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Shane MacGowan: the man behind the fairytales

Dan Carrier talks to film-maker Julien Temple, whose latest movie proves there’s more to Irish singer Shane MacGowan than a hit Christmas ballad

03 December, 2020 — By Dan Carrier

Shane MacGowan in Crock of Gold

AS the tones of Shane MacGowan and Kirsty MacColl fill the airwaves again this December with their ballad The Fairytale of New York, a real picture of a man who created a new voice for Anglo-Irish people, and reinvigorated traditional Irish music, is out this week.

Crock Of Gold: a Few Rounds With Shane MacGowan, is a new film directed by Julien Temple and reveals the story of a singer whose impact on both Irish and British culture has been profound – but remains misunderstood.

Julien, who went to William Ellis school and grew up in Camden, was approached to make a film of a 60th birthday concert held two years ago in Dublin for MacGowan.

It was a celebration of his place in music folklore – and from there came the idea of a retrospective of his career to date.

“Because Shane is Shane, it was going to be a journey – and I wasn’t sure at first if it was one I wanted to take,” admits Julien.

But the core story was a natural fit for the film-maker, who has carved his name in classic music and social history documentaries, ranging from his roving through the Glastonbury fields to London: A Modern Babylon, a powerful exploration of our city using a mix of historic footage and soundtrack.

“I was attracted by the subject,” he reveals. “I have done a lot of films that are about post-war sub-cultures in London, and the London Irish community in the 1960s and 1970s was obviously something I was very aware of, living in Kilburn and Camden Town.

“I see my films as being connected to each other. It was a missing piece of a jigsaw puzzle – but people told me I’d be lucky to survive.”

Julien starts with Shane’s birth on a Tipperary farm in 1957.

“He was one of the last children to really experience that unchanged Ireland,” says Julien.

“There was no electricity and no water in the house.”

Aged six, his family moved to England – and this upheaval shaped his adult life. He grew up interested in Irish culture, music and literature, and felt pride as a reaction against the racism he faced. It was key to what would come next.

Shane MacGowan performing with The Pogues

“If he had lived in Tipperary all his youth he would not have had that energy, passion, and romanticism to draw on,” says Julien.

“He was born into an age that was about to disappear and that helped him mythologise it, and build up this connection to a place where he spent his summers with his family.”

Then there was the emergence of punk: Shane’s wild teenage years were played out on a backdrop of 1970s England, and the film describes how Shane found an outlet for his talent.

He could sing and with friends established The Pogues. They had decided to take the traditional Irish music they loved and knew well and make it relevant for the present. It was a crusade for Shane, says Julien.

“The Pogues sought to create a space where with Irish music and culture is treated with respect, seen as something exciting and cool and works on a new level for younger people, particularly the London Irish,” he says.

“He was the first person to give a voice to that community, to give it a focal point.”

As Julien tried to capture the famously erratic musician to build up the story, this element of his inspiration became more apparent and was unexpected.

“The depth of that commitment, unswerving, unwavering to the idea of Ireland, underpins everything he does,” he says.

“When The Pogues wanted to move away from it, that was the end for Shane really – it was more important to him than rock stardom.

“I didn’t understand that before. His songs are peppered with rich allusions to ancient Ireland, the legends, the pre and current Christian Ireland, the literature and music going back to Carol Ann, the blind harp player who travelled the roads playing. There is James Joyce, Flann O’Brien, the great figures of Irish literature, all these things are woven into his work.”

The film tackles Shane’s image as a hard drinker and how he used stereotypes to send up his detractors. His addictions and struggles with mental health are considered – but also how his personality was filtered through a prism of fame to project the image others wanted to see.

His support for Republican Socialism in Ireland, his campaigning for the Birmingham Six, his cast iron anti-establishment credentials made him a threat – and one that many felt could be disarmed by using his boozing against him.

“He was a dangerous figure and that why they banned him on TV,” says Julien.

“They went for the myth of the circus freak, drunk and junkie who could be wheeled on to chat shows so he could fall over.

“What they did not realise he was wittier and funnier, so they ended up looking stupid. They tried to defuse him by creating this myth. Part of it is true, but it should not cover up all the truly great songs and great ideas that flow from Shane. In a way, The Fairytale of New York does the same thing – this Christmas cliché is neatly put in a box then wheeled out each year. It overshadows some of the greater songs that people should hear. Instead, many know Shane for is his reputation and the Christmas song.

“Hopefully this film will turn people on to the more important things he has created.”

Crock Of Gold: A Few Rounds With Shane MacGowan is released in the UK and Irish cinemas on December 4 and on digital from December 7.

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