Tragic Details About The Pogues

Purveyors of an enchanting hybrid of a raucous bar band, punk act, and Irish folk music, The Pogues is probably the most soulful, defiant, and rabble-rousing collective of musicians in modern pop music history. This is a band that expresses its emotions outwardly and effusively, but then that's to be expected from a group that derived its name from the Irish Gaelic phrase "póg mo thóin," the equivalent of "kiss my a**." The Pogues' music is the music of the pushed-around, the overlooked, and the downtrodden, and it's a position with which many of its members can painfully, tragically identify, as can the band's huge fanbase cultivated in the British Isles, continental Europe, and North America.

Landmark albums like "Rum Sodomy and the Lash" and the epic hit single "Fairytale of New York" encapsulate The Pogues' sound and worldview, which certainly captures a lot of the hardscrabble and just plain sad experiences that its musicians endured. Here's a look into the most tragic moments in the history of The Pogues, past and present.

Shane MacGowan misused heroin and alcohol for years

At the age of five years old, Shane MacGowan was introduced to the habits that would later turn into devastating, nearly lifelong compulsions and addictions. His Auntie Nora would dole out cigarettes while they watched horse racing and played lottery games together. A chain smoker, she died of a heart attack while getting dressed, unnerving a young MacGowan. "It nearly tore me apart," he said in "A Drink with Shane MacGowan." Also when he was five, his parents regularly fed him alcohol. "You soon get used to two bottles of Guinness a night," he said, adding that he moved on to whiskey by age eight. 

MacGowan's drinking problem got him fired from The Pogues, a band he started, during a 1991 concert tour. His descent into heroin addiction got him arrested. In 1999, according to the Irish Times, fellow famous musician Sinead O'Connor found MacGowan unconscious and high at his home in London. She called the police on her friend, reporting him for possession, in an effort to get him off hard drugs. While initially upset, he later appreciated O'Connor's actions. "It ended my relationship with heroin," MacGowan said.

MacGowan's misuse of alcohol and other substances directly led to the loss of all of his teeth. His final remaining tooth fell out in 2008, and after wearing dentures for seven years, received a full set of dental implants in 2015.

Shane MacGowan had a lot of health problems that proved fatal

In the summer of 2015, while coming out of a recording studio in Dublin, former Pogues singer Shane MacGowan suffered a fall. "I fell the wrong way," he told Vice a few months after what turned out to be a significant medical event. "I broke my pelvis, which is the worst thing you can do." He lost the use of one of his legs and experienced such limited mobility that he couldn't walk around his home without the use of a crutch. For anything more rigorous, he required the use of a wheelchair, and over time, he'd come to rely on the assistance device full-time, unable to walk at all after breaking a knee in 2021.

While under hospitalization for a severe case of pneumonia in 2016, MacGowan needed to be completely free of alcohol to properly recover, and so after years of regular and mass consumption, MacGowan quit drinking. MacGowan was hospitalized for an emergency medical issue in December 2022, and less than a year later, he received a diagnosis of encephalitis — brain inflammation, according to Johns Hopkins Medicine. On November 30, 2023, MacGowan's wife, Victoria May Clarke, announced on Instagram that the musician had died. The cause of death: pneumonia. MacGowan was 65.

Kirsty MacColl was killed in a boating accident

While never an official, full-time member of The Pogues, British rock singer Kirsty MacColl played a crucial and famous role in the band's history. The Pogues only ever reached the highest reaches of the U.K. pop chart with one song, the Christmas-oriented story-song "Fairytale of New York," which hit no. 2 in 1987, and then the top 10 most every following December since 2005. Written as a duet for a male and a female voice, MacColl joined Pogues' frontman Shane MacGowan on the perennial holiday favorite.

In December 2000, MacColl was vacationing with her family in the Mexican beach area of Cozumel, off the Yucatan peninsula While the singer played with her two young sons in a section of water set aside for swimmers only, a speedboat pushed into the area and violently struck MacColl. She immediately died from her injuries; MacColl was 41 years old.

Illness and addiction led to the end of The Pogues

After a decade as a band, The Pogues began to fall apart in 1991. Some band members found that MacGowan's heavy alcohol consumption made his performances unpredictable and subpar, and that led to his departure from the band. Over the next few years, James Fearnley quit to focus on his family, Terry Woods exited to try a solo career, Jeb Finer announced his intention to leave, and Spider Stacy was "suspended on sick leave," manager Andy Bernstein told the Los Angeles Times, because his drinking had gotten out of hand. In 1996, The Pogues played a farewell show in London.

