Posted 12/12/11
Last year it was argued that this activity may perpetuate negative stereotypes associated with the Irish (see comments at the bottom of the page). Although I maintain that the lesson plan aims to reflect the story as it is told in the song, I have decided to remove any reference to the fact that the immigrants in question are Irish. The primary reason is that it makes the narrative more open-ended and thus allows for more speculation, personalisation and discussion possibilities (Jamie, December 12th 2012.)
Fairytale of New York was performed by Irish group The Pogues and English singer-songwriter Kirsty MacColl. It was recorded in 1987 and is often voted the number one best Christmas song of all time. It tells the story of the downfall of a young couple who emigrate to New York in search of better things. In this activity, the teacher delivers the story before letting students hear the song. The storytelling process should not be thought of as a teacher presentation, but more as a whole-class communicative event.
  • Language level: Intermediate (B1) +
  • Learner type: Mature teens; Adults
  • Time: 60 minutes
  • Activity: Interactive storytelling
  • Topic: Homelessness at Christmas
  • Language: Remember + -ing
  • Materials: Song
Fairytale of New York (V2) pdf [downloaded 6287 times]

Notes about the lesson plan

During the storytelling, make things as interactive as possible by looking for ways to involve your students. For example:

  • Look for language teaching or practice possibilities along the way (dictation, drilling, etc.)
  • Identify questions to put to students throughout the story.
  • Explore issues along the way (homelessness, pejorative language, etc.)
  • Ask students to recap the story from time to time. This consolidates student comprehension and also provides an opportunity to reproduce language that has been introduced by the teacher.
  • Draw attention to any new language that you introduce (words, phrases, structures, etc.)
  • Teach unknown language (words, expressions, collocations, etc.) as you go along.

The lesson plan below and on the PDF file is presented as a series of teacher script notes and suggestions for making the storytelling session possible. Make use of the notes but aim to communicate with your students rather than read from them coldly.

I. Introduction

  1. On the board, write the following words:
  2. If I can make it there, I can make it anywhere.
  3. Ask students the following questions:
    • Whose words are these? (Answer = Frank Sinatra’s)
    • What does it mean to make it? (Answer = to become successful)
    • Where is ‘there’? (Answer = New York. The line comes from the song New York, New York)
  4. Tell students that you have another song for them. Tell them that it is a famous Christmas song that was written in 1987. Ask students how old they were and what they were doing in 1987.
  5. Tell students that you are going to dictate four lines from the song. Dictate the following:
    • You took my dreams from me when I first found you.
    • I turned my face away and dreamed about you.
    • I’ve built my dreams around you.
    • I can see a better time when all our dreams come true.
  6. Make sure that everyone has written the lines correctly. Let them pair up or form groups to compare what they wrote for this purpose.
  7. Ask students to guess what the song is about and who it involves. Establish that it is about two people and ask students to guess what kind if people they are and what kind of relationship they have with each other.
  8. Tell students that the song is in three parts. Tell them that you are going to tell them the story before letting them hear it.

II. Part one – High Hopes

Note that from here on, details and information about the story are given in normal text. Suggestions for student interaction are given in italics.
  • The song is about two immigrants – a man and a woman – in New York.
  • In the song, we don’t find out their names.

Ask students to give names to the couple.

Note that here we will refer to them as Shane and Kirsty (the names of the singers).
  • The couple arrived in New York at the same time and quickly formed a relationship.
  • He was handsome, she was pretty.
  • He promised her that the city offered everything that home didn’t  – endless possibilities and high hopes.
  • Everything in New York was bigger and better than back home.

Find out if anyone has been to New York. If so, ask them how it compares with their own town.

  • These were happy times. Years later, both of them can remember that first Christmas Eve that they spent together in New York. Here is what they remember:
  • They remember Christmas bells ringing.
  • They remember hearing Frank Sinatra on the radio.
  • They remember the NYPD (New York Police Department) choir singing.
  • They remember Shane taking Kirsty’s cold hand.
  • They remember drunks singing in the street.
  • They remember kissing on the corner of Broadway.
  • They remember dancing through the night.

