The Devil is an Irishman
As the crocus begins to bloom once more, and eggs reappear in the nests, and sap flow again in the bodies of trees, and the nightingales and other migrant birds travel to Europe—having spent the whole winter singing in Africa and trading songs with its avian locals, to then fly north across borders, paperless and with irreverent joy—pubs become full of topers seeking what is apparently for them the best excuse to get drunk in all the year…
The countdown is over, St. Patrick’s Day is here! St. Patrick’s Day, the alleged high-holiday of Irish identity, in which capitalism perverts the juice of the barley into a memory serum, the green clad Irish duende is mocked and imprisoned in the cardboard confines of poisonous breakfast cereal boxes, and to be Irish means permission to behave like a drunken fool, means having the entitlement to demand, as if to plant an osculum upon a lucky stone: oh kiss me with those big red Irish lips…
St. Patrick’s Day does not represent Irish culture or identity. It represents oblivion. A numb forgetting of epidemic proportions. A capitalist monocropping initiative carried out under the false premise reality is profit. It is a neutering, an amputation, a profane device to keep Medb asleep in her cairn, to keep the rebellious Aos Sí immobile in their mounds, and to ensure Fergus never rises again from his grave to tell today’s filid how it all really went down. How the roofs of their ancestors were set on fire when they could not pay their rent or taxes, how thousands starved to death while Irish beef—though raised all around the sick and the dying—was destined to feed no hungry mouths, but instead be shipped and sold to the highest bidder in foreign markets…
A strange thing that Irish identity would come to be represented in part by the man who allegedly brought Christianity to Erin’s isle. Who (if we accept the theory that links Patrick with Palladius) after getting his mission stamped and approved by the authorities in Rome—that great epicentre of empire—would kick off the colonial process ultimately responsible for the perdition of the Gaelic language, the suffering of many, the pollution and deforestation of the land, and the attempted erasure of Ireland’s autochthonous culture. Patrick is no Irish name; it is Latin (Patricius). Better he was struck by lightning than Dathí—Ireland’s last pagan king (or so the story goes). As now, all of Éire’s children, and truly all of the Earth’s children, are threatened with demise by similar elemental means, by merciless weather, by unbearable temps, by dead soil in which no seed may grow—and all for torturing the bodies of our gods: the bodies of the land, sea, and soaring sky.
But, perhaps there is a more fitting candidate than St. Patrick to act as Ireland’s patron. Another candidate, darker, fairer, challenging and full of mirth… At least, that is what the stories the seanchaí Eddie Lenihan collects in his book The Devil is an Irishman seem to suggest.
Eddie Lenihan will likely be a familiar name to some readers who remember his work as ambassador for the sídhe when he applied his humble bardic cunning to rally support for the re-routing of a highway that would have destroyed an invaluable fairy whitethorn in 1999. A great triumph for the earth and for the People of the Mound.
In the The Devil is an Irishman, Eddie muses how the vast number of Irish folk stories are concerned with the Devil and his intercourse with the Irish people, rather than with the Old Boy’s celestial counterpart—God. He argues that it appears the Irish are much more comfortable when it comes to dealing with the infernal than the empyrean, and makes a convincing claim that if the Devil himself is not an Irishman, he at least deserves honorary Irish citizenship for the many trips he’s made to Éire and for the great esteem he has had for her peoples over the centuries…
Much evidence can be drawn from the stories themselves to support this claim. Many of them deal with poor people who, desperate, scorned, and forgotten by Church and State, go under the briar on the night of a full moon, to afterwards discover their luck has astonishingly changed.
Magical decks of playing cards appear, the means to silence malicious rumours or the slander of enemies are made apparent, and the poor supplicants are shown the subtle ways by which they might subvert or undermine the machinations of their adversaries. The Devil might indeed be an Irishman. Nonetheless—whether appearing in the guise he takes in Abrahamic religions, or in the guise of the trickster figures of other cultures—his work as patron of the poor, the dispossessed, and the land that gives life to all is a near perennial theme that can be encountered the world over.
