The Pogues feat. Kirsty MacColl – Fairytale of New York

Ok, hands up who thought they were Irish? ME, TOO! Well, it turns out they’re also British, which means I get to feature them on the the blog. Hurrah!

Only a few moments before writing did I find out that the Celtic punk folk band responsible for making the best Christmas tune ever met in King’s Cross, London. Shane MacGowan: Sounds Irish, actually born in Kent. And the wonderful – and sadly missed – Kirsty MacColl comes from Croydon of all places!

This is why I love what I do. The back stories and facts surrounding my favourite tunes are always fascinating!

Why should you teach it?

  1. Now this has been a bit of a controversial one over the years because of the lyrics in the second verse which could be deemed offensive to some. I personally don’t see why it should be censored or excluded from the ELT classroom, as those particular lines add to the couple’s bitter-sweet relationship, but we shouldn’t draw students’ attention to them too much. If they ask – which mine tend to do – I’ll tell them. Besides, they might hear arse if they ever go to Ireland or the UK, the people of Ireland, Liverpool and other Irish-populated areas might also tell them that a “faggot” was used to describe someone who is lazy and that it is completely unrelated to the homophobic insult. Simply make them aware of the inappropriateness and move on!

2. Christmas isn’t always a time for festive cheer, which is why I think this was – and continues to be – a breath of fresh air among the sugar-coated merriness this time of year usually brings. The song features stories and scenes of misery for Irish immigrants in New York City, with (drunken) insults being slung at one another like snowballs, but to a beautiful Irish melody, which is probably why I love it so much! It’s not Christmas for me until this has been played on the radio.

You probably won’t ever see it in the politically-correct course books used in classrooms, so allow me to share with you some ideas so that your students get to hear this great tune!

Fairytale of New York (adapted from

It was Christmas Eve, babe

In the drunk tank

An old man said to me

“Won’t see another one”

And then he sang a song

The rare ‘Old Mountain Dew’

I turned my face away

And dreamed about you

Got on a lucky one

Came in eighteen to one

I’ve got a feeling

This year’s for me and you

So Happy Christmas

I love you, baby

I can see a better time

When all our dreams come true


They’ve got cars, big as bars

They’ve got rivers of gold

But the wind blows right through you

It’s no place for the old

When you first took my hand

On the cold Christmas Eve

You promised me

Broadway was waiting for me


You were handsome

You were pretty

Queen of New York city

When the band finished playing

They howled out for more

Sinatra was swinging

All the drunks, they were singing

We kissed on a corner

Then danced through the night.

Chorus 1:

The boys of the NYPD choir

Were singing ‘Galway Bay’

And the bells were ringing out

For Christmas Day


You’re a bum, you’re a punk!

You’re an old **slut on junk!

Laying 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

Chorus 2:

The boys of the NYPD choir

Still singing ‘Galway Bay’

And the bells were ringing out

For Christmas day


I could have been someone

Well so could anyone!

You took my dreams from me

When I first found you

I kept them with me, babe

I put them with my own

Can’t make it all alone

I built my dreams around you


(Repeat Chorus 2)

Fun Facts (adapted from

  • The song apparently took years to write and was released in 1987.
  • Now a Christmas staple, it enters the UK Top 20 every December.
  • It talks about Irish people who emigrated to America in the 20th century in hope of making it as entertainers in New York. Many didn’t, however, and ended up homeless or turned to alcohol to drown their sorrows.
  • It is also said to come from a desire to move away from tacky Christmas songs and to highlight the fact that a lot of people have a terrible time at Christmas.
  • The song’s title comes from the 1973 novel A Fairytale of New York by Irish-American author James Patrick Donleavy, who was born in New York but later moved to Dublin and became an Irish citizen. In the book, the narrator says:

    When I was a little boy. Left in a brand new foster home. I went out playing the afternoon around the block got lost, so busy telling all the other kids a fairy tale of New York. That my real father was a tycoon and my mother a princess…

Here’s a lesson plan to go with the song and below you’ll find a step-by-step guide on how to use it:

Step 1 – Write the title of the tune on the board. Students try to imagine what it could be about, and what Christmas in New York might be like, discussing in pairs or small groups.

Step 2 – Feedback answers as a class, writing ideas on the board if desired, and ask if anyone has heard this song before. Share what they know with the class accordingly.

Step 3 – Hand out the worksheet and have students read the lyrics silently.

Step 4 – Ask students to summarise the meaning behind the song in pairs, comparing it with their own ideas in Step 1. Were they the same? Have they heard the song before? (Maybe from the funeral scene in P.S. I Love You!)

Step 5 – Give a brief background to the song from the Fun Facts below as appropriate.

Step 6 – Play the tune and students fill in the missing irregular verbs. You can have them predict beforehand if you like.

Step 7 – Students briefly discuss their answers in pairs then correct them as a whole class. Go through any vocabulary questions they might have, mention the appropriacy of the language used, alliteration techniques and their effectiveness, similes etc. (optional)

Step 8 – Ask for their opinion about the song and encourage them to give reasons.

Step 9 – Split class into groups of 4 or 5 and have them discuss the questions about Christmas (10-15 minutes) then feedback as a whole class.

Extension activities – A Typical British Christmas reading task (Thanks to my old colleagues at Citylangues for the inspiration!) Brainstorm anything they know about Christmas in the UK. Students read the text on their own then match the pictures to the words in bold, give a short description of their own Christmas or another celebrated holiday and compare with what happens in the UK. Mention your own traditions and thoughts about Christmas to really bring the lesson alive.

You could finish off with my crap Christmas cracker jokes or sing some of their favourite Christmas tunes! I made my classes a songbook with some of my favourites (including this one!)

I wish you all a wonderful Christmas and I’ll be back again soon with another ELTune!



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