A June day, close to midsummer, and everybody is out wandering the streets of the Old Town, smelling out the ghost of the Old Jew and the young Irish boy who followed him around. Perhaps if they're lucky catching a glimpse of the ever so eternally lovely Molly as she lies stretched out on her bed with her memories of youth. I'm sitting in the saloon bar, a thick black pint with a puddle of water forming underneath as the heat of the day meets the coolness of the glass causing it to rain the tears that won't come out of my not-quite-drunk-enough eyes.
This is as close as I'll be getting to Ireland, sitting in some pub full of rotting republican slogans, made all the stupider because none of the regulars have been back to Ireland for five generations, since their families came over to dig that canal that runs from here up to the capital. They dumped the typhoid victims here on the way to Toronto and inland. The ones who the nuns nursed back to life went on to dig the damn canal and spew their seed all the way along the waterfront to populate most of the South East of Ontario with their progeny.
But still they gather in the pub and sing songs from a hundred years ago about people and places of which they know nothing. They celebrate their Catholicism while condemning those who control them, not seeing the irony of how it's the church and its progeny that have conspired to hold them down just as much as the "damned to hell British Prots". Seventy years ago the same bunch would have been running down Mr. Jim as a filthy turncoat and anti-Catholic for saying "Ireland is like a sow eating her own…" – meaning that she swallows them all whole with not much left, no not even skin and bone, to spit out at the end of time and the day. But now they embrace him with the spirit of blind nationalism and raise stupid pints every mid-June day and swear fealty to a Jew and his wife because he wrote about them.
But that doesn't change the fact that I've got to leave this damned bar and face the curse of the midday sun in June, with it boring a hole in my brain pan that won't be repaired until I'm well past four decades. Now I haven't been paying any attention to what's been on the music coming our from behind the barman's shoulder. As long as a mention of a County or two can be heard over the babble of noise, nobody much seems to care what comes squawking out of the tin boxes that carry tunes.
But now a whiskey-soaked voice is rasping out a curse and a prayer all in a breath, while calling the wrath of God down upon – himself? No it can't be, not in a place like this full of green, white and orange flags draped over shoulders and into beer, ideally suited for wiping the tear from a maudlin eye when there's another stirring song about the "troubles" and the "boys". When they put the money in the tin at the end of the night do they ask themselves how many women and children will be killed by the bombs it buys? Or do they wash that down with a double Jameson's and be done with it?
But yes it is, that angel of death Shane was raining down shit upon their heads, calling brimstone down upon their sentimental drivel. It might be June here in this bright sunny city but according to the lovely Kristy and Shane in their "Fairytale of New York" it's bloody Christmas Eve and they're having a weird old time of it among the tinsel and the shit.
They won't normally play the Pogues in here; it upsets them to hear the holy words sung by the likes of them you see. You can't sing along for one thing, with the way they run and rant, and what's the point of it if you can't feel all warm and good inside about being a poor spat upon Irishman and you only six generations from ever having lived there? You can't even work up a decent feeling of hatred with that lot.
I was there on a night when they've put on an album like If I Should Fall From Grace With God and watched the patriots shake their heads and the mood shift discernibly from party atmosphere to something else. Something else indeed – the level of self-righteous indignity can rise to heights of such ridicule of the like you won't believe possible – The one night, indeed the very night they decided playing the Pogues on a Friday night was no longer a good thing, this one type, he gets up wrapped in his flag and his green and he heads to the bar keep and demands some good Irish music be put on and not these – well as he put it "insult to all God-fearing Irishmen". And he got him a fucking round of applause he did.
He looked like he was about to bust out of his "Proud To Be Irish" shirt so full of sanctimony and shit was he, and I thought Goddess help Ireland if this lot ever come within ten leagues of your shores. Not a more passionate love song to Ireland has been penned then that brilliant, sad and stormy If I Should Fall From Grace With God, the song that forced the patriot to make his stand against insults, but reason has never stood in the way of God and Country before so why should it have then?
Now you can tell I've got no time for nationalists when it comes to the issue of Ireland, (or anywhere else for that matter) but that doesn't mean you can't sing songs of protest against injustice. Unlike these sods in the bar here, The Pogues live on that island, so soaked in blood that it's a wonder that the colour hasn't changed from green to red in all the years since the troubles started with that British/Roman Patrick led wave of invaders. Did that "Proud To Be Irish" know his "not Irish-enough" band was the first to piss the Brits off with their song of support for the "Birmingham Six", who rotted in jail for something thing hadn't done?
Ah, but then "Streets of Sorrow/Birmingham Six" isn't a rousing nationalist song designed for singing along to now is it. Especially that "Streets Of Sorrow", it almost sounds like they're against the struggle, the wankers. How can they say "I long to find some solace/In my mind I curse the strain/So farewell you streets of sorrow/And farewell you streets of pain". It sounds like traitor to the cause talk that does.
Oh, aye what would they know about Ireland, 'side from the fact that they grew up on the streets of damnation and sorrow. You know the country where thousands fled supposedly to the new world of salvation only to find a different form of slavery or whatever waiting for them. "Thousands Are Sailing" doesn't go down well with the new world crowd of affluent Irish bankers and other assorted professionals as it tells of those who didn't do any better over here then they did under the British.
You can hear the anger bubble around the room when that tune is played on a crowded night, which of course is no longer the case in this particular bar where it's important to keep the "Irish" happy and buying their imported beers and whiskies. Way back in 1987 when the Pogues had first put out If I Should Fall From Grace With God they had as much chance of being welcomed in the door of this pub as the guy in the Orange Sash and the bowler hat did.
Even on a warm Sunday in mid June with them all out having pretensions of literary appreciation listening to a local drama group mangling the words of the greatest English language writer of the twentieth century, the bar staff has to be careful to get it out of the player and something more appropriately "Irish" back on before they come here for post performance pints.
I smile appreciatively at the barman and decide that I should be facing the day after all. Go out into the sun and see what ghosts the rest of the day will be bring.
It's been a long time since 1988 and If I Should Fall From Grace With God came out and the sunny afternoon was a few years after that, on the last Bloomsday I ever spent in a bar. The good folk at Rhino Records have put out a re-issue of the original disc with some extra tunes featuring The Dubliners along with the Pogues, a nice little booklet with an introduction from Steve Earle fondly remembering his 16 minutes as a member of the Pogues — one four minute song each night for four nights — and the years it's taken him to recover from the beer.
The damn disc is still every bit as powerful as I remember it being, and "Fairytale of New York" still makes you cry even when you're sober. The Pogues have been through a hell of a lot over the past 20 years; line up changes, trips into detox, Joe Strummer (kidding Joe it just always seemed so odd a choice but in some ways you were the only one as well) and whatever else the world decided to throw at them. But is spite of, or even because of, it all the music remains as strong as ever and continues to be what matters.
Now if you want to give things a listen before hand, the good folks at Rhino have set up a listening party of varying qualities suitable for most players and machines. To start with they have something they call a Party Player, then they have three different streams for listening parties: album.smi, album 56.wax, and album 100.wax. You can even send an E-Card to every single Pogues fan you know telling them their original version of this disc probably should be replaced by now, and why not do it with this great new version with the bonus tracks.
But seriously now, without a doubt, the Pogues are and always will be one of the great exports of Ireland, and those who don't think so really ought to pull their heads out and look around occasionally. The fresh air will do them wonders anyway.