A Drink with Shane MacGowanby Shane MacGowan
“Entertaining and shocking at the same time. . . . Informative and fun. . . . This book is really good because, in a sense, it is one long fascinating interview.” –Bryan Kremkau, Read Magazine
A fascinating, offbeat memoir by Shane MacGowan, cofounder of The Pogues, brilliant lyricist, and legendary carouser
Best known as the cofounder of the Irish band The Pogues, Shane MacGowan has become a cult figure on the alternative-music scene. His achingly beautiful lyrics, as well as his legendary lifestyle of excess, have earned him an avid following that packs his shows and buys his albums.
One of the most unusual memoirs to come along in quite a while, A Drink with Shane MacGowan is structured as a series of interviews between MacGowan and his wife, Clarke. The singer recounts his experiences growing up on a farm in Ireland, where his family began giving him two pints of Guinness a night at the tender age of five and his father took him to hang out with bookies and drunks at the local pub. He tells of moving to London and becoming part of the London club scene in the mid-1970s, just as punk was beginning to emerge, offering a firsthand portrait of a seminal time and place in music history. MacGowan also provides his own, strongly opinionated views on The Pogues’ success and the reasons for his abrupt departure from the band.
As he invites us into this fascinating world, MacGowan tells many hilarious stories and riffs on a wide range of subjects, from Irish history and politics to literature, film, religion, his own substance abuse, and much more. Sometimes maddening, sometimes charming, often brilliant, and always honest, A Drink with Shane MacGowan is an enjoyable romp with a truly unique personality.
“Entertaining and shocking at the same time. . . . Informative and fun. . . . This book is really good because, in a sense, it is one long fascinating interview.” –Bryan Kremkau, Read Magazine
Praise for Shane MacGowan:
‘macGowan can be a dazzling songwriter, channeling his unruliness into rambunctious tales of drinking, sporting, drinking, fighting, and drinking.” –The Los Angeles Times
“[A] wayward, surly, ticked-off, amoral, brokenhearted romantic . . . Incorrigible and curiously resilient, MacGowan remains the Brendan Behan of punk, semi-steady as he goes.” –The Boston Globe
“Cut from the same uniquely weathered cloth as Tom Waits and Charles Bukowski, MacGowan is the unofficial patron saint of contemporary Irish music.” –The San Francisco Chronicle
‘shane MacGowan is the kind of singer who could turn Ave Maria into a bawdy drinking tune. One listen to MacGowan . . . and your blood-alcohol level goes up beyond the legal limit.” –People
“A dashing, romantic figure in person–especially if you ignore his missing teeth.” –The Denver Post
“One of the finest lyricists of his generation . . . MacGowan [possesses] a gift for buoyant Irish melodies and hilarious, heartbreaking portraits of desperate wastrels.” –Spin
A rugged Irish cottage, night. A fierce and loquacious wind tears, mercilessly, mirthlessly, at the simple thatched roof. An immodest fire illuminates the shadows, boldly. Out of the ashes, a luminous face looms, magnificently. A trembling hand taps a cigarette, certainly, on a filthy trouser leg. Another, equally pale and blackened, grasps a bottle of gin, half full or half empty, depending on which way you look at it. Shane MacGowan, leaning back against the whitewashed wall, contemplates the portrait of Pope John, contemplatively, spits into the flames, contentedly, clears his throat, aridly, and addresses his companion.
–My Uncle John never said much. He’d sit here, belting his cap off his knee, tapping out his pipe. And cursing under his breath.
His companion, Victoria, a fragile, ethereal beauty, the likes of which will never be seen again, nods anxiously and swallows delicately. Shane eyes her, insistently, and continues.
–My Uncle Jim used to get pissed off about how overcrowded it was, because there were fourteen people living in this house and it’s a small house, AS YOU CAN SEE.
Victoria glances around the cottage, obediently, and nods her agreement, assiduously.
–So he used to have to sleep in haystacks in the rain, y’know? You’d be playing in the haystacks and suddenly you’d realize Uncle Jim was lying there, underneath the hay, in the tarpaulin. It was either the haystack or sleep in the same bed as Uncle John and Uncle John used to fight in his sleep. `Fock yez, I’ll fockin kill yez, fock yez, yeh conts.’
He used to knock Uncle Jim out of the bed every time he tried to sleep in it. They were both big men, but Uncle John could easily have Uncle Jim. So Uncle Jim got so sick of it he would sleep in the haystack and in the end he never slept in a bed at all.
