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Fairytale Of New York: Christmas cracker or nasty carol?

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Christmas classic: Kirsty MacColl and Shane MacGowan sang on The Pogues' 1987 track. Photo: Brian Rasic / Rex Features

Christmas classic: Kirsty MacColl and Shane MacGowan sang on The Pogues' 1987 track. Photo: Brian Rasic / Rex Features

Kirsty MacColl changed the lyrics when she sang live, whereas Shane MacGowan said the controversial lyrics reflected the character singing them. Photo: Tim Roney

Kirsty MacColl changed the lyrics when she sang live, whereas Shane MacGowan said the controversial lyrics reflected the character singing them. Photo: Tim Roney

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Christmas classic: Kirsty MacColl and Shane MacGowan sang on The Pogues' 1987 track. Photo: Brian Rasic / Rex Features

There are several things that make up a quintessentially Irish Christmas: Midnight Mass, the Toy Show and the first strains of 'Fairytale Of New York'. The latter may have been written and performed by Irish-British artists The Pogues and Kirsty MacColl, but we have claimed it as our own.

Musically, it's easy to hear the appeal. With its earworm of an uptempo reel, its orchestral swell, MacColl's wondrous delivery and mentions of Galway Bay, there is plenty in this global hit to feel proprietary about if you're Irish.

'Fairytale Of New York's' title was taken from a 1973 novel called A Fairytale Of New York by James Patrick Donleavy about the Irish experience in America in the early 1950s. (Incidentally, Elvis Costello, who produced The Pogues' brilliant 1985 album Rum, Sodomy & The Lash, had suggested calling the song 'Christmas Day In The Drunk Tank', but MacGowan did not think this was quite right).

Except well… what was a perennial Christmas classic and a beloved centrepiece in the Irish Christmas has become something of a political hot potato. The playful strains of the flute and accordion are now accompanied by a debate that arrives bang on schedule in the run-up to Christmas.

Specifically, there are two sides to the conversation: one faction wonders whether the song's lyrics, in particular an offensive mention of the words "slut on junk" and "faggot", have no place in today's more socially aware and inclusive climate. As one person succinctly put it on Twitter: "It's difficult to imagine any other bit of insulting hate speech being so festively shouted out every bloody year."

Others, in the 'is nothing sacred' camp, take umbrage at the idea of messing with a classic, and that this is a case in point of PC culture gone mad. They call focus on its realness, its gritty, earthy nature - a palate cleanser to the usual sugary bonhomie around Christmas.

And while 'Fairytale' has long enjoyed a spot in the affections of the Irish, our nearest neighbours, strangely enough, don't appear to be that enamoured of it.

A poll conducted recently by the mobile phone company Huawei saw the 1987 hit ranked sixth in the top 10 most annoying Christmas songs of all time. Last year, 'Fairytale Of New York' was announced as the most played Christmas song of the century by music licensing body PPL, leapfrogging Wham's 'Last Christmas'. And went back into the UK charts in 2014 thanks, in part, to support from streaming services. Yet this week, the debate on the song's lyrical content resurfaced as one BBC Radio DJ Alex Dyke decided to banish the tune from his show, telling listeners: "I hope I'm not going to ruin your Christmas, but I've decided that I am no longer comfortable with playing 'Fairytale Of New York' by The Pogues and Kirsty MacColl. I think Christmas songs should be about excited children, toys, Christmas trees, snowy streets, ski lodges, reindeer, wrapping paper, Santa, family, peace on earth and love," he added. "I just find The Pogues' 'Fairytale Of New York' a nasty, nasty song."

Songwriter Shane MacGowan observed that the lyrics were meant to capture the argot of its two down-on-their-luck characters, and that it's a classic instance of storytelling.

"The word was used by the character because it fitted with the way she would speak and with her character," MacGowan has said. "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."

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And even within its ranks, the controversial lyric wasn't without its critics. Kirsty MacColl, who died in 2000, dropped the words herself in live performances, deploying the line "you're cheap and you're haggard" on Top Of The Pops in 1992 instead.

Whatever about 'Fairytale's' future fortunes, the debate looks set to run, and possibly end with an impasse between both camps. People are acknowledging the presence of the slur that has weaponised the LGBT community for years, but for many, it will take more than that to dislodge it from their affections. Either way, the song looks set to bring a nice bumper birthday gift in the form of a nice royalty cheque to MacGowan, himself born on Christmas Day. In his 2012 book Here Comes Everybody, Pogues accordion player James Fearnley writes: "A stable perception was never reachable as to whether Shane was a genius or a f**king idiot." A debate for another day, perhaps.

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