Another clue might be found in widespread depictions of the Devil’s complexion. The Irish of course are famous for their fiery halos of red hair, and truly, it’s no coincidence that in Spanish the word pelirrojo [redhead] rhymes with peligroso [dangerous]. Red-haired people have been stigmatized as demonic, other, or diseased for centuries, and have unfortunately in some instances been persecuted or even murdered for it. The otherness of red hair colour played a part in the justifying discourses of Roman slavery; these were physical traits associated with moral laxity, dishonesty, stupidity—and therefore, with exploitation (cf. Martial’s epigram 74).
In Islamic cultures, time and time again witches and jinn are depicted in folk tales as having red or blond hair. The subversive andalusī poet Ibn Quzmān in many poems boasts of his blond hair and blue eyes, which—regardless of whether or not he really did have lighter complexion—serves the literary purpose of styling his lyric persona after the Devil himself, who was often depicted as blond or red haired in many Mediterranean cultures.
This is not to say that people of Mediterranean cultures are invariably of dark complexion, nor that the Irish and other ‘Celtic’ peoples are invariably red haired. I have encountered many blond, blue eyed, and light skinned people across North Africa and made one acquaintance with a Syrian native whose hair was red and skin as white as any stereotypical leprechaun. However, these phenotypes are less common as one travels farther away from the north-western fringes of Europe, resulting in their appearance being variously heralded with a mix of disgust, enchantment, fear, and fascination.
Even in the non-Mediterranean cultures of the lands known today as Europe, red haired people have been subject to persecution. While the Church literati were undertaking their campaign to demonize ‘blackness’ and ‘swarthiness’ as outward signs of spiritual ‘impurity’ (and thus diabolism), folklore from Scotland to the Balkans has also frequently depicted the devil said to preside over gatherings of witches as a man dressed in green or black with a red or blond beard. In the medieval period, red hair was also associated with Jews, as well as with figures deemed unsavoury such as the ‘treacherous’ Judas Iscariot.
This shady history, alongside the frequency with which ‘ginger’ children seem to end up bullied in American schools (and elsewhere), made up part of the premise of M.I.A.’s controversial music video ‘Born Free’, in which paramilitary police pull redheads from their beds, round up red haired children, and shoot them in gory detail. More upsetting than this upsetting video—which, albeit fictional, is sure to trigger any viewer—is that currently and over the course of centuries, dark skinned people have had to deal with the atrocities the music video depicts on an overwhelmingly more regular basis, no fiction involved. This of course was M.I.A.’s point—the video was an attempt to hold a mirror to racism, ethnic hatred, and white supremacy, in the hope of exposing and destroying all of these hegemonic devices.
While perhaps an interesting notion to consider by the wayside of mainstream identity politics, these comments are in no way made to victimize red haired people or to belittle the threats, danger, and discrimination that dark-skinned people face on a regular basis, especially in the ‘Western’ world. Truly, by his very nature, the Old Boy defies all ‘national’ categories, and opposes any attempt made from without to reduce identity to phenotype. Like the nightingales who fly across borders with impunity, the Devil shows us how all borders can be crossed and all taboos transgressed.
And this is where the dangerous part comes in. While most limits are imposed from without and from above by greedy tyrants as further means to acquire power or material wealth, and are truly a bane to the wellbeing of the Earth and her peoples—there are a few limits, imposed from within and from around, that should never be crossed. Mostly, these inviolate limits relate to personal codes of ethics, dietary regimes or other health considerations, cultural appropriation (i.e. colonialism) or to consent and sexual boundaries.
In the Irish stories alluded to above, the keys to liberation that the Devil hands out to his votaries always come with a catch. With success comes jealousy, and coming into prominence breeds a whole bestiary of enemies, the most poisonous and hostile of which is almost always one’s own ego, one’s own fears and inner critic, one’s own poor judgement. It is crucial to note that what causes almost all of the tales’ anti-heroes to fall from grace is forgoing balance and not respecting proper boundaries, usually after having had one too many drops of poitín [Irish moonshine].