Drill these sentences and draw students’ attention to the structure of reminiscence.

  • To remember doing something
  • To remember something happening

Ask students to think back to the happiest Christmas that they can remember, perhaps a Christmas from their childhood. Ask each student to write three sentences of reminiscence that make use of the above structures. Let students pair up, tell each other about their chosen Christmases and share their sentences.

Bring students back to the story with the words, “where were we?” Encourage students to recap the story so far.

Ask students to guess what happens next. Did the couple in story ‘make it’ or not?

III. Part two – In the drunk tank

  • The next part of the story takes place years later, also on Christmas Eve.
  • Things are very different. Their relationship is in ruins and they are living in poverty. Their dreams have been frozen in time and replaced by lives of alcoholism, drugs and gambling.

Ask students to guess why / what has happened. Elicit social or urban problems that immigrants to the USA might face (Possibilities = lack of equality, lack of jobs, unemployment, prejudice and racism towards immigrants, bad luck, bad company, eviction, homelessness, being a victim of crime.)

  • The pair are what some people might refer to as ‘bums’.

What does that mean? Is it a term of affection? (Answer = it is a word that is often used in American English. It refers to someone without a job or place to live who asks people for money in the street. Rather than being a term of affection, it is a derogatory word.)

  • On this Christmas Eve, Shane is in the drunk tank.

What is a drunk tank? Is it the sort of place you would want to be on Christmas Eve? (Answer = traditionally, a drunk tank is a police jail cell for temporarily keeping drunken individuals until they sober up. Intoxicated subjects may be put in the drunk tank if they are seen to be endangering themselves or others, breaching the peace, etc.)

  • There is an old man next to him.
  • The old man says: “Won’t see another one.”

What does he mean by that? (Answer = he means that this will be his – the old man’s – last Christmas. In other words, he won’t survive the next year.)

  • The old man starts singing.
  • Shane turns his face away and starts thinking about his long-suffering partner.
  • When he is released from the drunk tank, he heads straight for the bookie’s.

What is that? What would you do at the bookie’s? (Answer = a bookie or bookmaker is an organisation that takes bets on sporting events.)

  • Shane puts his money on a horse which comes in eighteen to one.

Does anyone here bet? Can you explain what that means?

  • He decides to take the winnings to Kirsty.

IV. Part three – The argument

  • Kirsty is quite ill. She is in bed.
  • Shane still smells of alcohol but hopes that his winnings will make up for it.

Do you think that she is pleased to see him? (Answer = no, especially not in this state)

  • An argument turns into a slagging match.

What is a slagging match? (Answer = an argument or dispute which involves an exchange of insults and accusations.)

What words of insult do you think they throw at each other? What insults do you know in English?

  • Many of the words in this part of the song caused it to be banned by the BBC on several occasions.
  • The slagging match turns into a heart-to-heart in which the pair of them share their regrets of how they destroyed each other.

V. Lyrics

  1. Give out copies of the lyrics (included in the downloadable PDF lesson plan). Ask students to read them and guess the title of the song if they don’t already know it.
  2. Go over any unknown words or vocabulary (a glossary is included in the PDF download).
  3. Ask students to look for clues in the lyrics to answer the following questions:
    • When do you think the couple moved to New York? (Possible answer = the fifties as “Sinatra was swinging”.)
    • What sort of work do you think they were looking for? (They may have been musicians or performers since “Broadway was waiting”.)
    • Specifically where was Kirsty when Shane visited her? (Possibly a hospital bed “on a drip”.)
  4. Tell students that the title is Fairytale in New York. Play the song and find out if they have heard it before and if they know anything about The Pogues and Kirsty MacColl.
  5. Tell students that they are going to hear the song a second time. Before doing so, ask them to read the lyrics again and attempt to recall which lines:
    • Are sung by Shane
    • Are sung by Kirsty
    • Are sung by both Shane and Kirsty together
  6. Play the song a second time and let students check their answers.
For an article on the legacy of the song, click here.

