Entry 39: Outlaws- We need our outlaws- but only at the distance of myth and not in our day-to-day existence. The archaic Roman concept of homo sacer may be illuminating here: it refers to the accursed man, that is, a person who is outside the protection of the law and may be killed with impunity. Wanted: dead or alive and shoot on sight are aligned with this concept.
But, in its ancient definition and in its etymology, it also refers to the sacred man; that is, a person who is outcast from society but cannot be used as a ritual sacrifice. So then, the core meaning of homo sacer unites the unpunishability of his killing and the ban on his sacrifice! This curious linkage makes it fertile ground for learned debate but I will just limit myself to the reference in order to point to the ambiguity of our response, as a community, to the outlaw.
The common folk have always celebrated those who stick it to the man. The common lot of the common man, woman and child is to endure the insults and imposts of authority as part of their lived experience. The legend of Robin Hood is probably as old as Chaucer and robbing the rich to give to the poor will always have massive popular support if for no other reason that there are far fewer of the former than the latter.
Billy the Kid lives on in the imagination of novelists, biographers, screenwriters and, more potently, in the games of children. Born a Catholic in Northern Ireland, I absorbed tales of heroes and rebels from Cú Chulainn to James Connolly. Cú Chulainn was quite a lad; listen to this anecdote about him,
One day, overhears the seer, Cathbad, teaching his pupils. One asks him what that day is auspicious for, and Cathbad replies that any warrior who takes arms that day will have everlasting fame. Cú Chulainn, though only seven years old, goes to the king, Conchobar, and asks for arms. But when Cathbad sees this he grieves, because he had not finished his prophecy—the warrior who took arms that day would be famous, but his life would be short.
Soon afterwards, he sets off on a foray and kills three warriors who had boasted they had killed more Ulstermen than there were Ulstermen still living. He returns in his battle frenzy still, and the people are afraid he will slaughter them all. Conchobar’s wife leads out the women and they bare their breasts to him. The seven year-old averts his eyes, and the Ulstermen are able to wrestle him into a barrel of cold water, which explodes from the heat of his body. They put him in a second barrel, which boils, and a third, which warms to a pleasant temperature.
In late 1969, I was in my college room with the British-born co-editor of the magazine we had named TET after the North Vietnamese Army and Viet Cong coordinated attacks of the year before. The mag was filled with the bog-standard lefty student satire of the late 60s. We were coolly ironic and I was playing I am the very model of the modern major-general at volume.
Then, the door of the room burst open and a phalanx of full-throated students started singing: A great crowd had gathered outside of Kilmainham…the opening line of one of the most popular rebel songs- James Connolly. After this rousing riposte to the quintessentially British ditty I had been playing, we all laughed good-naturedly.
But that was to change: within a couple of years, there was no more room for satire as a polity more grim and driven by the increasing violence in the province and, particularly, Belfast, replaced the SRC of which I had been a member and which had funded the production of the magazine. I guess that the barrel I had been in started out pleasantly warm but, all too soon, became too hot for me to handle. Not being Cú Chulainn, I began planning for a life away from the increasingly bloody streets of Belfast.
In Australia, I found a place that was a sanctuary that was familiar but strange at the same time. The anti-authoritarianism, sense of humour, folk music and love of the underdog were like an old coat but the rips, leeches, spiders and swooping birds punctured the homelike elements, somewhat. Before too long I was playing in a couple of folk ensembles, one Irish and one Australian.
Most people think of Ned Kelly as the icon of Aussie outlaws and I suppose he is. Sidney Nolan certainly thought so, producing a series of paintings featuring the outlaw with his iron helmet on horseback in a variety of evocative Australian landscapes.
But the bushranger I first sang about was Ben Hall, shot dead in ambush at age 27 in 1865 by eight heavily-armed policemen.
Bill Dargin he was chosen to shoot the outlaw dead,/The troopers then fired madly and they filled him full of lead,/They rolled him in his blanket and strapped him to his prad,/ And they led him through the streets of Forbes, to show the prize they had.
We need our outlaws.