It is the 20th of December 2020. We are told we cannot travel, and I panic. We all do, although our panic manifests in different ways. My brother is full of flamboyant and impractical defiance. My mother is resigned but silently seething. The Chief, my grandfather, is obsessed with penalties; with the sinister and shadowy "they" who might stop me from boarding a train, question me, fine or detain me should I make a break for it. I ask him who this "they" actually is? He doesn't know, but their obscurity is deliberate and tactical. I sigh, of course, and remind myself that there is a legacy of occupation, exile, and harassment behind his paranoia; a creeping fear of English Law and English Government, their arbitrary and endlessly shape-shifting "powers", "powers" that mutate and multiply faster than any virus, "powers" that can kill just as surely. I tell myself that I need to be more patient but, patient or not, penalties are beside the point. In the hours after Johnson's announcement I turn werewolf, howling that I need to get out, that I need to go home. The futility of this gesture fuels rather than diminishes its intensity. I cannot leave. We are reckoning with an entirely new metric of responsibility, where just washing your hands or covering your face could save a life. I might be emitting a theremin shriek. I might be smashing inanimate objects. I might be climbing the walls. I might want to run, but I can't, I won't, and this will be the first Christmas my family and I have ever spent apart.
The next few days are a period of adjustment, during which I singularly fail to adjust. I unpack my case and I cry. I cry in supermarket queues. I cry at the kitchen counter, peeling potatoes. I'm ashamed of myself but unable to stop. It isn't isolation, I am seldom alone. Claustrophobia. Insomnia. Not just the house, but the town, not just the town but the country. The entire estate is a sacrifice zone of little distinction: rainbow decals fading against grim windows, the mildew and the mould, the sick, abbreviated sky, the sound-bites of venal hypocrites blaring from every TV. There is a dead fox in the bus lane outside our house. It has been there for over a week. Johnson and Hancock, in tedious monologues of perpetrator trauma, their latest bullshit claqued into murderous platitude night after night. The fox bursts. I need to walk, to feel the earth under me, but there's nowhere to go, my precious edgelands overcrowded: litter, dog shit, fly-tipped fridges. I turn in tight circles. The neighbours slam doors and scream, their terrier dog is foul-tempered and terrified by turns, it barks all day. My pit bull whimpers and shakes at the sound of it, wanders from room to room, demanding then refusing my attention. Sirens, alarms. Reversing lorries. Kids on the Benhill are shooting fireworks from starter's pistols: red, green, gold and streaking. It isn't the shock of it, our "new normal". Lockdown was only ever the logical extension of a life without agency, autonomy or control. It completes the same sense of stuckness I've always felt. It is only that I could taste freedom, finally. Our life is packed into boxes and held in limbo. We are moving away after over a decade. I'm glad to be going, but it's taking so long, and the process has knocked something loose in me. I worry about my family. I run myself down fighting entropy. I rarely sleep, and when I do I have nightmares: I'm a child again. In England. On the mainland. In the West Country.
I was stuck there too, and I hated it. I hate it still, with an irrational and all-consuming hatred. I hated their po-faced protestant god who could only speak in bloodless parables. I hated their music, their syrupy anomic bleating, the caramelised cliché that pretended to strong emotion. I hated their uniforms, the grey group-think that roped you in even as it excluded you, that followed you home from school, that extended beyond the clothes you wore to the thoughts you had, even in the privacy of your own head. I hated their hymns and their folk-dancing. I hated their dead. I hated the meaningless "pride" they took in an accident of birth, planting their flag in a falsified history. I hated their gossip. I hated their superiority: the clerk at the corner shop tapping her No Credit sign with a sucked-on Biro, smirking. Most of all I hated the Marines. I hated that arrogant stupidity that paraded itself as right; their petty obsession with caste and rank, their bigotry and racism, the way they handed it down through the generations like an heirloom to their children. One time, a girl called me "terrorist". I found a dead crow and stuffed it into her bag during PT. Maggots and blood got on all of her books. She screamed. I was delighted. One time a group of boys cornered me. They spat in a coke can and made me drink it. Smeared dog shit on my chair. Followed me home singing "Gypsies Tramps and Thieves". Day after day. Year after year. Until I'd snap, because who wouldn't? But that's what they want: confirmation of your feral status, your dirty animality, your violence. Your rage at their treatment of you becomes the very argument for that treatment. You can never win. I never did. And everything that happened there stalks the empty space where sleep should be. I have so much hope invested in the move that I am morbidly afraid something will go wrong, that our new town will reject me too, that it will be terrible all over again. These are not adult thoughts. They belong to the unprotected child-part of my brain. She is with me always, a clenched fist in human shape.
