Fairytale of New York as Palimpset, Myth and Survival Guide

This is my latest assignment for the masters, an analysis of the only song I seem to never tire of listening to. It is a bit heavy on the quotes, but hopefully some interesting stuff in it too

The Pogues’ and Kirsty MacColl’s pop song, Fairytale of New York was released in November 1987 to instant acclaim, and reached No. 2 in the Christmas charts. A grainy black and white video was also released, shot in a real New York Police station with Matt Dillon and a very drunk Father Christmas, so this project deals with two formats of the same song.

It returns to the airways and often the charts every season; it is often cited as the favourite Christmas – or even non seasonal – pop song of all time. As the Pogues’ guitarist, Philip Chevron said in the BBC3 documentary of the song,:

“Whenever I hear it, I say to himself, “’Oh, no, not that again’ But within moments I‘m sucked in again.”

The song is noteworthy in presenting ideas and images that are the antithesis of the sentimental mistletoe and wine subject matter that is the usual Christmas fare, so not one that would immediately appear appropriate, but as Alan Connor wrote:

“Emigration, death, regret and substance abuse don’t tend to show up in Cliff Richard’s Yuletide chestnuts, but they’re staples of traditional music – and the trick played by Fairytale is to convey these aspects of twentieth-century Irish experience in three snapshots.”

And that is part of its secret. Tired of over sweet auditory and visual offerings at Christmas, the song’s gritty realism is a perfect antidote with its depiction of a romance beginning on Christmas Eve and then going horribly wrong. Part of its appeal must surely lie in the preparations so many people put into celebrating the religious and secular rituals of Christmas with friends and family, and how often these end in tears.

So, what is going on here? I would argue that, in the of modern decline religion and other belief systems, this song has become a modern myth, and as such the annual playing on the radio, watching it on MTV and YouTube, and the singing of it en masse at concerts has become, in effect, a form of secular religion.


The song was written by The Pogues’ lead singer, Shane McGowan as a Christmas song from the outset, a duet with the then bass player, Cat O’Riorden, and to many was seen as an attempted sellout to commercialism. But that was to underestimate McGowan’s capacity to interpret the so-called festive season. The title sets up an expectation of both an imaginary story, and one set in a city famous as the destination for people in search of their dreams, from centuries of destitute emigrants arriving at Ellis Island to the many entertainers who, like the female narrator, arrive in search of stardom of some sort.

The song is described by Photographer Bledyn Butcher describes it as: “It can be reduced by someone like me to an old couple having a bit of a barney at Christmas Eve, But that’s not really what it’s about.”

Nick Cave, friend of Shane McGowan describes it as: “It has a view of New York that’s totally unreal.”

The title comes from a novel by Irish-American novelist J.P. Dunleavy who says “In a funny way it actually does capture something about New York. But it’s something you wouldn’t normally see.”

These apparently contradictory comments sum up the ambiguity of the story very well. On the surface, it is about a couple fighting, but there is much more to it in the music, metaphors and hints of Irish and American history, so the words are really just a starting point for the story, just as the reading of ancient religious texts are just the beginning of understanding.

It operates on many varied levels. It is a rarity in that it was written a genuine duet, rather than two voices merely alternating the voices of an existing song. The two voices tell different aspects of the story, just as a couple would do. The unnamed ‘He’ starts by setting the scene: it is Christmas, he has been arrested for being a drunk, and is maudlinly slurring the story dreaming about when he fell in love with the unnamed ‘Her‘. The story is then reframed with the music changing from slow piano, almost a drunken stagger, to a jaunty traditional Irish tune, and His lost love, sung by Kirsty MacColl, takes over the narrative. Once they have become a couple, the narrative becomes one of exchange, of alternating lines, alternating views, to them singing in unison. They are performing their life story through the song.