Just as there is a duende who lives in the grape of the vine, truly, there is a little blond devil who lives in the juice of the golden barley. A tricksy fickle fairy man who Rabbie Burns dubbed John Barleycorn. Like the fairies themselves, he can gift the seeker with awesome powers—inspiration, prophecy, poetry, courage, music, and strength; yet at the same time, he is dangerous and untrustworthy. If one’s guard is let down, he might emerge from the whisky-jar and grow terrible and monstrous, and with a sinister grin, carry his victim off screaming to a place—as Eddie Lenihan puts it—very hot indeed.
But is there a way to trick the King of all Tricksters? The tales suggest yes, indeed there is. To illustrate this, we will follow the sea-route of Irish emigrants and fly with the gulls to America…
To Beat the Devil
The piece we will examine in this case is not a tale, but a song written by Kris Kristofferson. As the song begins, we learn right off the bat that Kristofferson dedicated it to a great and wasted friend of his, who is no longer wasted. He decided to dedicate the song to this friend for showing him how to beat the Devil.
The persona of the ‘lyrical I’ in this case is of a poor singer-song-writer in Nashville. It’s winter. He’s broke, and eloquently informs us: My thirsty wanted whisky / My hungry needed beans… He wanders around a bit until he finds a lugubrious looking old bar, which, somewhat reluctantly, with a pocket full of empty, he decides to enter, in order to keep the chilly wind off [his] guitar. The place is totally empty save for one old man sittin’ at the bar, and yet is replete with sawdust, smoke, and friendly shadows…
The old man starts eyeing the young singer and eventually offers to buy him a beer. He says he wants to play the younger man a song and asks to borrow his guitar. The lyrics of which are the following:
If you waste your time a talking
To the people who don't listen
To the things that you are saying
Who do you think’s gonna hear?
And if you should die explaining how
The things that they complain about
Are things they could be changing
Who do you think’s gonna care?
There were other lonely singers
In a world turned deaf and blind
Who were crucified for what they tried to show
And their voices have been scattered by the swirling winds of time
‘Cause the truth remains that no one wants to know.
A challenge if there ever was one. The young singer finds himself for a split second questioning his life choices. He’s hungry. He’s desperate. It seems like there’s no way out of his misery. Society is corrupt. People are enslaved by the illusion of the American dream…and though he sings as loud as he can, his singing will only ever fall on ears that refuse to listen. So what’s the point of carrying on…
Yet, just when all seems lost, some unspoken, unsung change occurs in the silent negative space between the lyrics’ stanzas. We, the listeners, don’t know what this change was and are simply left to imagine. Whatever the case, our anti-hero appears to muster up some inner strength and go on to teach us something unforgettably profound:
Well the old man was a stranger
But I'd heard his song before
Back when failure had me locked out
On the wrong side of the door
When no one stood behind me
But my shadow on the floor
And lonesome was more than a state of mind
You see, the devil haunts a hungry man
If you don't want to join him
You gotta beat him
I ain't saying I beat the devil
But I drank his beer for nothin’
Then I stole his song…
The old man at the bar is finally revealed to be none other than the Prince of the Air in disguise, the Dark Lad himself on tour in Tennessee.
Thus, with these lyrics we have a strategy laid before us for how to deal with the Devil: you either 1) beat him (i.e. have unshakable discipline, resist temptation…these restrictions placed on vice for the sake of balance are perhaps a true meaning of the phrase ‘bind a demon’), 2) join him, or 3) steal his song. Sometimes the best approach is a combination of all three…
In any case, after enjoying his free beer, our anti-hero goes on to trick the Trickster. He steals the very song the Devil used to attempt to break him, and turns it into a song of freedom and defiance:
And you still can hear me singing
To the people who don't listen
To the things that I am saying
Praying someone's gonna hear
And I guess I'll die explaining how
The things that they complain about
Are things they could be changing
Hoping someone's gonna care
I was born a lonely singer
And I'm bound to die the same
But I've gotta feed the hunger in my soul
And if I never have a nickel
I won't ever die ashamed
‘Cause I don't believe that no one wants to know…
So if your plan for today is to go to a pub to celebrate St. Patrick’s Day, beware that the stranger at the table next to you might be the Fair One himself. You might even end up clinking glasses with him. If so, you better have all your wits about you… Best of Irish luck!