Posted 12/12/11

28 Responses to Fairytale of New York

  1. sharon noseley says:

    Just brilliant – thanks so much!

  2. Jamie Keddie says:

    Hello Sharon
    Glad you like it.
    Jamie :-)

  3. Georgina says:

    Excellent ideas, excellent lesson! Thanks!

  4. Jamie Keddie says:

    Thank you Georgina :-)

  5. stuart goodsir says:

    Well thought out and a lovely song for the time of year, Have yersell a very merry xmas.


  6. Hanna says:

    Hi Jamie :))) Just to let you know – this lesson works !!! and it’s great :) Thank you again :)

  7. Jamie Keddie says:

    @Stuart – Have a great one yourself and thank you for the comment :-)

    @Hannah – Great to hear Hanna. Thanks for the feedback. I’ll be using it this time next year so it’s good to hear that it works. Have a great holiday :-)

  8. Hanna says:

    Hi again, i’ve just found ‘The story of Fairy Tale of NY’ in 6 parts. Very interesting… I haven’t heard that story before. You can also show it to your students.

  9. Jamie Keddie says:

    Hello Hanna
    Thanks for sharing this documentary. Now I have watched it, there are a few changes I would like to make to the lesson plan. It can wait until next year.
    Jamie :)

  10. Hi there!
    I just wanted to let you know that I did this with my class and they loved it !! It was really enjoyable. Thank you for your work :)

  11. Jamie Keddie says:

    I’m happy to hear it Nihal. Sounds like o did a great job :-)

  12. Tom says:

    RACISM AGAINST IRISH. Shocking to find this unit here. Don’t you have anything better to do than to further stereotypes about the Irish?

    You think you cover yourself by adding a link to a BBC article about the song; as if being British can be trusted!! The article ignores historical background (as you do too) of environmental factors that can explain themes of drinking or fighting in Irish popular culture; the horrible racism that Irish faced in the U.S. in earlier times (and in the UK till this day), and the stereotypes that such racism have spawn. Hardly can the average ELT/ESL teacher be expected to give an intelligent treatment of this background without reinventing or reinforcing stereotypes.

    I fail find anything in your material that shows you recognize your responsibility–professional, social, ethnical–to ensure that the material is used for a legitimate learning purpose rather than an ethnic putdown.

    Simply because the musicians and creator of the song/video were Irish doesn’t mean it can be used in the mindless way that you have presented it here. Issues spring up about their purposes–artistic or commercial? Either way, you are way out of your depth for failing to see the implications.

    Furthermore, nothing in the song absolutely identifies the immigrant couple as Irish; yet you very much want to do so even by getting your students to give them Irish names! This couple could be of any nationality, so why not present it as so, making it more potentially useful and without manufacturing hate and racism toward another group of people?

    Again the BBC take on it and however “popular” it is in the UK does not absolve you of the racist use of the material as found here. Please exercise at least cultural sensitivity by removing this unit immediately.

    • Jamie Keddie says:


      I would hate to think that I am perpetuating a negative stereotype in any way. That would be completely the opposite aim of an educational site like this one.

      But after reading the lesson plan over again, I really don’t think I am doing that. The activity sets out to tell the story that Shane MacGowan created, albeit through a different medium (i.e. an interactive storytelling rather than a song).

      And yes, at no point does the song state implicitly that the couple are Irish. But it would take quite a stretch of the imagination to suggest otherwise. The background, accents, the language, the cultural clues … They are all there.

      At the end of the day, this is a very sad story about lost dreams. In a wider context, it could apply to numerous social or ethnical groups who have suffered and relocated somewhere in search of something better, or even just less bad. I believe that that is what the song is about and that is what the lesson plan is about.