I have told the story so many times now. I've told it one hundred different ways in fifty different settings: clinical, confessional, familial . I've told it enough to know now that telling fixes nothing. The "lads" who pinned me to the changing-room wall, or sat on my chest down behind the boat swings. Mr B's face, swimming towards me, the fatty boiled grey of boarding house beef. The school nurse, her fingers the exact same shade of nicotine yellow as her teeth, who hissed at me that I was making it up. How I thought I'd found a friend. How he used me just like all the rest. Threats. An endless cycle of wounding banalities from girls who trail me everywhere, whispering girls who write me on walls, who have their boyfriends hold me down, who duck me under water. The school that refuses my rage, that demands concessions, accommodations, that tells me to "try". The town that never lets us stretch or breathe, that confines us to the druggy and desolate margins, in houses like wasp nests: thin, damp walls. I thought it would go on forever and in many ways it did, it does, through its traces, through its aftermath, its effects of repetition and deferral. And so I want to get away, to be with others who know.
At my worst moments, I phone the Chief. Not to tell him "what's wrong", but to hear him talk. About music, mostly, because music connects us across the generational divide. Beyond the particularities of individual experience, a song holds those feelings that are common to all. And today we reminisce about hearing Christy Moore and Declan Sinnott play Jimmy MacCarthy's "Missing You". It was cold in the Symphony Hall, we still had our coats and scarfs on. You could see the breath of the person sitting next to you as they silently mouthed the words to the song. Nobody sang it out loud. The Chief gripped the arms of his seat until his knuckles went white. The man beside him stared at the floor between his shoes. I found myself trembling. It was an intense communal rite. The Chief half sings, half mumbles a line now: You can't live on love, and on love alone... And then, unexpectedly: It's not a sin to be happy, and segues into a reverie about the worst Christmas he can remember, shacked up as he puts it, in a boarding house on the bottom rung of even Digbeth boarding houses, a single room without carpet or heat. He would bang the frost off his socks in the morning, where they hung in stiff frozen fillets from the ugly, metal bed frame. There was no work over Christmas, no pay. On Christmas day he ate all that remained in his bedside cupboard: a bowl of Rice Crispies with sweet and slightly-off Carnation milk. That Pop, Crackle and Crunch he called it. He means Snap, Crackle and Pop, but I don't split hairs. He says the words with venom. He detested those elves, their grinning gamalog faces, stupid and sly: pop, crackle and crunch, the milky spite of English laughter.
I hadn't heard that story before. The Chief is a proud person. He tells me so now. He was alone that day, and too ashamed to beg favours from family or friends. I ask him what he did. What could he do? He watched the clock. And the body was another kind of clock. Hunger like that, and the body is the clock, the calendar and the cell. Hours distended, weeks compressed, empty of meaning, of even desire. Carceral time, they call that. Yes, he says, like being in prison. On Saint Stephen's Day he walked the ten miles to his married younger sister's to eat warmed-through leftovers with her family. He never once mentioned how hungry he was. The meal took an age to prepare, or it seemed so to him, but he didn't say a word. After he'd eaten, he thanked his sister and walked back to his room. He followed the road, walking the route his bus would've taken if he'd money for the bus. By the time he got in he was miserably cold, and his stomach was growling again.
He was back at work the next day, and it was alright. He's telling me this story so I'll know he's alright now. That I am. He's had worse, we all have. It is going to be okay. He will spend Christmas day playing his records. He has an oven-ready meal with three kinds of meat! He is contented. The Chief is a difficult person at times. He is also admirable. He has the least self-pity of anyone I know. He is generous and kind. For years he has spent Christmas Day helping out at his local homeless shelter, feeding others, swapping stories. He remembers how it feels to have nothing and nowhere. He understands hunger, how it begins in the body, but belongs to and eventually consumes the soul. On Saint Stephen's Day he would come to us, and we would feed him. We would argue a lot. He is rebarbative and stubborn. He does not choose his words with care. But we laugh a lot, too. He is full of lore and banter. I am touched that he would share this memory with me, that he would risk that vulnerability. I sense it is still raw for him. Hunger is still raw, for all of us.