Shane coughs, mightily, and partakes of the gin, healthily. Victoria sips a glass of Chablis, daintily.
–Tell me your earliest memory, Sweet Pea.
–My earliest memory is of the whole family building a bed and not being able to get it through the front door. Couldn’t get it through the fucking door. So we had to take it apart outside and put it together inside the house.
Shane leans forward, suddenly, clasps his nose, tentatively, and blows an enormous bogey on to the stone floor.
–There was a shortage of beds, so we shared beds. Every so often, a committee meeting would be held in this kitchen, which was the main room of the house. The men would hold their fingers around their noses and blow the snot on the floor and then spit on it. Which is where I picked up the habit.
Victoria pales, considerably.
–At the meetings, all the men and women of the house shouted at each other and afterwards, everyone’s sleeping arrangements got switched around. The main bone of contention was the dying room, over there, which is where people who were dying were moved into. Unless there was a dying person in there, it was supposed to be occupied by my Uncle John and my Uncle Jim, sleeping head to toe in a single bed. With a picture of the baby Jesus looking down at them. These were the people that brought me up for the first six years of my life, my mother’s family in Tipperary.
A gust of wind accompanies the lull in conversation, appropriately, blowing open the door of the dying room, where a single bed sits, unoccupied, temporarily. Shane lights a fag and smiles, agreeably.
–Did I tell you about Tom Cahalan? Tom Cahalan was one of three brothers who owned a bigger farm, down the road from us a bit, and Tom used to get dressed up every Sunday night and come round and give me chocolate. And he gave me money and cigarettes. Every Sunday night, a fire would be lit in the parlour, and Tom would arrive on a bicycle and he’d go into the parlour with my Auntie Monica and they’d have a lamp lighting and they’d sit on the old settee in front of the fire and talk. I’d go in and interrupt them, deliberately, and they’d pay me to go away. I caught them kissing a few times. I suppose they were in their late thirties then and they were in their forties when they eventually got married, and she moved out.
–Why did Tom and Monica wait so long to get married?
–Jesus Christ, I’m not a bloody sociologist. You know what happens in Ireland. It was perfectly normal, in those days, for people to court for twenty years. She was stricken, absolutely stricken. She never even looked at another man. He was a fucking goodlooking guy, great sense of humour, strong, but not domineering.
–So you were fond of him?
–Yes. Very fond of him. He was a great Irishman. There were an awful lot of incredible men in this house. Not to mention incredible women. It’s not for nothing I hold the English in such contempt. They just don’t measure up to those people.
–Not any English people?
–Yeah, some, but they’re exceptional. Actually, I wouldn’t say I knew any English people who measured up to any of my uncles.
Shane snorts, acrimoniously, and takes a swig, acerbically.
–My main hero, when I was small, was my Uncle John, who was the actual owner of the house and the farm. It was up to him to decide who got the farm and the house when he’d gone and he ended up being the last one to go. He was a Zen master in the art of cursing and making short, obvious, but meaningful statements. And gross dirty jokes. The rest of the time he remained completely and absolutely silent. He grunted, rather than saying yes or no and he was an expert in swatting flies with his cap.
I used to go out and help him on the farm, ploughing or making hay and I used to help him kill the chickens and turkeys and geese.
–Yeah. I found it fascinating because they knew they were going to die, before we started running after them and it took two of us to catch them. Then we’d drag them along and I’d hold them, while he shoved the knife in. He’d have to bend their necks and cut them and then they’d bleed to death which took about twenty minutes. As they were dying they started looking really stoned like junkies look. And the other thing that really fascinated me about the hens was when we killed them, we’d find eggs just floating around inside them, without any shells. I found that really disgusting. When my mother was pregnant with me, she was having a boiled egg for breakfast one morning and she opened it up and inside it was a baby chick. She passed out and nearly had a miscarriage. Another time she was at a football match with my dad and the football hit her right where my head was. And when I was four, I had measles which didn’t come out, yeah? The spots never came out, they went to my head and I went completely mad for a month. They say I never really came back. In fact, that’s when I started making up stories and poems and songs and tunes. That’s when I blossomed. Of course, my mum says I was always brilliant.
Victoria nods, knowingly.
