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Paul Vallely: Shane MacGowan’s funeral lifted a veil    

15 December 2023

Those who say it was sacrilegious miss the point, says Paul Vallely


The coffin of Shane MacGowan of Shane MacGowan, lead singer of The Pogues, is carried out of St Mary's of the Rosary, Nenagh, in Co. Tipperary, last Friday

The coffin of Shane MacGowan of Shane MacGowan, lead singer of The Pogues, is carried out of St Mary's of the Rosary, Nenagh, in Co. Tipperary, ...

THE funeral of Shane MacGowan, punk poet of the Irish diaspora — in a church filled with wild music, laughter, and dancing in the aisles — did not go down well in traditional quarters. Some deemed it profane and sacrilegious, deploying the language of the gutter rather than of God. For me, it was a Church that I could embrace.

The affair, one more measured critic pronounced, failed to understand the difference between a requiem and a wake. It allowed the social and celebratory to take precedence over the eschatological and eternal. It elevated the life that had been lived over the destiny of the soul.

Some confusion is inevitable in modern Ireland, where the social and moral authority of the Catholic Church has been eroded, perhaps irredeemably, by half a century of clerical abuse. Many of the population now dub themselves “post-Catholic”. Yet something of the old Catholic imagination lives on.

By that, I mean the sense that God is vivid in the whole of creation, and that the physical things — and people — of this world have spiritual meaning. All creation embodies God’s presence, often disguised. Even in a fallen world, there is no place intrinsically unholy, no person so broken that they cannot be healed.

All this is rooted in the Catholic notion of sacramentality: the understanding that material things, actions, and human beings can be channels of God’s grace. The Protestant emphasis is that this hidden God can be found only in the revelation of Jesus. Yet, for Catholics, the body and its senses can become mystically imbued with meaning, and thereby can become sources of God’s grace.

Incarnation and transubstantiation are the great exemplars of this. The Catholic imagination is more at home with metaphor, with paradox, and with mystery. An inconsolable longing is part of this. “As a deer longs for flowing streams, so longs my soul for you, O God,” as the Psalmist has it. “Thou hast made us for thyself, and our hearts are restless until they find their rest in thee.” St Augustine says.

MacGowan was far less overt in his language, although his childhood faith was something to which he returned in later life. But something of this was there, however deeply veiled, in his songs: the metaphor, the sacred place and time, the longing of exile, the nursing of dreams. Above all was the yearning for the golden age of his Irish childhood innocence, now lost in an adult world of sensuality and sexuality, drugs and drink, and dark nights of the soul.

The Catholic imagination suggests that such mysteries are something that people of faith understand, intuitively, without shying away from things that the human mind cannot even attempt to comprehend. A few people can put them into words, however obliquely. As the Irish poet and philosopher John O’Donohue said, writing of Hegel, he was “someone who put his eye to the earth at a most unusual angle and managed to glimpse the circle toward which all things aspire”.

MacGowan’s eye was not so ratiocinative, but it instinctively discerned something more poetic. Through his funeral, we perhaps caught a glimpse of the lifting of the veil between the sacred and secular, the natural and the numinous.

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