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Hard-living Irish musician Shane MacGowan received last rites before he died, family says 

Shane MacGowan on June 16, 2016, in London, England / Credit: Dave Benett/Getty Images

CNA Newsroom, Dec 1, 2023 / 14:15 pm (CNA).

Irish songwriter and former Pogues lead singer Shane MacGowan received last rites before he died Thursday, his family said. 

“Prayers and the last rites were read during his passing,” the family said in a written statement Nov. 30. 

MacGowan, 65, is best known as the co-author of the 1987 Christmas mega-hit “Fairytale of New York,” which still enters the charts each December, more than 35 years after its initial release. 

He was also the frontman and founder of the Pogues, a London band that fused Irish traditional music and punk rock, along with occasional forays into other genres. 

MacGowan was raised a Catholic and often used Catholic imagery in his songs, though he did not practice the faith for most of his adult life, which included decades of heavy drug and alcohol use and frequent infidelity. 

Yet he told an interviewer that he often prayed to Jesus, Mary, St. Martin, St. Francis, and his dead relatives who he thought were in heaven. 

“His anxiety around loss and death, including almost certainly his own, was presented as one of the reasons behind his strong Irish Catholic faith,” wrote his biographer, Richard Balls, in his 2021 book “A Furious Devotion: The Life of Shane MacGowan.” 

Irish Catholic identity 

Born and raised in England to Irish parents, as a boy Shane visited Ireland often, staying with his extended family in a stone cottage in County Tipperary for as long as six weeks at a time. The arrival of Shane and his parents and sister would cause a stir, and his aunts would get emotional to the point of crying. 

“When they came to leave, the tears would flow all over again and holy water would be sprinkled over them to keep them safe,” his biographer wrote. 

The Ireland side of the family was steeped in Catholicism. They had collies named Peter and Paul. As a lad, Shane used to walk to daily Mass with his aunt Nora as she prayed the rosary on the way. His aunt would also tune in at 6 p.m. every night to the broadcast of the Angelus on RTE, the national television network. 

MacGowan was fascinated by the Catholic Church. 

“I might have become a priest if I hadn’t been a singer,” MacGowan told his biographer. 

Drugs, alcohol, violence 

As a teenager, MacGowan got into drugs, particularly LSD, which affected his grip on reality and led him at 17 to a six-month stay at a psychiatric hospital. His loving but permissive parents did little to stop his drug use. 

For most of the rest of his life, MacGowan drank large amounts of whatever alcohol happened to be near and consumed large amounts of illicit substances, including heroin. His famously self-destructive behavior led the author of a humorous 2000 book about Irish culture to call it “Is Shane MacGowan Still Alive?”

Even while almost constantly inebriated, he pumped out songs, which drew praise from fans and well-known musicians for their sound, imagery, detail, candor, comedy, and connection. 

In his lyrics he often drew on his difficult life, which included illness, inebriation, street beatings, and, as a young man, dabbling in male prostitution. 

His friends found him good company but also maddening, with sudden mood swings. 

“I can be tender. But there’s a lot of psychotic hatred coming out of me as well,” he told an interviewer. 

Intercession 

MacGowan’s faith wasn’t doctrinaire. He explored Eastern religions and philosophies, and he called himself a “free-thinking Catholic.” 

But he felt a strong connection to the Church. 

“The Sacred Heart of Jesus and a statue of Mary holding Jesus have pride of place on the mantelpiece of his flat in Dublin to this day and he wears a crucifix around his neck,” his biographer wrote in 2021. 

MacGowan’s songs explored degradation and violence, but often with humor and a hint of redemption. 

“Lorca’s Novena,” for instance, on the 1990 Pogues album “Hell’s Ditch,” includes a gruesome murder but also a suggestion of resurrection, linked to women in a nearby chapel praying “Mother of all our joys / Mother of all our sorrows / Intercede with him tonight / For all of our tomorrows.” 

MacGowan had been in declining health for years. A 2015 fall fractured his pelvis and left him wheelchair-bound for the rest of his life. The time in the hospital helped him stop using heroin, but he continued to drink alcohol. 

In 2018 he married his longtime on-again/off-again girlfriend Victoria Mary Clarke, who took care of him in his declining years. 

He spent most of the last four months of his life in a hospital. 

Clarke, MacGowan’s younger sister Siobhan, and their father (in his 90s) were at MacGowan’s side when he died at a hospital in Dublin, according to the family’s written statement. 

The term “last rites” can include confession and Eucharist, but it is more frequently used to describe the final of the seven sacraments of the Catholic Church, which the Church used to call “extreme unction” but now refers to as “anointing of the sick.” A priest anoints the forehead and hands of a “seriously ill” person with blessed oil and prays for grace and mercy for the person, adding: “May the Lord who frees you from sin save you and raise you up.” 

The sacrament is meant to offer “strengthening, peace, and courage” to the sick person, according to the Catechism of the Catholic Church, which quotes the Council of Trent as saying: “If he has committed sins, he will be forgiven.” 

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