      If I thought that it was contributing to a negative false stereotype in any way, then I would take it down.

      Thanks for your comment

  13. Tom says:

    Truly I find this unit both shocking and unfortunate. I should think that you want to uphold high standards of professionalism. Perhaps you do and so you might want to consider the following.
    Shane MacGowan is not only a known drunk* but also a wannabe Irishman*; meaning that he was born in England and spend most of his life there*. As a known “plastic Paddy,” MacGowan is not authentically Irish.** Yet you falsely characterize the song and story as the telling about an Irish immigrant. In point of fact, you deliberately chose the character in the story/song as MacGowan himself and further falsely concluded that this character must be an Irish immigrant. Actually MacGowan is more British than Irish and so your whole thesis about its characterization and storyline is false.
    ** See
    Even if this story involves Irish, you state that the dashing of the couples’ dream was due to “alcoholism, substance abuse and homelessness.” Was it? What grounds do you have to say so? None! It comes from your own inference. As you agreed Irish identity of the characters is not explicit.
    Besides the problem of your false assumptions is the fact that you have no educational purpose other than to reinvent, reinforce negative stereotypes about Irish. If you want to do that please don’t choose a non-Irish character of MacGowan! Make an authentic choice!
    You don’t provide any educational purpose other than showing “homelessness.” Yet you do so in the context of homelessness caused by addiction. Is that what you want to teach? That homelessness is caused by addiction? Yeah, tell that to the millions of homelessness around the world caused so by economic disruptions or the misfortune of birth.
    And you further shroud all of this in the false association of Irishness with addiction while never cautioning teachers/students against such false generalizations. You have a professional, if not ethical, responsibility to represent culture and their people with fairness and objectivity. Instead you have super-imposed a wannabe Irishman’s supposed story about an Irish couple in New York onto Irishness as something representatively so. If not, then why do you recommend students give the unnmamed couple, “Irish names,” two people you explain later are “bums”!
    Finally, you give no good reason for this topic of “homelessness at Christmas” and your choice of the MacGowan song. Of course homelessness is a social issue and could be a reasonable and appropriate topic for an ELT class. But you give no explanations for your topic and subject choices. We then can only conclude that you are promoting negative stereotypes about Irish. Again as I have pointed out, you have no solid grounds for making Irish the “bums” of the story. Thus your unit is racism against Irish.

  14. Jamie Keddie says:

    Tom – I reiterate that the activity aim is to use interactive storytelling to communicate the same story that is told in the song. Irishness, alcoholism, substance abuse and homelessness are all there, even if reference to them is implicit. In some cases, that which was not so obvious became apparent after watching a number of interviews with the Pogues and those involved with the song.

    However …

    After these exchanges, I feel that there are a number of aspects about this activity which could be improved. For example, it could be redesigned in such a way so as not to draw attention to the specific time, place and ethnicity of the protagonists. In that way it could be used to deal with the wider issues of immigration.

    I will have a fresh look at it before Christmas 2012. In the mean time, it stays up with a comment at the top of the page (scroll up) which draws attention to your dispute.

  15. Tom says:

    I understand how conflicted you must feel: you worked hard making the present unit. You don’t want to waste it. But it taints you. Any serious professional aware of intergroup relations (ethnicity!) will note a decidedly and unnecessary negative portrayal of Irishness here.

    Yet following your own logic, the protagonist of the story is actually British and arrives in NYC from England! But you would not want to teach foreign people negative things about your own people, so why not dump it on an Anglo out-group!

    Most people won’t say anything, but you will be tainted as having ignorance. Indeed recent news came that a major research study found a strong correlation (inversely) between intelligence and racial prejudice. The 21st century is a new age recognizing that human existence depends on cooperation between all peoples; that racism is folly, for it is akin to shooting one’s own foot. The racial barriers you make could be what stops the next scientific discovery from saving your life!