It is difficult to talk about. Rather, we are, in turns, reticent and obsessed. We cannot say to each other I am hungry. It is as though hunger were shameful, or the words were dangerous. But when we get together we eat ourselves to the centre of the winter dark; we understand implicitly that breaking bread together matters. This, and our stories and songs are suffused with hunger. Hunger has such a profound relationship to Irish identity, and to working-class Irish identity in particular. It is not just something we have suffered, but something we have fought with in extremis, when there was nothing left to lose, nothing else at our disposal but the self. When we are denied our language – as countless generations of Irish people have been denied – either by law, by force, or by the slow workings of cultural attrition, then all we have left is gesture. Gesture is both language and a failure of or substitute for language. The Irish working class have always been visible – the subject of paranoid fantasies, scapegoated, caricatured, surveilled and administered – but voiceless. Hunger is a way of registering, and ultimately performing, that voicelessness until perhaps hunger is transmuted into voice, a way to express that which can never be said or refuses to be heard. Maybe hunger is so hard to talk about in part because it usurps and becomes language; is both language and gesture: acted out against the grain of daily speech, absolute and irrevocable, yet read with a minuteness of subtlety by those who experience and traffic in it.
Growing up, I was completely fixated on both the 1920 and 1981 Hunger Strikes. The Great Famine was so enmeshed in cultural memory, starvation shared such an intimate kinship with national history, that it seemed both obvious and horrible that we should ransom with it too; that it belonged to us. In Ireland, the starving body functioned as both the emblem and the evidence of colonial oppression. A cipher of denial, of want, of articulate refusal. I remember the hoary old seanfhocail: Is fearr Gaeilge bhriste ná Béarla cliste. Or, broken Irish is better than clever English. What is the wasted body of a Hunger Striker, but broken Irish? The self-evident scar of its mutilation? I read books on ascetics and mystics. I read books about acts – political and spiritual – of absolute renunciation. In an entirely self-involved way I was searching for a model of resistance, a way to stage my counter claim: that this body – this life – is mine, that I do not recognise your prison or the laws that it upholds.
In the West Country, and in the years that followed, anorexia nearly killed me. I didn't want to die; quite the opposite was true. More than anything, I wanted to speak, but my mouth was a nest for an enemy language. I hated the sound of myself. Not English or Irish. Not anything really. When I spoke "proper" what proceeded from my mouth could never amount to more than a bargain basement version of my tormentors' voice. In refusing to eat, I was making myself both empty and clean. Without accent, speaking only through the mute grammars of negation. By refusing food I was refusing their world. I wanted nothing from it. It could not sustain or nourish me. I would not let it keep me alive.
It is hard to explain this, even now, even to myself. I should say perhaps that I understood Ireland through hunger-songs and hunger-stories, and so it is through hunger that I related to the only part of myself I regarded as valuable, "true" or worth keeping, that it formed a kind of militant kinship with a lost and longed for "home". I should say that hunger is the medium through which our history flows. It sleeps in the long, load-bearing bones of mass memory, and it sings in our present percarity, in the poverty of our recent past, from 17th Century famine ballads to the mournful crooning for Red Biddy boozers in Kilburn. From Donegal to the Divis Flats. It is immediate and immemorial. It has been a weapon and a wound. It has been a tool. We have turned on the lathe of it for centuries. We have kept it alive, honed our rage on the whet of it. We can't let it alone. We fear it and invite it. It is our taboo and our fetish. Hunger is a haunting. Our songs are well stocked with coffin ships, desperate thefts, the loss of women and children. Our literature too. Until hunger itself becomes a way of saying Ireland, Irish. Until hunger is an act of fuzzy communion.
Hunger binds us to each other, entwines language and the land: famine deals damage to both territory and tongue. During an Drochshaol the places where spoken Irish thrived were hardest hit. Words are sharpened and diminished. It drives us into exile, and our common language scatters. Ancestors are arrested and deported, or they flee on the promise of a better life that never comes. Hunger follows them, clings to their language like a stain. It invents fresh shame wherever we settle, whenever we speak our secret names. How many words for "hunger"? For the empty bowl, the outstretched hand, and everything they represent? To think of hunger is to think of Black 47. But also Van Diemen's Land, Long Kesh; the Magdalene Laundries; the Mother and Baby Homes. It is to think of a cold shore where they call you "Paddy" or "Biddy" or "Mick", where you can be picked up for no reason, held without charge, charged without evidence, denied representation or redress. It is a boarding house without heat. It is our trauma. We are locked in its loveless, obsessive embrace from birth. We carry it, and it carries us. It is the nightmare from which we are trying to awake. Our history, our birthright and our curse.