There is no explanation as to how or why things went wrong, but in the narrative they are soon trading insults, with Her calling him ‘you scumbag, you maggot, you cheap lousy faggot’, with Him hurling back ‘you’re an old slut on junk, lying there on the bed with a drip in your arm’. As an aside, this line seems to be widely ignored. I have heard the song untold times and never noticed it. I thought the song was about alcohol abuse, but this shifts it to a totally different level, from a pair of drunks to involvement in the criminal underworld.

On YouTube there are versions of the song by school choirs, a Police choir that encourages the audience to join in, and there is one in a functioning church. I can understand people missing the words in the original, as McGowan slurs them. But all of the choirs sing the original words, which I find totally mystifying. They seem to know but not know, which suggests the performativity, or the force of the song’s fame somehow blinds them to the true meaning of the lyrics.

The three stages of the narrative are punctuated with the chorus of: “The boys of the NYPD choir were singing Galway Bay and the bells were ringing out for Christmas Day”. Though short, the chorus is sung with gusto by both characters; throughout the story, no matter what they are experiencing, this injects the story with a contrasting view, a sense of reality, an awareness by them and a reminder that the outside world is still carrying on regardless of their own personal dramas.

Antecedents & Context

Fairytale was written by Irish-born Londoner Shane McGowan in the mid 1980s, a time of mass youth unemployment in London but more so in Ireland. Many thousands of young Irish men were again becoming illegal immigrants in the magical city of New York. It was also the time of the IRA bombing campaigns in London, so singing about Irish suffering and Republicanism was not an obvious route to success, but this anger sat well with the age of punk when the youth of England were expressing their rage at an economic system that was failing them. In search of answers and coping strategies, some turned to songs from the past, songs of real people, of pain and injustice. The Pogues, McGowan especially, sought a language to express their youthful anger and frustration, so listened to a lot of music by The Dubliners and The Fureys, which led them to invent Irish Punk, a collision of two different sources of anger, and they remain the main proponents of the genre.

Bruce Springsteen talks of how as a young man he discovered the music of Bob Dylan and the effect it had on him: “If you were young and everything felt false, you didn’t know how to say it. There was no language for it at the time. It just felt fucked up. You didn’t have the words. But Bob came along and gave us the words. He gave us the songs. The first one: How Does It Feel To Be On Your Own?. If you were a kid in 1965 you were on your own because your parents – god bless them – couldn’t understand you. He didn’t treat you as a child, He took the mistakes you made and laid them out for your and he is the father of my musical education and I thank him forever.”
Much of this turning back to the past was not simply a reperforming of it. In the 1908s it involved absorbing, reinterpreting or reframing traditional themes and images. With the invention of MTV and mass production of music videos, music was reinvented as a new form of mass media. Fairytale was released as a single and video so the audience was exposed to two forms of the music, ie with and without the visuals.

In the early days of video, the new medium was described as: “The most useful way of conceiving this relationship is in terms of the ‘palimpsetic’ text: that is, the text which is written over another. The latter need not necessarily be another single text (though it sometimes will be: Billy Bragg’s Don’t walk away, Renee provides an example); more often, in popular music of the 1980s it will be certain formal or generic patterns. Despite the sense that much of the music of the 1980s is revivalist, the number of examples of mainstream music which simply involve pastiches of earlier styles is rather limited. Most involve the embellishment or transformation of historical forms, such that one witnesses the tendency of those forms to act as gravitational forces, limiting the dispersion of intertextual citation (In quite different ways, the music of Talking Heads and Kid Creole provide useful examples of this).

But to call Fairytale a palimpset is almost to simplify it. It mixes different forms of music, media, styles, and language. One of the songs that was a regular part of the Pogues’ repertoire was Eric Bogle’s The Band Played Waltzing Matilda  This is one of the most widely performed songs in history and often cited as Australia’s other national anthem, just as many young Irish people – especially expatriates – have embraced Fairytale as theirs . Bogle’s song was written to commemorate the 50,000 Australian troops that died in the Gallipoli campaign of the First World War, but soon became the main anthem of protest against the Vietnam War in the 1970s, just as Fairytale invokes broken dreams of the Irish with their long history of economic emigration at a time that young Irishmen were again becoming illegal immigrants in New York in their thousands. Bogle is a Scottish émigré, which adds yet another dimension to the song, coming from a country which has seen much emigration such as the Highland Clearances, and his Celtic roots are a further connection between the two songs, as Shane McGowan is an Irish émigré, in London.

