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Tell you what, friends and neighbors—I’m drunk tonight. Fuck-drunk. Rye whiskey. Went down to Wally’s and got started, went to the greenfront down on Center Street half an hour before they closed and bought a fifth of rye. I know what I’m up to. Drink cheap tonight, pay dear tomorrow. So here he sits, one drunk nigger in a public library after closing, with this book open in front of me and the bottle of Old Kentucky on my left. “Tell the truth and shame the devil,” my mom used to say, but she forgot to tell me that sometimes you can’t shame Mr. Splitfoot sober. The Irish know, but of course they’re God’s white niggers and who knows, maybe they’re a step ahead.

Could anyone explain to me the meaning of the last sentence, i.e. why the Irish know and why they are God's white niggers and are step ahead for what?

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  • 1
    He's suggesting that the Irish are perennially drunk, hence largely immune to the Devil's charms
    – Valorum
    Nov 12, 2023 at 17:53
  • 7
    The expression 'white n*ggers' (to refer to the Irish) as a common expression seems to date back to about the late 1830s. i.stack.imgur.com/8dJnS.png - google.co.uk/books/edition/The_Magazine_of_Domestic_Economy/…
    – Valorum
    Nov 12, 2023 at 18:01
  • 3
    The line could indicate that the Irish were historically regarded as a lower class. Nov 12, 2023 at 18:26
  • 2
    Worth perhaps noting that the character (Mike) writing this is himself the Black librarian. Also, since he is "drunk tonight. Fuck-drunk", maybe it isn't meant to make complete sense... I think he is getting drunk since he can't fully confront/think about the horrific truth sober, but I haven't gone back to my copy of It to get the context. Can't remember if it ever says if his mother was Black (I don't think so). Nov 12, 2023 at 21:18
  • 4
    I would like to suggest to you that if you have more questions about the meaning of words and phrases and sentences that you may get the best answers by asking at the English Language & