Book Review: Richard Balls – A Furious Devotion: The Life of Shane MacGowan


Shane McGowan is an enigma. Fuelled by the anger of a fading Ireland, he and The Pogues demonstrated the modern day blueprint for folk and Irish trad, notching an impressive UK no.2 hit in 1987. And yet he’s spent the majority of his life in England, and briefly spent a period schooled by public school masters. Like Joe Strummer, his intentions were pure, fiery and imaginative, although both men were forced to reconcile their schooling in the wake of the punk movement that shook Britain in the early eighties. 

No book on McGowan goes half as far as this one in connecting the singer’s geography with the mythology that laced his most memorable tunes. Even McGowan’s uneasy standing in a country that set out to shame him is examined in great detail, culminating in a portrait that’s equal parts exhilarating and exciting in equal measure. It helps that author Richard Balls spent time with the singer, giving him a great insight into the creator. “He doesn’t want anything written about him,” Balls recently admitted on the Word In Your Ear podcast, which is the same show where the author revealed that the vocalist never lived in Ireland, despite McGowan’s assertions to the contrary. What emerges from the book is a character who revels in romanticism, which likely stemmed from a childhood holiday in Tipperary; the land of  Laurence Sterne and Liam Clancy. Balls, whose respect for the lyricist never wanes, follows McGowan on his life journey, is clever enough to let the story tell itself, but it’s fairly apparent that he didn’t belong in a public school, not least because of his penchant for notoriety. 

 Like John Lennon before him, McGowan found escapism in music, and in John Lydon, McGowan found another second generation Irish man searching for his own identity. Invariably, he found it in Pogue Mahone (later The Pogues), and his rebellious spirit-not least his literary acumen-made him an infectious frontman, but his excessive drinking was hard for the band to countenance (many in Ireland felt that McGowan’s imbibing and public encouragement for the IRA went against the new country they were hoping to build.) And yet his gift for melody was an incredible strength for him, as was evinced on “Fairytale of New York”, a gloriously cinematic exploration of the Irish diaspora dancing on the American streets. In almost every definition of the word, the song holds up as a masterpiece, and offered a truer reflection of Christmas to the treacle that nominally pours out of the radio stations in December. 

 Fittingly, McGowan’s birthday was on December 25th, which might explain why he’s so keen on putting himself through the motions, yet there’s much more to the songwriter than Christmas quotes. As the book ends, celebrities Nick Cave and Cillian Murphy congregate to give their opinion of McGowan. Between them, they paint an eminent performer, whose songcraft will outlive any of them. For all his other proclivities, McGowan is first and foremost an artist of the highest order, as is seen in this fine, unvarnished autobiography.