–Being small at the time, the farm seemed very big to me, it seemed like a jungle, because everything was overgrown. So, apart from hurling, we used to play war games, we used to play Vietnam war – because the war was going on at the time – and we used to play Black and Tans. Vietnam war was the Vietcong versus the Yanks and Black and Tans was the Irish versus the Black and Tans. I knew a lot about the Black and Tan war because I was always being told stories about it by people who’d lived through it. Our house was a safehouse for the IRA during the Black and Tan war. So we could act out real stories in exact detail, my Uncle Mick having been the local commandant of the IRA. I was on the goodies’ side in both wars, obviously. I was the IRA in the Tan war and I was the Vietcong in the Vietnam war. So I got to win all the time. Which is always the way I’ve liked it, I like to win.
–What now just looks like overgrown fields and little tracks, to me, as a kid looked like the jungle, in the case of the Vietnam war, and in the case of the Tan war it looked like a vast expanse of countryside. So it was a wonderful childhood. It was very primitive.
–Is that why you don’t do normal things, like have a bath?
–Maybe. My Uncle Mick Guilfoyle never took a bath from the day he was born. Or at least from the day his mother died, because he didn’t see any reason to. He had a big black horse and we used to meet him at the water pump with his big black horse and his oil barrels. We’d have our oil barrels, on the back of our cart, and we’d fill them up from the pump with a bucket, that was how we got our water, in those days.
Mick Guilfoyle looked like a coal miner, he was completely black from head to toe, with a black suit and a black cap and a black horse. Mind you, everybody was black around there, but he was really black. Really, really black. And his horse was huge. He lived until he was eighty-seven, never taking a bath, never washing anything, not even the horse. Then, when he was eighty-seven, he got taken into hospital for a minor ailment and they gave him a bath. And he wasn’t immune to the air because he was completely covered in black dirt, so he got sick immediately and he died of exposure to fresh air. That may have something to do with my aversion to taking a bath now.
Then there was Paddy McGrath, who wouldn’t make his bike go up hills. He used to say to it, `I wouldn’t make you go up that big hill. I’ll walk you up it.’ And he’d walk the bike up to the top of the hill then get back on it and say, `Isn’t that better?’ Then he’d ride down the other side of the hill. And then there’d be another hill so the whole thing would happen again.
And there was Napoleon O’Guanasa, who survived for forty years, walking home from the pub every night pissed, in the middle of the road. Napoleon was mad and he used to bother everybody in the town for drinks and he burned down the Protestant church several times. And he used to walk home in the middle of the road with cars coming around blind bends at ninety miles an hour and he’d just stand there leering at them. He got away with it for forty years until he met one driver who was drunker than him and the driver hit him and he was splattered all over the road.
The ferocious wind rattles the front door of the remote cottage, ambulatorily. Shane glances at the door, occasionally.
–When I was a kid there weren’t many cars, so cars were something you’d run out to look at. The nearest place to buy anything was the post office, a half a mile up the road, and I used to get sent to the post office to buy flour for making bread and I used to get tipped with a bar of chocolate and cigarettes.
All the men used to go into town on the horse and cart, or on their bicycles, and when he was younger, my Uncle Willie got shot at by the Tans for driving too fast with his horse and cart, but he was lucky, they missed him. The Tans used to line up the men as they came into town, on the way into Borrisokane, and play Russian roulette with them. Line them up, facing a wall and go, `Eeny-meeny, miney-mo. Bang!’ They got great fun out of that. So after a bit of that, a whole division of them got taken out in a little town near our house. There’s a load of Tans buried down there.
Outside, the windfalls silent, eerily. Shane spits into the flames, noisily.
–In Mayo they didn’t have any room to bury the dead from the famine, so they buried them in sand dunes on the beaches. Me and a bunch of mates went down there one time, led by a guy who came from Mayo, and he took us down and showed us the dunes. There was an atmosphere of intense panic and dread and we were trying to be big boys, so we went up and started kicking the sand dunes and all these human bones started coming out. Which is what my song `The Dunes’ is about.
The couple contemplate this information, silently.
–Why were you brought up on the farm, instead of with your parents?
–I was a kid at the time, so I don’t know, but working it out, it would seem that my parents left me here to be brought up by my mother’s family while they got on with their work, because they both had jobs in England. They were very unhappy in England and they wanted me to have as much happiness as possible, before they had to send me to school. And they couldn’t send me to school in Ireland, or so they thought, because they didn’t want me to be subjected to the Christian Brothers or the Jesuits. They visited me and I visited them, but basically they thought it would be much better for me to be brought up in the nice healthy countryside. It was an obvious place for a kid to spend his childhood.