Bogle’s song is based, as its title suggests, on Waltzing Matilda. This version is from the end of an Australia Day concert. It can probably lay claim to being the English language song with the least number of English words in it.
It was written by A.B ‘Banjo’ Patterson, about the struggles of itinerant farm workers in the new land of Australia during the agricultural and economic depression at the end of the 19th century. It in turn has been reinterpreted in various forms, but it has also been included in another classic song of dislocation, Tom Waites’ Tom Traubert’s Blues:.  This song is wrongly labelled Waltzing Matilda on this clip. It is about being an urban itinerant drunk, which uses the chorus of Waltzing Matilda.

This referencing of racial identity and struggle in Fairytale also has parallels with ethnic groups, particularly the African diaspora in the United States in relation to the transformative mode of performance:

“Performance here is concerned not with truth to source so much as variation of that which has already been played and sung…. The transformative mode of performance always includes a ‘listening backwards in the direction of Origin. The key point is that Origin will, in almost every case, be a collectivity, a historical moment or geographical place rather than an individual subject. The transformative then involves mediation between this source and the ongoing now of performance. Because it is premised on vicissitude, the transformative constitutes the performance mode par excellence of diasporic music cultures. This is the theme Paul Gilroy (1993) develops in The Black Atlantic.

Fairytale name checks two other songs, each one loaded with historical and cultural meaning. In the introduction, the McGowan persona describes a fellow drunk locked in his cell as singing The Rare Old Mountain Dew which is a traditional Irish song, so marks his companion as another Irish expatriate down on his luck. The song is in turn about a brand of high alcohol not far from rocket fuel, so makes it clear his fall is due to alcohol, the traditional Irish resort by the poor for their various troubles.

The other tune is in the brief chorus, when “The boys of the NYPD choir were singing Galway Bay”. This choir does not exist, and McGowan must known this, so they are named as a metaphor for the other side of the Irish émigré experience, ie the large numbers who have famously formed the backbone of the New York Police Department. So the officers, ie the successful, respectable Irish, were celebrating Christmas in the traditional way, by singing about missing the homes and families they were forced to leave.

The music is a combination of two very different tunes, but fused together so skilfully that the joins are invisible to most listeners: a romantic piano portion and a traditional Irish tune complete with the near obligatory tin whistle. Gary Carpenter of the Royal Academy of Music compares it favourably with The Beatles’ A Day in the Life and discusses how skilfully it is written, so it doesn‘t feel like two songs. He describes it as: “a classic style, with an expressive harmonic gesture, known as an appogiatura as can be heard in The Beatles Yesterday

Fairytale as Performance – Video and Live

The combination of different forms of narrative and music in the limited time frame of a pop music or video could easily lead to chaos, but

“Whereas in modernist collage, intertextual citation functions most often as an agent of disruption, of aperture, or of what Scarpetta calls ‘the eruption of the real’ the recourse to certain privileged structures in postmodernist texts is often bound up with the search for means of achieving closure. These instruments – basic song structures, classical narrative patterns, etc. – become, however, highly ceremonialised rather then naively revived, and the crucial question in analysis becomes that of what might be called the ‘modalization’ of their use (i.e., the attitude of irony, homage, etc., implicit in the strategy through which they are deployed). This may be observed in various generic exercises within the contemporary American cinema (After Hours, Blood Simple, etc.) and in the reworkings of vaudeville and cabaret which have emerged out of performance art.” [Straw, Will. 1993 p 15/16]

This mention of links between pop music and film from the early 1980s is very much part of the early days of music video. When MTV was launched in 1981 it was called the ‘Global Jukebox‘, but there were concerns about the impact it would have on pop music, especially for live performance.

