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Shane MacGowan responds to calls to censor The Pogues’ “Fairytale of New York”

MacColl and McGowan in Fairytale of New York video.
MacColl and McGowan in “Fairytale of New York” video.

The Pogues‘ 1987 single “Fairytale of of New York” was a UK hit and has gone on to be a Christmas standard heard every year. The song, a duet with Kirsty Maccoll, has been controversial from the start over a verse where the characters in the song, as portrayed by Shane MacGowan and MacColl, hurl insults at each other:

“You’re a bum
You’re a punk
You’re an old slut on junk
Lying there almost dead on a drip in that bed
You scumbag, you maggot
You cheap lousy faggot
Happy Christmas your arse
I pray God it’s our last”

When MacGowan and MacColl (who died in 2000) performed the song on Top of the Pops in 1992, she changed the line to “You’re cheap and you’re haggard.” When Jimmy Fallon and Saoirse Ronan performed it on The Tonight Show this week, that whole verse was entirely cut. The BBC said the would censor the song in 2007 but, after complaints, reversed their decision and played it uncensored.

Controversy flared up again this week, as Eoghan McDermott, a DJ at Irish radio station RTÉ 2FM, took to Twitter to argue the song should be censored when played on the radio.  “I asked the two gay members of my team how they feel, since faggot is their N word. If people want to slur the gay community, this is their most powerful weapon. One favours censoring, the other outright not playing it. Neither like it. Simples.” Another DJ at the station, Stephen Byrne, also weighed in on Twitter, saying “Just bleep the word,” he suggested. “I dare you [to have] the same reaction to fuck, shit, cunt and the n word in the way that people protect to the use of a homophobic slur with the excuse of ‘tradition’.”

RTÉ issued a statement, however, saying they would not censor the word. MacGowan, who co-wrote the song, has responded to Virgin Media TV, saying they’re fictional characters that he tried to portray accurately:

The word was used by the character because it fitted with the way she would speak and with her character. She is not supposed to be a nice person, or even a wholesome person. She is a woman of a certain generation at a certain time in history and she is down on her luck and desperate. Her dialogue is as accurate as I could make it but she is not intended to offend! She is just supposed to be an authentic character and not all characters in songs and stories are angels or even decent and respectable, sometimes characters in songs and stories have to be evil or nasty in order to tell the story effectively. If people don’t understand that I was trying to accurately portray the character as authentically as possible then I am absolutely fine with them bleeping the word, but I don’t want to get into an argument.

McDermott responded to MacGowan’s statement, saying he wasn’t trying to get the song banned outright. “I get the dysfunctional characters and mayhem and trading of insults. My point was we beep out relatively harmless swear words all the time on radio to appease literally everyone…So, the idea of beeping one word on daytime radio didn’t seem so radical — given this particular word packs a lot of punch for many people and is used as a powerful slur outside this song.”


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