IT’S TRUE I WAS A DOCTOR’S SON
AND YET I GAZED IN WONDER
AS HE PERISHED FROM THE RAGING PLAGUE
THAT CAME WITH THE GREAT HUNGER
THAT CAME WITH THE GREAT HUNGER
I TRAVELLED TO THE WESTERN SHORE
SAW HUGE MOUNDS BUILT OF SAND THERE
FULL OF ROTTING BODIES OF SOULS
THAT DIED FROM THE GREAT HUNGER
THAT DIED FROM THE GREAT HUNGER
I SAW DEAD WOMEN IN THE DITCHES
WITH BABIES ONE OR YOUNGER
POISON BERRIES IN THEIR MOUTHS
TO TRY TO ESCAPE THE HUNGER
TO TRY TO ESCAPE THE HUNGER
BRITANNIA’S WHORES TOOK ALL OUR GRAIN
TO PUT BREAD ON THEIR TABLES
WHILE WALKING SKELETONS CRAWLED TO THE BOATS
TO ESCAPE IF THEY WERE ABLE
TO ESCAPE IF THEY WERE ABLE
I SAW THEM SCURRYING ON THE BOATS
PANICKING AND FRANTIC
YET MOST OF THEM THEY PERISHED STILL
TRYING TO CROSS THE BROAD ATLANTIC
TRYING TO CROSS THE BROAD ATLANTIC
–So you didn’t miss them?
–Not really, no. Being a kid, you don’t miss people when they’re not there. Of course, when they came over and went away again, I’d cry for a couple of days, but I was having the life of Reilly. I had a great time here and I think they should have left me here longer. My mother feels guilty about it, but everything turned out for the best. I’m sure if I’d had a normal childhood I wouldn’t have turned out the way I am.
Victoria smiles, faithfully.
–That would have been a tragedy.
Shane agrees, instinctively.
–Yeah. I’d be a different person. Maybe I’d be more famous and more successful. I could be a multibillionaire. Maybe I’d have gone through school and college and university and become some sort of genius, academically. It’s very unlikely though. I don’t have any talent, apart from musically.
–Yes you do. You once cooked me stir-fried lasagne.
–Yeah. That’s true. Okay, I do have other talents.
Shane stubs out a fag, lights another fag and eyes a picture of JFK, respectfully.
–I want to talk about my Uncle Sean. My mother only had one brother and that was my Uncle Sean who was a great singer and a really flash dresser. He was a rocker, he wore wrap-around shades and a flash black suit and winklepickers. He went over to England and worked on a site and he spent all his money on clothes and taking women out. He was a brilliant dancer and he could do any kind of dance. He could sing Irish ballads, country ballads, Elvis Presley. And he had a really cool delivery. He could have been on the stage, just like my mother, they should have been a double act. He was a loveable rogue and women found him irresistible. He taught me about women and how to charm them.
Shane leers, intriguingly.
–Oh yeah? How do you do it?
–His method was just to go up to them and ask them if they wanted to dance and then to dance with them, until they were breathless and they had to sit down. Then he’d sit down with them and put an arm around them and start talking to them about themselves. He said always talk about them.
–You don’t do that. You don’t talk about me.
–I suppose I was so successful with women that I didn’t bother with chat-up lines and anybody that I had to bother chatting up, I couldn’t be bothered with. But women always like talking about themselves. This was his trick. He was a real piss-taker. He put on a front of being a very cool, sarcastic man, but in fact he was a very warm, loving individual, easily hurt.
–Just like you.
–He influenced me a lot. And his singing inspired me a lot. He had the same figure as me and he had blue eyes like me. And he used to really take the piss out of me if I took a girlfriend home. He’d always get her to milk a cow and then we’d stand and watch and comment on her wrist action. Anybody who took themselves seriously, he’d rip them apart. And he could also handle himself in a fight, but he wasn’t into starting fights. He got me out of a couple of situations that I got myself into. In the area he was generally known as a man that you didn’t fuck with.
I’ve always been surrounded by older men and women that I looked up to. I have a lot of respect for older people, even people slightly older than me. Because I was the oldest in the family, I suppose I wanted a big brother or a big sister. But I did have hundreds of uncles and aunts and loads of older friends that have taught me about life, what to expect. Who have prepared me for things.
–Like my friend Joanne, who told me about my Saturn return, before it happened to me, so that when it did happen, I knew what it was. And my friend Jock Scot, who’s been there for twenty years, always giving me fresh hope and optimism. And my Uncle John, who to me was what a man ought to be. And my father and mother.