“Writing on music video has had two distinctive moments in its brief history,. …Here two claims were common, and generally expressed in the terms and the contexts of rock journalism:
1 That music video made ‘image’ more important than the experience of music itself, with effects which were to be feared (for example, the potential difficulties for artists with poor ‘images’, the risk that theatricality and spectacle would take precedence over intrinsically ‘musical’ values.
2 That music video would result in a diminishing of the interpretive liberty of the individual music listener, who would now have video or narrative interpretations of song lyrics imposed on him or her, in what would amount to a semantic and affective impoverishment of the popular music experience.

In retrospect, these fears seem to have been rooted, less in as specific concern about possible new relationships between sound and image, than in a long-standing caution about the relationship between rock music as a culture of presumed resistance and television as the embodiment of mainstream show business and commercial culture. It may be argued, however, that while the debate over celebrity, authenticity and artifice prominent within Anglo-American rock culture in the early 1980s was in part provoked by issues surrounding music video, it was by no means confined to such issues. In particular, the complex of notions and practices which nourished the British ‘New Pop’ of 1981-3 and which were central to these debates, involved re-readings of popular music’s history and relationship to other cultural forms which went far beyond a response to music video exclusively.”

By the time Fairytale was released as a video, the medium had come of age. If not, point 1 would have prevented it from being made, as the Pogues, and Shane McGowan in particular, were a far cry from the pretty boy bands that this addressed. Rather than a glamorous snippet of pop PR, the video is a grainy black and white reworking of the many gangster movies set in New York which were popular at the time, such as the various Godfather films, and Scorsese’s Once Upon a Time in America which the band had watched incessantly whilst on their first tour of The States. Ennio Morricone’s score to that film was the main influence on the music, so the images for the video were based on this. Images of Italian gangsters were being presented as an often romanticised view of another group of Europeans who had found a place in the Big Apple who provide yet another reading of the experience of immigration. This is one of smoky bars, corruption and violence, a far cry from the drunks sharing a police cell or the police themselves. So the superficial glamour of pop video was replaced by the then popular reinterpretation of Depression era New York.

The second point is also not relevant here, largely because of the sheer complexity of the video – viewers are dealing with a well crafted song, two well-known performers, a complex narrative, and a period setting for the visuals, all of which work well together. It works well as a piece of cinema , of pure entertainment, or on the deeper levels of its many meanings. Instead of interfering with the song, the video adds to the many layers on which it can be interpreted, as Roland Barthes describes:

“The image speaks in two languages at once, first as a literal meaning (this is the musician who is singing, this is the meaning of the words) and, at the second order, the plane of myth, as form, which puts the meaning at a distance so that it can be appropriated into a new situational intentionality (this is television bringing us a selected pop song, whose meaning, creativity and desirability are best indexed and valorized by the dissemination of symbols in flat audio-visual fabrication) as meta-language, myth’s meaning is more determined by its intention than by its literal form; in other words, ‘Myth is speech stolen and restored Only, speech which is restored is no longer quite that which was stolen; when it was brought back, it was not put exactly in its place’“

Fairytale As Myth

The above describes how incredibly complex the song and its video are, but there is another level to it. The popularity of the song, its many layers, the level of audience involvement when it is performed pushes it beyond the level of mere entertainment to something much more socially significant. In our increasingly secular society, I would suggest it has become more a modern myth than mere entertainment. But this means that the definition of myth needs to be clarified:

“Some modern theories of myth hail from the hoary disciplines of philosophy and literature, but they, too, reflect the influence of the social sciences. Even Mircea Eliade, who pits his theory from religious studies against those from the social sciences, enlists data from the social sciences to support his theory!
Each discipline harbours multiple theories of myth. Strictly, theories of myth are theories of some much larger domain, with myth a mere subset. For example, anthropological theories of myths are theories of culture applied to the case of myth…There are no theories of myth itself, for there is no discipline of myth in itself. Myth is not like literature, which, so it has or had traditionally been claimed, must be studied as literature rather than as history, sociology or something else non-literary. There is no study of myth as myth.”

