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'Angel' Shane MacGowan remembered by friend Finny McConnell of The Mahones

Irish singer Shane MacGowan attends the funeral mass of Irish poet Seamus Heaney at the Church of the Sacred Heart in Donnybrook, Dublin, Ireland, Monday, Sept. 2, 2013. Macgowan, the singer-songwriter and frontman of The Pogues, best known for their ballad “Fairytale of New York,” has died. He was 65. THE CANADIAN PRESS/AP, Peter Morrison Irish singer Shane MacGowan attends the funeral mass of Irish poet Seamus Heaney at the Church of the Sacred Heart in Donnybrook, Dublin, Ireland, Monday, Sept. 2, 2013. Macgowan, the singer-songwriter and frontman of The Pogues, best known for their ballad “Fairytale of New York,” has died. He was 65. THE CANADIAN PRESS/AP, Peter Morrison
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Finny McConnell, frontman for Canadian band The Mahones, remembered many occasions spent drinking into the mornings with his close friend and fellow Irish punk Shane MacGowan as he prepared to pay tribute to the singer-songwriter in London.

Speaking from a pub in the Camden Town area around the corner from where he first met MacGowan in the late 1970s, McConnell described him as "a sweetheart, an angel and funny as hell."

McConnell said he was set to perform at a concert Friday in Camden in honour of MacGowan's legacy and influence in London's Irish community.

MacGowan, the boozy, rabble-rousing singer and chief songwriter of The Pogues, died Thursday, his family said. He was 65.

"It's a sad day for all us Irish punks because he's the king, he's the guy who started it all," said an animated McConnell, who punctuated his anecdotes with profanity and guffaws.

"He broke the rules and made it current for all us young punks, he got us all into it. Now there's like a thousand bands like us around the world."

The Pogues melded Irish folk and rock 'n' roll into a unique, intoxicating blend, though MacGowan became as famous for his slurred performances as for his powerful songwriting.

The musician had been hospitalized in Dublin for several months after being diagnosed with viral encephalitis in late 2022. He was discharged last week, ahead of his upcoming birthday on Christmas Day.

McConnell, who had been following MacGowan's deteriorating health for some time, said he was extremely saddened by the icon's death, but not surprised given his frail state.

McConnell, who was born in Dublin but came to Canada as a baby, recalled living above an Irish pub his family owned, and hating the traditional music they played. But that changed after he saw The Pogues' furious punk energy infused with traditional Irish melodies and instruments while spending time in London during the '80s.

McConnell would return to Canada in 1990 and start The Mahones in Kingston, Ont., in 1990, taking the name from the rude Irish phrase Pogue Mahone, which was also The Pogues' original name.

"I wouldn't be doing it if it wasn't for him," said McConnell, whose band released 21 albums and have toured around the world.

The two first played together at a music festival in New York City in the '90s, with a lineup including Van Morrison and Sinead O'Connor.

After being kicked out The Pogues in 1991 following a string of no-shows, MacGowan performed with a new band, Shane MacGowan and the Popes. McConnell toured across Canada with the Popes in 2009 but without MacGowan, who had stopped touring by that point.

"He just really didn't care too much about playing live," McConnell said. "He was more into his songwriting."

The last time the pair played together was in 2003 or 2004, McConnell recalled, noting the two went on a three-day drinking bender that started in Montreal and ended in Toronto.

"The last time I went to see him play, he didn't even show up for the concert," said McConnell. "I had to get on stage and sing with his band because he wasn't there," he added.

MacGowan reunited with The Pogues in 2001 for a series of concerts and tours, despite his well-documented problems with drinking and performances that regularly included slurred lyrics and at least one fall on stage.

He received a lifetime achievement award for the Irish president on his 60th birthday. The occasion was marked with a celebratory concert at the National Concert Hall in Dublin with performers including Bono, Nick Cave, Sinead O'Connor and Johnny Depp.

But McConnell said MacGowan never forgot his early days on the streets of London, and he remained in tune with people living on the streets until the very end.

"He'd stop and give them a twenty, not a nickel. He was a really nice guy that way," he said. "Just a wonderful guy. He's a poet right? That's his real skills, was his poetry."

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Dec. 1, 2023.

With files from The Associated Press

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