This song is about Irish people who emigrated to America in the 19th century to escape the potato famine and in hope of making it as entertainers in New York. Many didn't, however, and ended up homeless. 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.
After their second album Rum, Sodomy & The Lash, The Pogues wanted to release a Christmas single. Instead of a cover song, lead singer Shane MacGowan and banjo player Jem Finer decided to write one themselves. The first attempts to record this were as a duet with MacGowan and Pogues bass player Cait O'Riordan. They didn't have the song ready for a Christmas single, so they recorded it for their third album, If I Should Fall From Grace With God, which was produced by Steve Lillywhite. Lillywhite took tapes home and had his wife, Kirsty MacColl record a scratch vocal, but her voice was so good that they decided to keep it.
At first, this song had lyrics about a sailor and a distant ocean, but Finer's wife suggested he change it to be about a couple at Christmas who are hard on their luck. Finer wrote another song and took both to MacGowan, who combined the melody of the first with the story line of the second.
In 2004 VH1 poll, this was voted the UK's favorite Christmas song of all time.
Shane MacGowan was born on Christmas Day.
The title was taken from a book called A Fairytale of New York, by James Patrick (JP) Donleavy.
The policeman pushing Pogue Shane MacGowan through the station at the beginning of the video is the actor Matt Dillon.
This was used to open the 1996 film Basquiat
, about a graffiti artist who becomes popular in the art community.
On December 18, 2000, Kirsty MacColl died in a boating accident. This single has been re-released several times for the UK Christmas market. In 2005 it was re-issued to publicize a new campaign for an investigation into the death of McColl.
After charting at #3 in the UK in 2005 after it was re-issued in the holiday season, and in 2006 when it re-entered the chart peaking at #6, the track became the first Christmas song ever to make the UK Top 10 three years in a row when thanks to downloaded sales it returned to the Top 10 in 2007. The tune has continued to appear in the top 20 each year.
In 2007, the BBC began playing a version with the word "faggot" edited out. After a predictable outrage, they began playing the uncut version.
This song was inspired by JP Donleavy's 1961 novel of the same title. The author told The Daily Mail December 18, 2009: "Technically I could have taken legal action for piracy but as I know Shane MacGowan - I believe his father is a fan of my work - I decided not to bother."
The song originated with a bet by Elvis Costello that Shane MacGowan and Jem Finer couldn't come up with a Christmas record that wasn't slushy.
The lyric, "The boys of the NYPD choir still singing 'Galway Bay,'" isn't strictly true. The NYPD doesn't actually have a choir, though they do have an Irish pipe band that is featured in the music video. The pipe band didn't know "Galway Bay," so they played the "Mickey Mouse Club March" instead, and the promo was later slowed down to fit the beat.
The pipe band had been drinking on the coach that brought them to the video shoot. By the time they turned up for the filming they were even more drunk than The Pogues themselves and refused to appear unless they were given more alcohol.