Which makes the investigation here problematic, but not impossible; the definition of myth as an important part of religion, is generally that it is used to explain the world, and that it is not science, as Stephen Jay Gould explains:

“Science tries to document the factual character of the natural world, and to develop theories that co-ordinate and explain these facts. Religion, on the other hand, operates in the equally important, but utterly different, realm of human purposes, meanings and values”

But myths are not just stories, or simple narratives. As with Fairytale, they have been told and crafted over time, tested and developed to distil the essence of the story. The constant working and input of many other sources adds a level of universality beyond the capacity of a single author at a single time. Fairytale is described by Jules Holland: “Like a little symphony. Every little thing is bang on. The way the whole piece is constructed it is just a beautiful work in itself. …It feels like it has been constructed, it’s been worked.” ]

Pogue Philip Chevron claimed McGowan was constantly tinkering with it, but he replied “No, I was just trying to finish the bloody thing.”  It was finally finished during a bout of pneumonia, which adds a level of shamanistic style delerium to the writing.

Myths have served many functions over time, and the fact that they persist despite the rise of science shows they do more than describe and /or explain the physical world as some early philosophers such as E.B. Tylor claimed .

“Myths are a fusion of the creative, spiritual, and social impulses of humankind. The stories have many functions: some religious, some aesthetic, and some practical. Essentially, each society’s myths act as a pattern-book for every aspect of that society’s culture.

Myths, like poems, work through metaphor. They fold the world over on itself, until points that were distinct from each other touch and merge, and these equivalences show us who we really are. …The Pima of south western North America have a myth in which the god Buzzard creates a miniature cosmos, just like our world. Each myth is like this miniature cosmos, presenting a world of meanings. In the words of the anthropologist Maya Deren: “Myth is the facts of the mind made manifest in a fiction of matter.”

The richness of language in Fairytale, the siting of it in New York, a city so famous that it is immediately recognisable to listeners, fits well with the notion of it being ‘a miniature cosmos’, with the words and images siting it in the bars and streets of the city.

In our age of instant gratification it seems we are increasingly turning back to myths for deep answers to big questions that trouble us as they have our ancestors. One of the great myth makers was Woody Guthrie, as rock god Bruce Springsteen explains, :

“Why do we still talk about Woody? He never had a hit, he never played Reno, he never had his photo on the cover of Rolling Stone, Woody’s a ghost in the machine, a big, big ghost in the machine, and I believe it’s because his songs, his body of work, tried to answer Hank William’s question: Why does your bucket have a hole in it? And it’s a question that has eaten at me also for a very long time. And so in my early 30s his voice spoke to me very, very deeply. I began to cover This Land is our Land in concert.”

Springsteen demonstrates how myths work. By repetition of the songs of Woody Guthrie, he has not only learnt his own craft, but searched for the questions that trouble him; in turn, his own songs have developed on new levels, new meanings, that have worked in mythical ways in the rituals practiced by his fans in listening to his music and experiencing his performances.

“Myths provide both a pathway into the world of the sacred, and a guide to how to live in the world of daily reality. For a society that identifies itself completely with its mythology every action in this world has an echo in that of the gods.
Myths, then, are not simply stories. They offer social cohesion; act as charters for behaviour, even in the marriage bed; perform and maintain a fine calibration of each society – its values and structures, and its relationship with its environment; and create the spiritual underpinning for custom, ritual, and belief.

Myths and religion also offer succour and hope for those who have suffered. “This is the theme Paul Gilroy (1993) develops in The Black Atlantic. Gilroy recounts how an African diasporic tradition of music and culture has been able, through the memorial experience of slavery and racial terror, not only to negotiate historical change and geographical displacement yet also to produce music which maintains a vision of a better world.
It seems to me that the transformative represents the utopian imperative of pop in its most developed form. Those features which mark it – versioning, bifurcation, repetition/variation – testify to solidarity and the redemption of human agency, but also to a notion of the past which teaches change. For these reasons the transformative can (and should) be borrowed by all sorts of music cultures.”