Context isn't narrative. It is not history that sees me staring at the ceiling at three a.m., or walking the aggy lockdown streets with my dog in tow hoping for a confrontation, anything to let off steam. For the longest while starvation was the language of my self-and-world-disgust. Literate, but not articulate in the ways that mattered to me, and having only broken phrases in what should have been my "mother tongue", I tried repeatedly and without success to unmake the pain of English with English. It is not that I had no words for articulating my distress, but that eloquence itself felt deeply suspect. To speak English, to speak it nicely and well, was to compound the pain. How can language hope to provide a cure when it is so wrapped up in producing the wound? I didn't want to talk about what they did to me with their words, to be defined forever on their terms, to enter any kind of conversation always at a disadvantage, trying to wield their vocabulary in my own defence. Anorexia was something both disciplined and vigilant, a principled refusal: of their gaze, and of the value system to which that gaze and its judgements belonged. It was a refusal of work: paid, domestic, emotional and sexual. Drained of "erotic capital", "unfit" for most forms of employment, and sealed inside my own impenetrable act of bodily defiance, I was truly surplus. I had zero utility. I lived counter to their clock, in the teeth of their routines. I made myself a target and I knew it. I shaved my head. I dressed with a kind of post-punk sexless fury. I felt as if I would fly apart if anybody touched me. The music was the only thing that helped, that held me together. I know that context isn't narrative, but to understand my own meagre pains as part of a continuum, that eased things. Music provided a way of inhabiting and repurposing English so that it did not – does not – hurt or betray me.
When nobody knew how to help me, what the Chief had to offer was music. I'm not sure if he ever fully comprehended what it did for me, but to listen to those first songs was to feel the burden of my rage lifted and shared. Music was a way into living history, a place of preservation and of continued conversation with our ancestor others, our heroes and villains, our faithful departed. Music was an imaginative community. It told me I was not the first, nor would I be the last. Others had gone before me into the dark or through the fire, but just as important was the idea that I could leave footprints for those who came after. However isolated I felt, I was not alone. To suffer without love is a waste of pain, but to leave a light on for somebody else, just one person, just for a moment, that matters, that has meaning.
Poetry followed, as a great inhalation of all the verbal sleights and parries I heard at home: the folk songs and the jokes, the bantering back and forth, the language tactics of those on the sharp end of everything. To be poor is to be intimately acquainted with the power of language; your daily life is a continuous negotiation for resources or essential support, or in order to evade negative attention. Being poor, and being "other", people make assumptions about the kind of person you are, how you deserve to be treated; these assumptions are embedded in and transmitted through the words they use to and about you. My family lived at the mercy of that, they learnt to speak and to hear with such precision in order to survive. Poetry requires you to occupy a similar space of pressured attention, and so it became a place to honour those who had learnt to swallow the sword of English without cutting themselves; who had learnt to eat fire and breathe it back. I'd no musical talent to speak of, but poetry was my way of preserving and sharing the rhythms we lived and thought inside. Poetry came from the music, from my family, especially the Chief.
The Chief and I have continued to share our love of music. It is our strongest bond: the smoky specialist record shops that also sold copies of An Phoblacht and The Nationalist, where old men muttered dark oaths and hats were passed with knowing nods. The weird pseudo-cèilidhs between quasi legal errands. Sentimental showband crooning – which I loved despite myself – washing in sweet-sticky waves across a crowded room. Rebel songs, belted out with tuneless intensity in shuttered pubs at lock-ins. My hedge school, those songs. They didn't teach our history on the mainland, so I pieced it together, taught it to myself. I found my own figures of identification and resistance. Not only within "Irish music" but in Country and Western too: music of a bruised and slackened luck, real working-class music. Hank Williams as Luke the Drifter, the desolate sandpaper sweetness of that. And blues, in the welling and bottomless ache of its beauty. Not only "Irish music", but sean-nós was best: like a spell or a charm, ornamental and improvised, spun against darkness, bright and brittle as glass. They kept the songs of Travelling people, those musicians, they made a place for us all with reverence and tenderness. When we listened the Chief and I belonged, we had worth. Music recognised our personhood in a way that most of the world did not.