I’m not saying that their example is necessarily what every man should be, because it’s up to you what you want to be. A man should be what he wants to be, that’s the important thing to remember. A man should shape his own future and make his own present. Deal with his own past. Charlie Maclennan was a great man also, I’ll talk about him later, a man who taught me very deep things about loyalty and trust and paranoia and machismo and how to conduct yourself.
Shane pauses, reflectively. The wind rattles the door, affectionately.
–My Auntie Ellen was a brilliant concertina player. She could show Terry Woods a thing or two. She used to hide the IRA under her bed behind the pisspots, behind the full, ranking, stinking pisspots. And the Tommys used to come in and they were such wimps that they couldn’t go any further once they saw the pisspots. So the IRA guys were safe. It wasn’t very pleasant for them, mind you, but better than getting a bullet in the head.
They were all safehouses, all our family houses. My Grand-uncle Mikey, who was the postmaster in Cloughjordan, was the local commandant of the IRA. Which is a handy guy to have being the commandant of the IRA. Tipperary was a gaeltacht in 1900, and my great-grandad, John Lynch – whose picture is in the parlour – spoke fluent Irish, and so did my great-grandmother. And so did all the people, in their day. Because they had been alive in the time of the famine. My great-grandad was in the Land League, with Michael Davitt. He was a co-founder of Shannon Rovers. And my uncles and aunties, that brought me up, taught me all my history, the real stories about what happened to them in the Black and Tan war, and the civil war.
But there was only one full-time farmer, and that was my Uncle John, the oldest brother, who actually looked after the farm. My Uncle John, and all that lot, they were real Irish layabouts. I mean, if it came to hiding people on the run and all the rest of it, then they’d move at lightning speed. But what they liked doing was sitting around talking rubbish. But it wasn’t all rubbish, of course. I learned a lot from listening to them. And I would be allowed to pipe in. One of the main arguments was, had de Valera had Michael Collins shot or not? And my Uncle John used to say, `Fuck off … don’t be so stupid.’ Cause he was a really clever man, and he could read your mind. Anyway, when the rest of the men would be squabbling about Dev, the women would be joining in, but they’d be told to shut up, because what did they know about it, sort of thing. And some of them would be piping up for Der, saying, `He gave us electricity. Imagine if we were still using the old gas lamps. And because of electricity, we have the radio, and we can know what’s going on outside.’
–But radios don’t need electricity.
–It wasn’t a transistor!!! It was a fucking 1930s fucking radio!!! Anyway, my great-grandad, Big John, inherited this kitchen from his father. His younger brother was Tom Lynch. Who ran two pubs into the ground. He was a screaming alkie. But eventually he was cured, while praying to Our Lady. And then he started a third pub which he built into a thriving business. A gold mine. And when all that was done, at the age of about sixty, he gave a lot of money to Big John Lynch, cause he was the one who had fucking fourteen children and was trying to build an extension, to give him bedrooms. Which were all going to be slept in four or five to a bed. And he had to build an upstairs because there were so many of them.
He was thinking modern. He built the parlour as a way of getting people out of the kitchen, and making it a two-room house. You know, a very modern idea in 1901. But the parlour only ever got used to house religious statues. And a grand piano, which they bought at a big house auction for fuck all, because it didn’t work. But it looks great! Have you seen it?
–The piano? Yeah. It’s out of tune, though, you’re right.
–Yeah and it’s covered in religious statues. There’s a harmonium in there as well, which has been kicked to shit by somebody who got frustrated by the fact that they couldn’t work out how to play it. Probably my Uncle Mikey, who thought, like, he’d have a go on it. Cause he’d gone as far as he could on the accordion. You know, he lived till ninety-nine.
Hubert, my Uncle Mick’s son, Hubert, married Nancy, who was beautiful, and they were both fond of a drink, Hubert and Nancy. Her daughters are all very beautiful, too. Blonde, beautiful with blue eyes.
–I met one of them.
–Yeah, you met Carmel. Did I tell you about Frank and Tony Gleason? Frank and Tony were in a band with my cousin Gerry Lynch. A Dubliners type band. And when I was a kid, Tony Gleason used to bounce me on his knee. He was a fresh-faced youth then. And they all grew beards and everybody was going, `This is shocking. Isn’t this shocking! They’ve all grown beards!’
Shane laughs, indulgently.
