the book. That influenced him a lot and this imagery – sometimes very colorful, very beautiful, and sometimes very disturbing and even quite terrible.” Mr Coon went on to read a selection from Revelation.
Death is Not the End. Soft-spoken and welcoming, Father Pat Gilbert delivered a most-memorable and fitting homily. What follows is his heart-warming message:
“Shane participated in Nick Cave’s rendition of the Dylan classic ‘Death is Not the End.’
‘For the tree of life is growing
How the spirit never dies
And the bright light of salvation shines
In dark and empty skies
Not the end, not the end,
Just remember that death is not the end.
Not the end, not the end
Just remember that death is not the end.’
“I grew up listening to the music of [Thin] Lizzy, the Horslips, the [Boomtown] Rats, the Undertones and the Pogues. [loud cheers] As teenagers the music and the lyrics alerted us to what was happening around us.
“There was also the pride of being Irish, what they could say, sing and share was right and reasoned as far as we were concerned. In fact, Shane and the Pogues made it international and cool to play the tin whistle, banjo or accordion. As a young fellow studying to learn the button accordion, that was salvation.
“As teenagers, not being able to verbalize our uneasiness, displeasure, our uncomfortable assessment of what was happening all around us, we found an outlet, a channel, a conduit in the music and lyric of the day.
“In the words of Dickens, ‘It was the best of times and the worst of times.’ The music and the lyric were tremendous, and Shane was the master of them all.
“As Brendan Behan did in prose, Shane McGowan did in poetry. The raw vibrant energetic earthy soul-filled expression gave us hope and heart and hankering.
“What Seán Ó Riada expressed in the life of liturgy, Shane McGowan expressed in the raw life of living. He connected the cultural, the sociological, the spiritual, the physical and the metaphysical into a coherent translation of what was happening all around us.
“Shane also contributed to a rendition of ‘Little Drummer Boy/Peace on Earth,’ performing alongside the Catholic tenor trio The Priests, who said that Shane came across as a deeper, richer person who had a depth and a sincerity that wasn’t often picked up by people.
“Our modern-day bard, the social commentator, the songsmith, the son, the brother, husband and friend.
“I know that he adored you Victoria and you him, and you were so loving and supportive and kind throughout your lives together. You carried and cared and caressed him right to the very end. And I am also aware of the strong bonds of love and affection that knit you together as a family Maurice, Siobhan and Anthony.
“I know that you all will miss him terribly. A voice, a presence around you – and with you – is suddenly silent and coping with that loss is always difficult. But in that grief, you are supported by the friendship and concerns of other people, and you are supported too by what our Christian faith tells us about death and what it means.
“For Shane had great faith in Our Blessed Lady and received Holy Communion from this church regularly. A man who often knelt before a fellow human being on the side of the road and offered kindness, assistance and care.
“Born on the birthday of Jesus and passing on the same days as Oscar Wilde and Patrick Kavanagh, and his funeral celebration Mass today on this great Feast of Mary and, of course, it’s Sinead [O’Connor’s] birthday – it all seems right.
“In one of his best loved songs, “The sick bed of Cúchulainn,” he interrupts his own funeral, snarling:
“and they’ll take you to Cloughprior
and shove you in the ground
and you will stick your head back out and shout
‘We’ll have another round.’” [Hoots, laughter and cheers]
“But mortality was always at the heart of his music. A poet, lyricist, singer, trailblazer, he reflected life as lived in our time, calling out accepted norms that oftentimes appear unacceptable. But, in order to speak, he had to be heard, and to have that revolutionary edge to life and if you have to have it, the first step is to listen. And Shane was a great listener.
“Mary’s character in the gospel story listens, and she is deemed to have chosen the better part. In listening she recognizes the revolutionary Jesus who would eventually take mortality on, so life could have … ‘another round.’
“There, Lazarus would feature in the prequel to his own resurrection. He listened to the plight of the sister’s grief. His listening morphed into something life-giving.
“Our poet, lyricist, singer and trailblazer, gave successive generations the benefit of his listening to the disquiet of life. Shane spoke and sang from the listened depths of his own journey and so did – as poets, lyricists and trailblazers – he spoke to life’s realities for the many who are numbered as his fans. Life giving words.
“As for Martha, she responds to Jesus with those life-giving words: ‘Yes, Lord, I believe that you are the Messiah.’
“For [once again quoting Dylan]
‘The tree of Life is growing
Where the spirit never dies
And the bright light of salvation shines
In dark and empty skies.
Not the end. Not the end.
Just remember, death is not the end.
“Your life gave growth to so many of us Shane, and your bright light gave salvation to our often dark and empty skies.
“May the Lord of earth and sky welcome you into eternal light and salvation. As you knelt before the altar and the person in need, may you now stand before your God who loved you in life and now welcomes you in death.
“‘Not the end, not the end, just remember that death is not the end.’ Rest in peace, Shane.”
I Think I’ve Died and Gone to Heaven. Near the end of the service, former members of The Pogues – Jem Finer, Terry Woods, Spider Stacey, and James Fearnley – played “The Parting Glass,” a traditional Scottish song, often sung in Ireland.
When the band finished and the congregation applauded, Father Gilbert proclaimed: “I think I’ve died and gone to heaven – The Pogues!”
A truly fitting farewell.