The subject matter of Fairytale seems to be one of drunkenness and brawling, and yet it is strangely uplifting. The general consensus seems to be that the couple break up at the end, which seems perfectly reasonable as a surface reading, especially in view of the line, sung almost joyfully by McColl, “Merry Christmas you arse, I pray god it’s our last!” is in reality a contradiction or an enigma. If she really means this, why doesn’t she just go? If they have split up, why does this song exist at all? It is because the song is not over at this point. She blames him for taking her dreams, to which he replies “I kept them with me. Babe. I kept them with my own, can’t make it all alone, I build my world around you.” It is not over, because they still have hope. They are still in each other’s presence, they are still singing.

Fairytale as Performance

Popular music can be seen as mere entertainment, but in its many forms: recorded, broadcast and the rituals of concerts it is a constant presence. It is the soundtrack to our lives, it is the noise in the lifts, the irritating sound of waiting on the phone to speak to customer services, and with the decline of religious belief and practice, it is hard not to see parallels between the behaviour at music concerts with those of religious practices. Popular music performers are often called icons, gods or stars, fans follow the bands, they go on pilgrimages to see the bands, they collect memorabilia like religious relics. They listen to the songs so often that they can participate in communal singing. Shane McGowan said, the best version of Fairytale is the one sung in pubs. The song is about words and music, but it is also about the ritual of singing together.

The song also had a near miraculous effect on the singer, Kirsty MacColl, whose career as a singer songwriter had been virtually halted for seven years by stage fright. Her mother Jean talks of how by joining with the Pogues:

“Kirsty was in her element with the band – the fans loved her.” Performing the song cured her stage fright.

For many years, the only version of the song was the original recording and video, but recently there has been a veritable explosion of other versions, some true to the original, others cringingly awful, showing how far the song has become an integral part of popular culture. Ronan Keating’s version omits words he found offensive. McGowan complains

“If you’re gong to change it, don’t bother.” But McGowan himself did a version in which he is duetting with a person squeaking the McColl part dressed as a Beluga Whale. There are versions by a Police choir, and several apparently religious services, which strangely do not censor the words, but the most interesting ones here are the live performances. At the time of writing, the most popular version on YouTube is this truly awful version by a school band, ‘The Rogues‘, which is at times completely off key, but the audience are clapping and swaying along with it as in an Evangelical church service.

In concerts, the rituals of performance vary significantly, as different audiences respond to different parts of the song. In the Coldplay concert in Dublin, which is, they admit a really bad version, the audience only join in singing the chorus, as it seems that is the only part they know. Jean McColl talks of how the audience sing louder when they reach the lines McGowan sings “I could have been someone,” and Kirsty McColl almost shrieks back at him “Well, so could anyone!” Jean used to wait for that moment every night. It seems everyone knows a relationship like this. The perpetual dreamer that can never move on. This response is also a feature of the annual commemoration of Kirsty’s tragic death in December 2000.

In the English speaking world, there is yet another level of this. When the Reformation destroyed patronage for most of the arts, especially the visual ones, writers such as Milton and Shakespeare began writing image-rich prose to fill the vacuum. The promotion of public art galleries from the 18th century was in part driven by the notion of encouraging the poor to imagine themselves to see themselves in the scenes depicted, of wars, of good deeds, and to contemplate the significance of these tableaux. By this process they were encouraged to be able to step outside of their own lives in order to assess and judge them in order to become better people, better citizens. This is similar to the role of stained glass windows in churches which told bible stories through tableaux, so were called the Bibles of the Poor. This shows how stories or myths are an integral part of religious practices, and were used by secular authorities as a means of controlling and improving civic behaviour.