Hearing Christy Moore sing Jimmy McCarthy's "Missing You" for the first time was to recognise both the Chief's pain and my own. I heard the missions and the bedsits, the dosses, kips and squats. I heard skip-dive and shoplift, going early and hungry to bed. I heard dispersal and assimilation. I heard years of dismissal and suspicion; the society we are forced to abide by but could never belong to. I heard the shame of not doing better, of failing to rise, of rising only to be cut down. These songs are the way we talk to each other without having to talk, because we are too proud, because our English has failed us, or we have failed on the threshold of it. Music is language and gesture too. I feel close to him when I play these songs. I feel close to all my loved and missing, and mourned. It is an expression of solidarity. When I went into the world to find music of my own, then punk was my first and best community, my way of withstanding while being in the midst of an alien and impossible culture. Punk is an anger turned outwards, but with daring and with razored flair. The Pogues were the bridge between the Chief's music and mine, his experience as an Irish "other" and my own.
The Pogues formed in the year I was born. I grew up with them, but I didn't really listen or understand until late adolescence. I'd heard "Fairytale of New York", obviously, and my Mum used to play "A Pair of Brown Eyes" on near-continuous repeat. I was intrigued by and a little shy of that song. It was mysterious to me, but there was such violent and fathomless defeat behind its lilting melancholy.
It was "Thousands are Sailing" that knocked me sideways. I can't remember where I was when I heard it. I have it in mind that I was on a particularly rough ferry crossing, coming back from Ireland and a visit with my aunts and uncles, but I'm aware that memory – poetic or otherwise – plays tricks. I might have conflated two entirely separate events. What I do remember is being pricked from insomniac numbness by lines that stood out brighter and clearer than anything I'd read or heard before: Did the old songs taunt or cheer you, and did they still make you cry...? and then the vitriol, the sneering glee in Shane MacGowan's voice when he sings And in Brendan Behan's footsteps I danced up and down the street, undercutting the sweetness of the previous line with an irresistible image of wanton destruction. Who doesn't picture Behan's "dancing" as a brawling lurch from split lip to smashed glass and back again?
Wherever I was, it must have been somewhere public. I remember looking around me, astonished that others were taking the music so calmly. It got under my skin like ants, a kind of fever I had to fight down. It made me fidget, it tightened my stomach and throat: Where e'er we go, we celebrate the land that makes us refugees, from fear of priests with empty plates, from guilt and weeping effigies, still we dance to the music... A gut punch of recognition, the pleasure and the shock of being seen, of being understood and of understanding, of your own disordered thoughts formed with infinitely more eloquence and played back to you at volume. A feeling of being exposed, handled raw and without skin.
Until I got to see a copy of the record, I assumed Shane MacGowan had written "Thousands are Sailing" he possessed it so completely. Phil Chevron was new to me, but I was quickly captured. Faithful Departed remains perhaps my most enduring musical obsession, and The Radiators in their various incarnations were my gateway drug to a world of punk and post-punk weirdness – Microdisney, The Fatima Mansions, etc. – but The Pogues as a package I did not initially know how to take. I recognised the music as wonderful, but it unsettled me. MacGowan unsettled me. It would sound idiotic to speak it out loud, but I saw myself in him. His was another working class body determined to be completely indigestible, of absolutely zero utility to the culture in which it found itself and against which it erected its singular fury. I think I understood MacGowan as similarly filled with rage and sorrow, that there was something of the same terror and manic intensity to him as was in me. A libidinal bottled-upness. We were both grotesques of a kind: that is poor, ill-disciplined, dishevelled, ugly, obtrusive, uncouth, disruptive. MacGowan, both on stage and off, seemed to be acting out his own kind of bodily defiance, a seething mass of feral gesture, a human fuck you without comment or apology.
The Pogues seemed completely in sync while simultaneously teetering on the cusp of collapse. Theirs was an odd, ad-hoc improvised energy, but they'd virtuosity too. And, God, that music was clever. I loved punk, but it didn't for the most part have that sense of swaggering intellectual reach. The attraction was, to a large extent, the sheer brass neck of that: here were these jug-eared urchins with terrible teeth and spots, and they were making and laying claim to poetry. There was a dangerous carny bravado to that. How you'd listen to that music to feel part of literature, that it came from you and belonged to you. It wasn't just the thrill of trespass, it was the joy of reclamation. The Pogues rescued Yeats, Joyce, Mangan, and the legend of Cú Chulainn from mouldy old textbooks and arid school-room curriculums; from the willed obscurity of not-for-the-likes-of-you. We too could be the implied audience for art. Our history was worthy of literary and lyric treatment. They made me feel smart, those songs, and less awkward and ashamed of being so. This meant a lot to those of us continually described as savage or congenitally feckless, who had been edged out of the hallowed precincts of "culture".