–They were the wild men of the neighbourhood because they’d grown beards. They were like hippies, before hippies arrived. And they’d all grown beards to be like the Dubliners. They had a ballad group, Frank and Tony Gleason, and my cousin Gerry Lynch. My cousin Gerry Lynch originally started off wearing Arran sweaters, and being clean shaven. Looking like one of the Clancy brothers, yeah? Then he stopped wearing Arran sweaters, and grew a beard, and started wearing an old suit. And everybody said how shocking it was that they had beards. They were the first bearded ballad group in Tipperary. I’m just outlining my musical heritage a bit, for you here.
Victoria glides to the dresser and makes two cups of tea, efficiently.
–Who was the milkman? You said something about a milkman?
–Tommy Keane, the milkman. He was another guy who used to bounce me on his knee.
–You got bounced a lot?
–I got bounced a lot, yeah. Bounced on people’s knees a lot. And he was always pissed out of his head, right. He used to come round, collecting the milk, y’know.
–No, collecting it. The extra milk that you had from the cows, you’d give it to him, and he’d put it in big churns, and he’d take it off and sell it for you in town. But then he’d come around, about three or four every morning, just as we were dousing the fire, and everybody was getting ready to go to bed. Or, people who didn’t go to bed weren’t getting ready to go to bed, cause a lot of people didn’t go to bed. I didn’t go to bed much. And Tommy used to turn up pissed out of his head at three or four o’clock in the morning. And in came Tommy, and he’d say, `Sorry to wake you. Sorry to get you up. Sorry to keep you from your bed.’
–But he wasn’t really sorry, was he?
–He was sorry, but he needed company. Cause he’d run out of … all his pals were comatose, know what I mean. He was one of these men who could drink all night. So he’d sit around the kitchen for the next couple of hours and I’d give him another bottle of stout, and that meant I could get another bottle of stout, too.
–How old were you?
–When Tommy used to come around at three or four in the morning?
–I suppose I was about five.
–Five?! And you’d get another bottle of stout?!
–And how many bottles had you already had?
Shane grins, hideously. Victoria nibbles a digestive, attractively.
–Gosh. That’s a lot for a kid.
–I used to get two a night.
–Two a night?
–And who gave you that?
–My Uncle John. He used to bring it in from the boozer … when he got back from the boozer.
–So that’d be quite late.
–Yeah. He’d get in from the boozer about one o’clock in the morning.
–And you’d still be up.
–Yeah, I’d still be up.
–Did nobody try to make you go to bed?
–I forgot to mention my Auntie Monica.
–She tried to put you in the bathtub.
–She did put me in the bathtub, yeah. She used to try and make me go to bed, too, but …
–But what? So why didn’t you?
–I was a disobedient child, y’know.
–I thought you were a good child.
–I was a good child, apart from with my Auntie Monica, because she asked me to go to bed, and have a bath, and things. And I didn’t want to. So I didn’t. And they’d all say, `Leave the child alone. Leave the child alone.’
–Yeah. She used to get so frustrated.
–And my granny used to have a go as well, being my granny. But they used to say, `Leave the child alone. Leave the child alone.’ To her, as well.
–So the men ruled the roost.
–No, the men and the women used to say, `Leave the child alone.’ There was my granny, right, and she had fucking three sisters, and four brothers. And there was my Auntie Monica, who was my cousin … well, my auntie, you know. My cousin really, but I called her my auntie, cause she was like forty. I was six. And even when I used to go back, afterwards, it was the same scene, you know. She didn’t leave the house until she married Tom. I told you about her courting Tom in the parlour, and all of it. Basically, they got married, and she left the house, and I never had to have a bath again.
–So, your granny didn’t make that much of an effort, obviously?
–She made a small effort.
–But not enough of an effort to make any difference, really.
–No, not really, no.
–Did they not think that, like, it might be bad for you?
–Sitting up all night drinking at the age of five?
–They believed in letting the child do what it wanted, as long as it went to Mass.
–And did that include …?
–I mean, not sex, you know. But the child was too young to have sex. I was allowed to smoke, drink and bet, as a child, all of which are regarded by puritans as bad habits, because I came from a very anti-puritan background. Sex was the one thing that was a no-no, sex and blasphemy. You were allowed to say fuck as much as you wanted to, but that isn’t blasphemy, that isn’t saying anything against Jesus or His Holy Mother. Fuck, itself, is the most popular word in the Irish vocabulary. And I was brought up to say it from a very early age. And I was smoking and drinking and gambling before I could hardly talk.