This is the same role that certain poetry and pop music, in particular, Fairytale perform. Listeners and viewers identify with the song, with the characters, and the singers to the extent that they participate in the performance, by singing along, by having the words come out of their own mouths, by the sounds joining in the communal space.

The enigma of the ending again comes into performance of the music as a romantic waltz, taking up one third of the entire song, so is of some significance. From the outset this involved McColl and McGowan waltzing together, possibly just as a means of avoiding standing on stage doing nothing, but it has become a tradition in most perfomances of it. They dance sometimes sadly, sometimes clumsily, but they waltz.

A waltz can be the first dance after a wedding ceremony, or it can be the sad, slow dance at the end of the evening, before couples part. In the context of the characters in this song, the dance is of heightened significance. There are few words of love to be found in the song until the end when MacColl claims McGowan “You took my dreams from me when I first found you” He replies “I kept them with me, babe, I kept them with my own, can‘t make it on my own, I build my dreams around you.” But this is after it has all gone wrong.

Their early relationship was very much a physical one, they “kissed on the corner and danced through the night” they sang, they drank, they fought. The dancing at the end is one of sadness, of time passed, of opportunities lost. Of a relationship based on love but fell apart when their dreams foundered. They are dancing because that’s how they began, but also because they do not have the words to make things right. The song is ultimately a brilliantly written tale of people who have not found the language to save themselves. And that is something many of the hearers can identify with. Sometimes wanting something, no matter how much, can not provide a happy ending.


This song operates on so many levels. It is a well crafted piece of storytelling, drawing on a range of historical images of race and suffering, which provide universal ideas that many listeners can identify with. It is about Christmas, when so many of the best plans disintegrate into family disputes.

As the BBC says about many traditional Irish songs “They are populated by incorrigible rakes and ne’er-do-wells with bad language and worse behaviour who are more celebrated than condemned. In a smaller way, when Christmas gets a little intense, there may be a comfort in hearing Fairytale Of New York and thinking: at least everyone else is rowing as well.”

The final chorus is sung by McColl and McGowan in a mode of defiance. The world is still spinning, their lives move onwards. Some people complain about the lack of a definitive ending, but that is again part of its strength. We are pointed towards a resolution but there is enough unpredictability in it for us to endlessly go over the possibilities. Partly because of the history of the couple, but mostly because we know people like that never change in their changeability. And that is the making of great drama. This is thoroughly grown-up storytelling. This is modern myth of the highest quality. We identify with the characters, we understand and relate to their problems, and we want them to be happy.

Then we have the soaring orchestral style ending, in which Kirsty and Shane waltz on stage and has often been repeated since. And which is further evidence that they have not split up, but are still struggling to sort things out.

Ultimately, I think the real secret to the success of this tune can be seen in this live performance from St Patrick’s Day. When McColl eventually reaches out and grabs the banjo-toting McGowan with a sense of casual fondness, the crowd let out a roar of recognition and appreciation.

This is what they were waiting for.

This is the ending they want, because in our heart of hearts, we know, that if these misfits can make it work, there’s hope for the rest of us. And surely that what myth, religion, faith, is meant to give to us.


7 thoughts on “Fairytale of New York as Palimpset, Myth and Survival Guide

  1. I really feel robbed that I’ve never heard this song (to my knowledge). I love the Pogues, I’m a Man You Don’t Meet Everyday is one of my all time favorites. Thanks again for a great, informative post. i love “[myth and poetry folding the] world over on itself” Beautiful.


    • The song kept me going through the winter, sort of, so I was intrigued as to why. I think this is close to its appeal. I had second thoughts about it last night – too academic, should have included links to the songs. But yet again people are surprising me. they/you seem to like it as is. This blog really is a brain stretching exercise for all of us.


  2. Somebody essentially lend a hand to make critically posts I would state. That is the very first time I frequented your web page and so far? I amazed with the analysis you made to create this particular submit amazing. Excellent task!


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