Marty and I loved The Pogues. Marty was my best friend. He too had made himself anathema to the world around him, and he knew as surely as I did, as surely as MacGowan must have known, that we had boxed ourselves into a corner. The only options left to us were annihilation or assimilation. Marty fought a daily battle with depression and addiction. We had lived together for such a long time that I had become intimately familiar with this battle, had taken it on as my own. Most days he'd struggle, and most days he lost, but he fought with such heart. When he died, my sense of failure was total, a molten mixture of anger, sadness and guilt, not least because we were so similar in so many ways. Outwardly, we cultivated the same look: an Irish squat-punk aesthetic we referred to as "croppy-core", combining the scrap yard audacities of early punk with pro Irish Republican and kitschy Catholic signifiers. When we could get hold of the materials we also incorporated elements of "low-Irish" Victoriana: a dirty and much battered silk topper, a badly dyed black tails shirt. I made, or he shoplifted, most of the clothes we wore. We traded outfits. Seen from behind, with our matching mohawks and anorexic frames, we were often mistaken for each other. We were not the same. Our difference was the distance I had travelled in terms of articulacy, literacy and education, but a number of the things that had scarred him marked me too. We joked that we were two halves of the same person divided by some cosmic quirk of fate. We joked that if we could smush ourselves back together, we might make a fully functioning human being.
Marty went missing and then he destroyed himself. Missingness had adhered to him like a positive quality throughout his life. He had "escaped" his past, but found no future to escape into. England didn't want him. Or it only wanted the bits of him that conformed to and confirmed its fevered dream of us. It wanted some half-baked cartoon. It wanted him censored and cleansed of all his sorry problematics, a toothless cover version of himself. He couldn't be that. We couldn't be that. And so, in effect, we didn't exist. To be the working class other within neo-liberal culture is to occupy the position of the absent subject. We heard this in the music too. We used to get into fights about The Pogues. When some self-appointed arbiter of cool described them as "Plastic Paddies", for example. I hated that. Listen to "The Old Main Drag". Listen to "Lullaby of London". Ireland is a hauntological presence in these songs; it's the stage on which they strut, the atmosphere in which they float. But they're not primarily about national identity: they're about class. And the band's true subject – MacGowan's true subject – wasn't Irishness as such, but exile. Ireland is the ambient ache at the back of this music, but its minutia is the grubby stuff of working class existence.
Marty and I would talk about this often, we had "a theory" that "Bottle of Smoke" was the joyous flip-side to the Pioneers' Trojan standard "Long Shot Kick De Bucket". These are songs about betting, about drinking, about grafting, navvying, smoking, hoping, grieving, fighting, loving. About faith and politics. Everything that besets and sustains us. If you don't see it, then it isn't your life. At which point some smart-arse would refer to MacGowan as a kind of Boucicaultian caricature, and cite his avowed determination to play "Paddy" to the hilt. Which is true. But MacGowan's "Paddy" was a glorious vaudevillian persona, a bravura performance, as much a mode and commentary on Irish stereotypes as their embodiment. And aggressive, a kind of protest. If it's difficult to watch, if it irks you, offends you, or makes you uncomfortable, then it's meant to. That's a punk thing. That's an Irish punk thing. That's a refusal to be rehabilitated, recuperated, made into some kind of cutely capering mascot. MacGowan was oiky and rabid. Like us, when we lost our temper and lashed out, he cemented and amplified the worst fears of the well-behaved English. He twisted their suspicions and their easy assumptions by taking them over the edge. There was contempt in his performance. It was a clarion Fuck Off! Or, it seemed so to us. Mainly me. I used to idolise MacGowan, the things he did to and with the English language. The master's tools to dismantle the master's house. Wholesale, and with brutal energy. There's a Yeats quote I always felt must be applicable to him: Everything I love has come to me through English; my hatred tortures me with love, my love with hate. I believed I could hear that in the songs. I believe I can hear it still. I know the feeling.