Philip Chevron had already left The Pogues by that point, and at the time, his departure was attributed to health problems. He was actually too ill from the medical effects of alcoholism to perform. "I had spent most of 1994 in and out of hospital in England trying to deal with an ever more troublesome liver which almost killed me twice," Chevron told The Guardian. After enduring liver surgery and surviving the prolonged medical ordeal, Chevron quit drinking alcohol.

Philip Chevron died of cancer

Following a lengthy medical ordeal involving his liver that found him fighting to live, Pogues guitarist Philip Chevron faced another daunting and complicated health issue. In 2007, doctors diagnosed the musician with cancer, finding malignant traces of the disease in his head and neck. Initial treatments proved promising enough that Chevron was able to embark on an American tour with some of the other Pogues in 2008. After receiving more treatments over the following years, doctors pronounced the musician to be free of cancer in April 2012. Sadly, just four months later, tests uncovered a newly developed cancerous tumor, and doctors determined that it was impossible to remove.

Spreading to his esophagus, the cancer robbed Chevron of his ability to speak, as he said in a 2013 interview conducted over email with the Irish Daily Mail (via The Cedar Lounge Revolution). "I am a gay, Irish, Catholic, alcoholic Pogue who is about to die from cancer — and don't think I don't know it," Chevron reflected. Less than two months after a tribute concert in his honor, Chevron died of cancer in October 2013 at the age of 56.

Cait O'Riordan had a tough childhood and traumatic adulthood

Cait O'Riordan was born in Nigeria in 1965, but after a bloody civil war broke out in that country, she moved to London at the age of two with her Irish-Scottish parents. In 1979, 14-year-old O'Riordan met London record store clerk Shane MacGowan when trying to purchase a single by his band, the Nips. By 1982, she'd be a member of an early incarnation of The Pogues, despite not actually knowing how to play the bass guitar yet. Seventeen years old at the time, O'Riordan had recently moved out of her family's home, taking the earliest opportunity to leave that she legally could. "Stressful" is how O'Riordan characterized her living situation to the Irish Independent, sleeping in a string of London hostels or "on a lot of floors" of acquaintances. The musician's parents let O'Riordan go and reportedly didn't try to bring their daughter home. O'Riordan and her mother became permanently estranged in 1990 and when her father died some years later, she was ambivalent. "Now I'm hugely sad that I missed out on all these relationships but at the time I thought: 'So what?' It's awful."

A few years after Elvis Costello ended a 16-year romantic relationship with O'Riordan, she sought out rehabilitation-style treatment for alcoholism. During recovery, O'Riordan was diagnosed with severe depression and began treating that condition, too.

Darryl Hunt died in 2022

A veteran of multiple English punk and pub bands, Darryl Hunt was first hired by The Pogues in the early 1980s as a de facto tour manager, driving the band's van and operating the soundboard at shows. After Cait O'Riordan left the band in 1986, Hunt, an occasional fill-in multi-instrumentalist, replaced her as the band's full-time bassist.

On August 9, 2022, the official Pogues account on X, formerly known as Twitter, announced that Hunt had died, seemingly abruptly, the day before in London. "We are saddened beyond words," the organization wrote. His former Pogues bandmate Shane MacGowan memorialized Hunt on Instagram. "We will all miss him, he was a really great person and friend and a great bass player," he said. Hunt's death came less than a year after he auctioned away his primary Pogues instrument, a Fender Precision Bass guitar, for £4,845, about $6,100. In the immediate aftermath of Hunt's death, no cause of death was revealed to media outlets, nor has one been released in the year afterward. The Pogues bassist and songwriter was 72 years old.

Joe Strummer died young from a rare heart problem

After Shane MacGowan's exit from The Pogues in 1991, the band needed a commanding frontman, and quickly. Joe Strummer, formerly the singer and guitarist for the influential punk band the Clash and a friend of The Pogues, stepped up to replace MacGowan, performing with the group for a leg of its final American tour and on the "Live in London" album.

Strummer took his dogs out for a walk near his home in Somerset, England, on December 22, 2002, and after he got back home, he collapsed. Lucinda Tait, Strummer's spouse, couldn't revive her spouse and he died on the floor. "It was such a shock. It wasn't like he'd been ill," Strummer's daughter, Lola Mellor, told The Guardian. At first, authorities believed that Strummer, 50 years old, had died of a common heart attack. But further medical investigation revealed that the musician had more than likely succumbed to the effects of an intra-mural coronary artery, a condition so rare and so generally not fatal that only 100 deadly cases had been officially recognized over the previous four decades. Strummer's major blood-supplying artery developed inside of a heart muscle, and additionally had dangerously narrowed because of deposits of fatty material.

If you or anyone you know needs help with addiction issues, help is available. Visit the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration website or contact SAMHSA's National Helpline at 1-800-662-HELP (4357).