The first horse I ever bet on was called Maxwell House and he came in at 10-1. I was five years old. So I was a regular gambler after that. And the way my Auntie Nora taught me the gospel was we used to do the Irish Sweepstake together and she used to buy me packets of cigarettes. She was a heavy smoker, she didn’t drink but she allowed the men to buy me drink, she told me there was no crime in having a drink, she told me the crime was in worshipping the devil. So with one hand she was dishing out cigarettes and the Irish Sweepstake, which we used to do religiously every week, the two of us and we used to win again and again because it involves a certain amount of intelligence, the Irish Sweepstake, because it involves a crossword puzzle, and then when she had me pissed and smoking like a chimney, she’d start teaching me the gospels. Hideously devious. Jesuits couldn’t touch it. So I became a religious maniac at the same time as becoming a total hedonist. And it worked because I’m still a religious maniac and a total hedonist.
It nearly tore me apart, when she died. She died a reasonably dignified death, but unfortunately she was getting out of bed and she was in the process of putting her knickers on when she had a heart attack which killed her immediately. They found her lying on her bed with her knickers around her knees. When I heard, I cried for a week. Just like Hendrix all over again. I’m a very emotional person, however cold I appear on the exterior. A lot of people think I appear cold, but why shouldn’t I be, with strangers? I don’t know them, they don’t mean anything to me. I’m always warm with people I know, if I like them. I’m not a hypocrite.
–What about stealing and killing? Were they allowed?
–Stealing and killing were all right.
Victoria scrutinizes her companion, outragedly.
–No! You didn’t try that, did you?
–I didn’t have to steal. I mean, what do you steal for when you’re a kid? You steal to get cigarettes, you steal to get booze, you steal to get sweets. I was given all the sweets and cigarettes and booze that I could fucking handle.
–Did you get drunk?
–Well, I suppose originally, I got drunk. But you soon get used to two bottles of Guinness a night.
–Do you remember getting drunk?
–No. Yeah, I did used to get drunk a bit, yeah.
–Do you remember the first time you got drunk?
–I remember the first time I got drunk on whiskey, but I think I’ve said that.
–Well, I’ll tell you again, in case I haven’t. I used to spy on Tom and Monica, right? In the parlour. So Tom bought me a bottle of whiskey, a baby Powers, one day, in Hannigans, in Kilbarron, the town my mum and dad were married in. And, he said, `Don’t tell anybody I gave that to you!’ A baby Powers, right, and I was about eight, I think, when that happened. I wasn’t still living here, I was on my school holidays. But I suppose as far as I was concerned I was still living here. School was just an interruption, know what I mean?
–A baby Powers. You know how big that is? It’s two doubles, yeah. Two Irish doubles. `Don’t tell anyone I gave you that’! I don’t know why he did it. I asked him, that’s why. And he worshipped the ground I walked on.
–He was just really fond of me, know what I mean. And I used to say to him, `Tom, don’t marry Monica. For God’s sake!’
–Why did you say that?
–Cause she’ll make you have a bath! Know what I mean. And she’ll fucking try to make you go to bed early, and stuff like that.
Victoria chokes on her biscuit, audibly.
–Shane, that’s ridiculous. Think about it. I often try to make you have a bath and go to bed early too.
–Yeah! But you’re not like Monica. You’re more submissive than Monica. She used to get really tough, you know.
–Maybe I should have gotten tougher.
–No, no! See, I will have a bath.
–Perhaps next year.
–Okay, so he gave you a bottle of Powers whiskey, what then?
–A baby Powers he gave me, yeah. So, I kept it for a while, thinking about drinking it. I was keeping it for a special occasion, know what I mean? Cause I had this whiskey in my pocket, and I was just a kid. And I thought I’d never have another bottle of whiskey in my pocket. But that’s the way you think when you’re a kid. A bit like an animal.
–Yeah. I hoarded it, but then one day I said, `What the fuck!’ I drank it in the middle of the day, and I went out in the farmyard, and the geese started talking to me.
–What did they say?
–They were just talking gobbledegook, but I was thinking gobbledegook, know what I mean?! I was out of my fucking brains. I had one belt and I went, `God Almighty!!!’ … I got a fantastic rush! And then I went, `Fucking Hell!’ and had the rest of it. And got another fantastic rush! I think they all thought I’d gone a bit loopy, cause however drunk I was, I couldn’t say that I’d just had some whiskey, and that I’d got it off Tom. I wasn’t that sort of kid.
