Pogues' "Fairytale of New York" is a cultural touchstone for many Irish immigrants in the US. It's more than just a holiday ditty
Back in 2011, I was interviewed by BBC radio as part of a retrospective on the Pogues tune “Fairytale of New York” that would include musings from band members, producers and industry types like myself.
To add street cred to the interview piece, we did the interview in front of the Roseland Ballroom on Broadway. The producer waved her hand to the skyline and asked me what significance the song had for the city.
Pulling at the heart-strings
“Can you identify with the song?”
“No,” says I. “I never found myself in the drunk tank on Christmas Eve, but the season is young!”
Yet there is a significance of the song and it resonates today. IrishCentral reported, years ago, that British music body PPL officially named “Fairytale” the most played Christmas song of the 21st century.
Its calculations include plays on the radio, TV, and as background music in shops, bars, gyms, and restaurants. They began their calculations in 2000.
For me, the song is a mere jukebox novelty, but for the majority of folks, it’s a significant cultural touchstone, especially to forty-something Irish immigrants who took shelter in the Manhattan skyline during an Irish economic downturn over three decades ago.
I would imagine if you found yourself working on a scaffold in the city and you’re longing for Christmas with the folks from home, the imagery of the fictitious NYPD choir singing “Galway Bay” and snippets of the old Irish drinking ballad “The Rare Old Mountain Dew” added salt to the wound of an aching immigrant heart. I’ve seen many a hardened middle-aged man cry when the tune plays in a bar.
Reality of the American dream
Joe Cleary, a lecturer of the National University of Ireland, Maynooth, said that the song told the story of the reality of Irish immigration and what lay behind the American Dream.
He wrote, “With the exception of Joyce's 'The Dead' or Patrick Kavanagh's 'Advent,' no work of the 20th-century Irish imagination has managed to illuminate a particular sense of Christmas so well as that song has done … It is at once a twisted love song, an emigrant ballad, and an anthem to the capital city of the 20th century. And it is perhaps for that reason that it is the only ‘Christmas classic’ that one can hear without wincing in July."
He hit the nail on the head. The lyrics are brilliant, drunken, and angry poetry, not the stuff of Christmas tunes. When Shane sings “yer an auld slut on junk,” it doesn’t make sugar plum fairies dance in your head!
* Originally published in 2011.