In the run-up to Christmas, and just days before the news that I'll be trapped in South London, I'm asked if I will review Julien Temple's Crock of Gold: A Few Rounds With Shane MacGowan. It's a reasonable enough request: I am an occasional reviewer of new books and films, and a life-long fan of The Pogues besides. I'm half-intrigued, and I think about it – briefly – but in the end I decline. I cannot bring myself to watch it. I cannot bring myself to say why either, so I make a joke of it: I want to spare myself Johnny Depp's peacocking "outlaw" by-proxy routine, which I have no reason to suspect will not be nauseating. I pretend I'm not bothered. I'm a fan of the music, this kind of tedious mythologising holds no interest for me. Yeah, right. I like Temple, and I'm sure it's a fine film, but I don't think I can stand two hours of staring at MacGowan the Instructive Human Wreck. I don't need to watch a downward spiral into alcoholism and addiction. I don't need to pick the scabs and trace the scars of how a person comes to that point. I know enough. I've seen it before and it's too close to home.
The smart-arse who wants to dismiss The Pogues as "Plastic Paddies" is also compelled to dismiss MacGowan as a drunken junkie fuck-up. Which is an awful way to dismiss and reduce a person. But it's hard to argue with that assessment when so many fans seem to want to laud him for the same. I've never liked that. We used to watch The Pogues play every Christmas, but towards the end I found the experience hard to stomach: the crowd cheering MacGowan's drunken antics; his slurring and staggering, falling down. I remember a particularly painful gig in 2014: his attention span was shot to shit, he'd forget the words to his own songs, he'd wander aimlessly around the stage in a way that reminded me of my mother's dog toward the end of its life, turning in circles and staring vacantly, looking for a spot to drop. There was mischief in him – the way he'd sometimes deliberately fuck up a song – but it felt mean and unnecessary, thoroughly played out. The band's frustration was palpable. Finer or Stacy – I forget which – felt moved to yell at the audience not to applaud him for being a fucking idiot. I wasn't applauding. I'd been exactly where MacGowan's bandmates were. I knew exactly that mixture of fierce love and total exasperation; the exhaustion and disappointment. The desire to scream YOU'RE RUINING THIS!!! and pound your friend with your fists, while also wanting, more than anything in the world, to hold onto them and hold them up. I knew that sense of failure. I knew the feeling of fucking hell, did you really think it would be any different this time round? I know what it's like to be the fuck-up too. Not to the same outlandish extent, but I know how it is to be sinking, to know you're sinking, to see the pain on the faces of those watching you sink, and to need – beyond your capacity to control – to fill your pockets full of stones.
I felt bad for everyone at that gig. It was like MacGowan had become trapped in the role he had made for himself, a method actor consumed by his character to the point of parody past the pitch of despair. That we fêted this said nothing good about us: we used MacGowan as an apologist for this kind of behaviour in ourselves, to legitimate a certain self-destructive tendency; he always lent our own sodden misadventures a kind of grandeur or heroism. There's another sense in which we were merely spectators, rubber-neckers, tourists, ghouls. MacGowan did our crazy for us. We put our madness into him, so we didn't have to face it in the morning, in the mirror; as if he were the sin eater for our entire twisted tribe. He was our cautionary tale, our trite moral lesson: he made us feel better about risking nothing, about all of our pitifully safe little lives. Or he let us off the hook, because, whatever we did, however ridiculous or incapable we became along the way, whatever mess we made, we would never be that. We laugh, but it isn't funny. We're amused, but we are not pleased.
I don't drink. This isn't about alcohol per se. It's about the intoxicants industry, the way it profits from our despair; its intimate entanglement in our long misery. Irish alcoholism is a cliché, and like all clichés it serves a purpose. An image of MacGowan as the town drunk is used to neutralise and defuse a complex, politically challenging body of songs: songs about the exploitation of workers, the devouring of young men by the military industrial machine, songs about indigence and the bigotry that drives it, songs about a persecuted people at the mercy of the state. Obsessive insistence on alcohol as an inherently Irish vice, and on the music as exemplary of a particular kind of Irishness – roistering, soused, and doomed – robs it of this vital context, its nuanced class dynamics; its searing, still-relevant expressions of working class solidarity. We live – have always lived – under a system that wilfully creates the conditions that drive people to drink; wilfully creates a reality that anyone born awake would desire to escape by any means necessary, and then it feeds you streams of whiskey as a respite or a palliative. We live in a world where our abusers profit from our trauma; where they sell us our addictions and use those same addictions to dismiss us. It is cynical and abject, and I want no further part of it. I don't blame or judge people for drinking. I'm a student of whatever gets you through. It's only that I've seen too many lives ruined, too many brave and beautiful souls sucked in and under. I've watched friends die. I've witnessed the lingering living death that is alcoholism, liver failure, the dementia-like waking nightmare of hepatic encephalopathy. It is paranoid and joyless and fucking exhausting. It is also so alluring.