–That’s why he bought it for me, he wouldn’t have bought it if he thought I’d split on him. But the farmyard animals were talking to me, and I was talking back to them. And my Uncle John actually showed some interest in something, for once. He was carting a bucket across the yard, and he sort of looked at me, and he said, `What the fuck!?!?’ I think he sussed it out actually, you know. Well, I was laughing my head off for hours. I remember that really vividly, the first time I got drunk on whiskey.
–That’s a lovely story, Sweet Pea, and I’m sure that’s an inspiration to a lot of other people as well.
–I’m sure millions of people will be following that example, won’t they?
–Yeah, well, this is a book of don’ts!
–But you’re still here.
–I’m still here, yeah. A few bottles of whiskey later.
–Yeah. So, you didn’t have ill effects?
–No, I didn’t puke. I didn’t have a hangover.
–Then you couldn’t keep me off the stuff.
–So, their philosophy didn’t work, did it?
–I don’t think they thought it really would, y’know.
–They just couldn’t deny me anything. Old people get really mischievous around young people. But it was the old folks who bought me the Guinness and gave me the fags, and started me gambling, and all the rest of it.
–They were just playing with you, weren’t they?
–It was just like having a little man around the place. They used to call me `little man’.
–Yeah. `Where are you off to, little man?’
–So they were just wicked.
–Yeah, they were wicked fuckers, yeah.
–It sounds like a fairy story, doesn’t it? It sounds like Snow White or something. It would make a brilliant movie for kids.
–But if anybody ever questioned them about it, they would say, `Well, you know, if you give them enough when they’re young, they won’t over burden it later on.’
–Well, obviously they were right!
–Well, I can handle my drink, you know.
–You don’t beat anybody up.
–So, I suppose in one way, it did work.
–Yeah. It taught me to respect the stuff, know what I mean.
–But don’t you think it’s given alcohol a sort of mythical quality in your imagination?
–But there’s nothing mythical about it. It already happened, yeah.
–Also, you’ve never actually experienced life at all without it, have you? You’ve never experienced life without alcohol.
–Not really, no.
–Cause you’ve had it since you were a small child. So you don’t have memories of not drinking.
–Like, most people have got a fair stretch where they didn’t drink at all, which they can remember, they can remember being happy without even having ever tasted the stuff.
–I was happy without it.
–I wasn’t hooked on it … at that stage.
–But you had two every day, so you maybe wouldn’t know. Were there any days when you didn’t have it?
–Well, some nights I didn’t get any booze at all, you know. I didn’t miss it if I didn’t have it.
–Well, it was a nice enough place anyway. I know you don’t think much of it.
–But when you’re a child it’s different. Places are different.
–It was a wonderful life anyway. I used to enjoy walking, and running, and … all the things that I can’t do any more, y’know.
–You can still walk.
–No, I mean going for long walks.
–You could still do that if you wanted to.
–No, I’m not saying I can’t do that any more, it’s that I don’t do that any more. That’s what I’m saying.
–Yeah. So, you were a normal-ish child apart from …
–I was normal except I had the biggest playground in the world! I had a whole farm. It wasn’t a big farm, but I wasn’t a big boy. It was like being in a Western.
–Yeah. I mean, we kids used to fight a family who lived opposite and they used to fight us. Bloody IRA games and Vietnam games were just training for fighting … for real, you know. It was just instinctive, like crack dealers and coppers, you know what I mean.
–Did you fight the Protestants? When I was a kid, I went to a Protestant school for a while and the Catholics used to get their heads kicked in every day, in the playground.
–No, but when I would go back to Ireland, after I had moved to England, I’d say to them `What’s the matter with Protestants?’ Because now I was mixing with loads of Protestants. So I’d say, `What’s the matter with Protestants?’ and they’d say, `They’re going to hell.’ Well, they didn’t say they’d go to hell, they’d say, `They’re wrong, they’ve got it wrong.’ And like …
–But weren’t Protestants supposed to go to hell?
–No, no, they spent time in purgatory. And our next-door neighbour, Jim Ralph, was a Protestant, and had his meals with us, you know, because his parents were dead, and he didn’t have any brothers and sisters – and he was a very cool guy, you know, a very funny guy. Anyway he was instrumental in a trick I had for avoiding saying the rosary. Everything in my life was a paradox, so even when I was a religious maniac, the rosary used to kill me. And it killed …
©2001 by Shane MacGowan and Victoria Mary Clarke. Reprinted with permission from Grove Atlantic, Inc. All rights reserved.