The tales offer further advice: in most cases (but perhaps not all) when speaking with the fairies, avoid giving direct answers to questions they ask you, and beware of being roped into responding with a clear Yes or No. Instead, navigate by the crepuscular light between the two. To fail to do so might cost you dearly…
Tales abound of mortal men and women who receive the gift of poetry or prophecy passed from mouth to mouth through a kiss with their fairy lover. One must step carefully, however. There is a tale in which a mortal man receives one such gift. His fairy lover assures him she will give him the gift of prophecy and song if the next time he kisses her he does so open mouthed, in a kind of kiss we might describe as comparable to biting into a golden apple… He wisely declines, however, for fear the fairy woman bite out his tongue.
Yet, if you are successful in your dealings with the sídhe, you might well wake up the next morning with prophecy on your lips, and the fire of wisdom smouldering in your head and heart. For to steal the Fair One’s song, or to be lucky enough that the Good People teach you theirs, is to hold in your hands—though it be for a mere instant—the song of the Earth itself…alive, still, full of movement, and glittering like so many opal coloured salmon scales. A song that can be heard any time the Aos Sí go riding, riding on fields of air in rushing gales as storm clouds gather and the bodies of trees shiver from budding branch to trembling root-tip…
Postscript: The Nation-State Casts a Shadow
Storm clouds are gathering in Spain. Next month the country will move into its third general election in less than four years, and vultures can already be seen circling on the horizon. Historically false reconquista tropes (this time employed to mean good ‘pure’ Spaniards must ‘reconquer’ Spain from immigrants) are once again recycled ad nauseum; politicians who have been caught with fake university degrees continue to lead their parties and show their smug faces in public; and together with their supporters have lurched towards Madrid to raise their voices facing the sun.
They may not realize to face the sun inevitably casts a shadow, the shadow of a different Spain seeking out a precarious existence in the belly of the nationalist beast. To identify an increasing division between sun and shadow is not to refer to the ‘rifts’ in (pseudo) party-politics, or to regional nationalist and independence movements, or even to the Network of Municipalities for the Third Republic.
It is about stealing a song. About pulling the symbolic rug out from under the feat of the fascist foe. Thus, we’ll part with a poem by León Felipe, alongside my version of the same rendered in English:
Hay dos Españas
Hay dos Españas: la del soldado y la del poeta. La de la espada fratricida y la de la canción vagabunda. Hay dos Españas y una sola canción. Y esta es la canción del poeta vagabundo:
Soldado, tuya es la hacienda,
y la pistola.
Mía es la voz antigua de la tierra.
Tú te quedas con todo y me dejas desnudo y errante por el mundo…
Mas yo te dejo mudo… ¡mudo!
Y ¿cómo vas a recoger el trigo
y a alimentar el fuego
si yo me llevo la canción?
There are two Spains
There are two Spains: that of the soldier, and that of the poet. That of the fratricidal sword, and that of the wandering song. There are two Spains but just one song. And this is the song of the wandering poet:
Soldier, yours is the property
and the pistol.
Mine is the ancient voice of the earth.
You take everything and leave me naked and wandering through the world…
Yet I leave you mute…mute!
And how are you going to harvest the wheat
or feed the fire
if I make off with the song?
Slippery Elm’s poetry and prose in English and Spanish have appeared in dozens of journals and anthologies in both Europe and North America. He has performed as a part of flamenco groups in Europe, Africa, and North America, in courtly settings, as well as in the streets, by hearth corner, and under leaf. He is the editor and translator of the poetry anthology Your Death Full of Flowers and the author of two pocket poetry books. He compliments his poetry and dance by studying Arabic and Hebrew philologies.