One Bourbon, One Scotch, One Beer

The Pogues bring every beloved cliche to life

The Irish in America must hate themselves. At least that's the impression we give. Take the cheap plastic leprechaun hats for what they really are: a pained and desperate howl for identity. Nothing else could explain—or excuse—Coors-made Killian's Irish Red beer or the literal ton of human flesh scarred with Notre Dame's Fighting Irish. But well-educated, worldly Europeans are the face of Ireland today, not the toothless, smelly uncle you've never met—and these new prosperous Irish also have fuck-all to do with the Pogues.

The Pogues are and were every tired cliché somehow alchemized into value and culture and resonance. Led by Shane MacGowan, the punch line to every drunken Irishman joke made flesh, the Pogues (from Pogue Mahone, which is Gaelic—or more accurately Irish—for "kiss my ass," originally póg mo thóin) were a group of London kids of Irish descent, though MacGowan did spend his formative years in Tipperary, Ireland, reportedly drinking whiskey and beer at age 6. These Pogues were high on the true promise of punk: possibility. Searching for that same sense of identity so many Americans turn into minstrelsy, MacGowan and cronies like Spider Stacy and Cait O'Riordan looked to their cultural past for the future of English music–Irish folk rebel songs. The punk-imbued lack of reverence for the ageless material they played made the music exactly what synth-saturated 1980s England needed. At first, they even used a beer tray (applied with force to the skull) as a percussive instrument—luckily, head-basher Stacy eventually moved to the less concussion-inducing Irish whistle.

The real diamond bullet through the forehead came when the Pogues began to write original songs to go with the ancient traditionals they'd reinvented. MacGowan's "Sally MacLennane" is as likely to be in the Drunken Celtic Songbook one hundred years from now as "Whiskey in the Jar." "Fairytale of New York" is the most moving Christmas song written . . . ever, actually. And the Pogues even put the plight of their fellow Irish abroad–from the impoverished Potato Famine refugees to the guy wearing shamrock beads and "Suck Me I'm Irish" button–to song in "Thousands Are Sailing." It's the kind of poignancy that leads one to forgive the Pogues for all the Celtic punk bands left in their wake.

Suck them, they're Irish. Photo courtesy Rhino Records
Suck them, they're Irish. Photo courtesy Rhino Records