    Fixing your present unit would be easy and reap big benefits. Otherwise, you will only live to regret it.

  16. shaun says:

    Hmmm. Anyone else think someone’s over-reacting?

  17. Enrique Liñan says:

    I think it requires a great deal of professionalism to create such a thorough lesson plan. You have have definitely catered for different types of learnes and have planned the lesson in such a way that it makes students feel motivated.
    I think you are doing a great educational job by sharing and helping us help our students develop their productive skills.

    Greetings from peru.

    keep up the good work.


  18. Jamie Keddie says:

    Thank you Enrique
    Nice to hear from you. Hope all is well in Peru
    Jamie :)

  19. Rebecca SCHURTZ says:

    Wonderful lesson plan, as usual! Thank you so much, Jamie! And this song is now one of my favourites…
    To hell with half-baked nitwits!
    Rebecca :)

  20. Jamie Keddie says:

    Ha ha
    Thank you Rebecca!
    Jamie :)

  21. Michael says:

    Huge huge fan of your site Jamie. I have used several of your lesson plans and am beginning to find the site rather indispensable.
    Sadly only found this lesson plan today and will have to wait a year to use it (although I showed my students the Christmas socks I was wearing yesterday, a christmas themed lesson might be a step too far).

    On the above, being Irish myself, I in no way find this lesson offensive.
    Please keep up the good work and thanks for helping to teach my students!

  22. Jamie Keddie says:

    Thanks Michael
    I suppose you could use the activity without telling students that it takes place at Christmas. Or perhaps you should wait until December or your students might think you are a bit weird! Who is to say what is right and wrong?
    In any case, I am glad that you are not offended!
    Jamie :)

  23. Maria says:

    I agree…someone is DEFINITELY over reacting!!!! Fantastic lesson plan which I hope to use successful today. Thank u

  24. Jamie Keddie says:

    No more comments from me about that Maria!
    Thanks for your nice words!
    Jamie :)

  25. Liam says:

    Great lesson, taught it at the end of this term and got a great reception. Thanks a lot. Tom – remove the blinkers – In no way is this racist, nor does it perpetuate stereotypes against the Irish, it is a song written by a man capturing the difficulties experience by SOME of the Irish diaspora forced abroad for economic reasons. MacGowan himself is not the protagonist, he is merely using the first person to tell a story of an Irish immigrant in the US. Also, labelling him as a ‘plastic paddy’ shows that you have no understanding of the experience of being a member of a cultural diaspora, Irish or otherwise and thus are in no position to comment. The creator of this wonderful lesson is merely trying to draw attention to the obstacles many poor immigrants face, of which MacGowan’s parents will have experienced when arriving in the UK from Ireland. MacGowan is entitled to feel an affinity with his Irish ethnicity and the term ‘plastic paddy’ is a crass and over simplified term to deride the Irish diaspora who continue to feel a connection with the country of their forefathers, which is admirable. As an Irishman myself, who moved to the UK at the age of 20 and worked in London for many years, I have seen many (though not all, nor the majority) of my countrymen’s plans curbed by financial problems, homelessness, drugs and alcohol as they sought to make their way. I have also seen many make great successes of themselves. The song captures SOME of the negative realities of the Irish diasporic experience in a poignant way, without deliberately seeking to perpetuate stereotypes. The creator of the lesson is merely seeking to tease out the reality of these experiences and does so in an excellent and impartial fashion. Get off your soapbox and open your eyes. Well done Jamie for a sublime lesson.

  26. Jamie Keddie says:

    Hey Liam
    Thanks very much for taking the time to write. I really appreciate you comment and the new direction that you take the argument.
    Happy new year!

  27. adrian says:

    My class really enjoyed this Jamie. For the characters’ names they chose Romeo and Juliet, and they had no idea why I found this so funny – the thought of Romeo calling Juliet “an old slut on junk”! Cheers. PS I think I prefer this lesson without the mention of the couples’ Irishness as nationality is irrelevant.