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Guinness, goodbyes and dancing in the aisles: Inside Shane MacGowan’s rock and roll funeral

The Pogues singer’s send-off in Co Tipperary was a lively affair, as was the unofficial wake in his favourite bar afterwards, Barney Davis writes

Saturday 09 December 2023 21:36 GMT
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Shane MacGowan was laid to rest in St Mary of the Rosary Church, in Co Tipperary
Shane MacGowan was laid to rest in St Mary of the Rosary Church, in Co Tipperary (REUTERS)

A grizzled old punk with purple hair sat next to the Irish president, Johnny Depp and Gerry AdamsShane MacGowan would have been proud.

The small town of Nenagh in Co Tipperary had never witnessed anything quite like it, as the great and the good of both the political and music worlds gathered to say goodbye to the Pogues singer on Friday. Hundreds more crowded outside St Mary of the Rosary Church, lining the streets to pay their respects.

Nenagh was abuzz as schools closed early and workers switched shifts to try to get a coveted spot on one of the church pews for the historic send-off, with rumours rife that Depp had been drinking around town in the days beforehand.

Fans touch the glass window of the carriage during the funeral procession (Getty Images)
Huge crowds gathered at the church in Nenagh (EPA)

Everyone in Nenagh seemed to have a story to share about MacGowan, who was regularly spotted shuffling up Summerhill to his favourite watering hole, Philly’s bar. His funeral procession would follow the very same route from the church and back to the undertakers.

Inside the church, as we took our seats, an increasingly desperate usher had the thankless task of trying to clear the centre aisle of well-wishers, begging the crowds half a dozen times or more to make room so that MacGowan’s casket could get into his own funeral.

One woman got on her knees to pray she wouldn’t get kicked out so we moved over to make room for her. Another lifelong fan – jokingly, I hope – threatened to have me kicked out myself, mistakenly thinking I wasn’t born when Shane was first booted out of The Pogues on a Japanese tour in 1991.

Mourners take communion during the service (Facebook)
MacGowan’s former bandmates in The Pogues perform: Jem Finer, Terry Woods, Spider Stacy and James Fearnley (Pogues livestream)

A procession of famous faces proceeded into the church, with Depp waving to the crowds as he arrived. He was joined by Australian singer Nick Cave, Hothouse Flowers frontman Liam O’Maonlai, Bobby Gillespie from Primal Scream and Game Of Thrones actor Aidan Gillen. Parish priest Father Pat Gilbert captured the mood when he welcomed “the world” to the local church.

Far from a sombre affair, the funeral was filled with music, laughter and appreciation. Time and again the walls of the old church seemed to shake as spontaneous rounds of applause broke out.

Shane MacGowan's family dance to Fairytale Of New York at funeral

Children shared “RIP Shane” Snapchats and would see who could clap for the longest amount of time before getting in trouble. When congregants were invited to say “peace be with you” to a stranger, cooing middle-aged women fought amongst themselves to share communion with “our Johnny”.

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And then there was the music. Cave took to the piano for a stunning rendition of “A Rainy Night in Soho” while Glen Hansard and Lisa O’Neill belted out as good a version of “Fairytale Of New York” as you’re likely to hear.

During the finale, one man fell on top of an old woman as he tried to get a good shot on his mobile phone. She got back up and kept on singing her heart out explaining matter-of-factly “it was only my leg”.

A Pogues megafan proves to me she met Shane (Barney Davis)
Johnny Depp gave a short reading at the service (Facebook)

People were grabbing strangers by the hand and swinging them around, following the MacGowan family lead, during the iconic Christmas anthem. When it was time, the Pogues megafan I was sitting next to pushed past all the famous faces to be able to touch MacGowan’s coffin in a quiet moment just for her.

Outside, the whole town was waiting with more cheers and roses to throw at the hearse. Thousands of faces young and old lined the main strip, some playing whistles, others dangling out of windows, as Pogues classics blasted over tinny speakers hastily co-opted from the upcoming Christmas festival.

The blacked out-cars and heavy security detail at a pub outside of town indicated the MacGowan’s official wake with Depp and co was going to be a strictly private affair after all.

“I was told by the man who runs Nenagh Castle that Shane had put 10,000 Euro behind the bar for Guinness for everyone,” I told a burly security guard hopefully, as others flashed their backstage passes and were waved through. The security staff just laughed and said: “Well the man at Nenagh Castle lied.”

The hearse carrying the coffin of Shane MacGowan passes through Nenagh (PA)

So, I head back to Philly Ryan’s, where MacGowan would sit on a stool shunning the limelight to read a book hopefully undisturbed.

Within minutes I was wrapped in a headlock by a strong Irish hurler trying to sing along to a Gaelic folk song. Terrified I would get it wrong, I made random guttural sounds and shouted the odd repeated word I could make out vaguely on time.

It worked. Everybody was too drunk or too friendly to even care but I hope my great-grandfather from Cork City wasn’t looking down at me. For shame. As the night wore on, somehow an elderly gentleman was fully asleep at the bar while his wife laughed: “It’s been a long day. We live just round the corner thankfully.”

After the emotional rollercoaster that was MacGowan’s funeral, I felt I could join her husband for a kip on the stool next to him.

Lining up the pints at the unofficial wake at Philly’s bar (Barney Davis)
MacGowan with his former pub landlord Phillip Ryan and the late Joe Strummer (Supplied)

Getting a pint of Guinness was nigh-on-impossible, having to squeeze past people falling over, being picked up then thrown over again. You had to crunch over shattered pint glasses just to get a fresh one.

I didn’t think my budget would stretch to MacGowan’s astonishing Philly’s breakfast order, which only began after he had two coffees “medicated” with whiskey shots. At 9am on a Monday, the singer would burst in to this exact spot where his landlord – and ultimately his undertaker – was behind the bar.

I was reliably informed it consisted of a double Bacardi, a pint of lager, a pint of cider, a vodka coke and 20 Major cigarettes. Cleaners would learn to sweep up around him if he was still there in the morning. But if jolted awake he would grab a whiskey and slip away again.

Between songs, people would randomly bellow “Shane-o” at the top of their lungs and then go mad again to the fifth repeat of “The Body Of An American”, using anything or anyone they could find for balance.

London, Dublin, New York and even Tunbridge Wells lay claim to being MacGowan’s “spiritual home” but Tiperrary has the honour of being the punk poet laureate’s resting place. After a day and night joining Nenagh in its final farewell, it’s not hard to see why.

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