In Ireland, in all of our exiled and immigrant communities, drink holds us. Like the music, it eases us into each other. It loosens the tongue and numbs the hurt. The cliché serves us too: it is the way we paper over pain, it is singing in the teeth of trauma, it is finding a way to ring desperate joy from a harsh, unloving world. I have felt this way for a long time, even before Marty died, but I feel it more acutely now. Alcohol casts a long shadow. That's why I will not watch the film.
You can't live without love, without love alone... The psycho-ceilídh scene that flourished in the wake of The Pogues was my element for years. I loved that music and I love it to this day. It's a transatlantic scene, connecting Irish immigrant and heritage communities in the UK, the US, and around the world. These bands still feel like family to me. Boston stalwarts The Dropkick Murphys in particular. I was young and reckless when they were young and reckless. They have matured and so have I. Up to a point. We have lost people. We have grieved together without ever having met. Their songs have been the anthems to my experience of love and bereavement, of recovery and political commitment. Their songs have been the anthems – ultimately – of my survival. They were Marty's anthems too, and playing those records remains a way of spending time with him. Not in a morbid sense, but with energy and heart. The old songs taunt and cheer me, and, yes, they still make me cry. But they should. I wouldn't have it any other way. As long as those songs exist, we exist. We keep and raise each other, we support each other in our several griefs, we keep a collective memory alive.
In the Murphy's reversioning of folk and rebel standards the threads of inter-generational memory are braided and treasured. I walked up the aisle to their rendition of "The Fields of Anthenry". English people especially ask me why I would want that song at my wedding. I wanted it because although it transmits the specific historical pain of famine and deportation, it also carries the universal experience of separation from homeland and loved ones; it's a song about loving perseverance, about making that perseverance the badge of your love. It's a song about keeping the homeland alive inside your love, your love alive inside a song.
Bands like The Pogues and the Murphys are still recording these songs for a reason. We still feel those feelings. The hurt is still present, and it belongs to us all, not to Ireland and the Irish alone. Dispossession knows no country. All over the world we are still fleeing and failing. All over the world we cling to our addictions like stranded swimmers, hoping against all odds and evidence for a better day to come. Persecution still happens. Racism is rife. If we learn anything from this music it is – or should be – the humanity of others. If we learn anything from this music, it ought to be empathy. The Chief talks often about being Irish in the wrong place and at the wrong time. There were arrests, detentions and beatings. There was eviction, there was being let go without pay. There was doing without and making do. All of which has given him a belligerent disregard for and deep suspicion of authority. I love this about him, but I do not love the way he came by it. I don't love our cynicism, I don't love our paranoia. I don't love that both are still a necessary defensive mechanism. How all Irish were treated when the Chief came over, that's how Travellers are treated today. Even and especially within Ireland itself. That's shameful, and monumentally inattentive to history.
It's not a sin to be happy, he says to me. By which he means, we will ride this storm as we have ridden others. By which he means I have a right to my pleasures. What else has he been working for all of this time? What have I been working towards? I have warmth and home and love and I am lucky. Play my records, he says. Because the music has more to teach me. There is resistance there too, and laughter. Music is, above all else, a slow climb to the light. We agree to play Christy Moore at the same time on Christmas Day, and Joe Heaney, and the Dubliners, the Wolfe Tones and The Pogues. Because we all came through something, because we're alive, our responsibility to happiness is that much greater. We remember our dead, but we take joy seriously. That is the best way to honour them and to honour ourselves. I'll bake bread while I listen. I'll eat slow-cooked cinnamon apples and pumpkin soup. I will see him on the other side.
Dr Fran Lock is a some-time itinerant dog whisperer, the author of seven poetry collections and numerous chapbooks, most recently Hyena! (Poetry Bus Press, 2021). Fran has recently completed her Ph.D. at Birkbeck College, University of London, titled, "Impossible Telling and the Epistolary Form: Contemporary Poetry, Mourning and Trauma". She is an Associate Editor at Culture Matters.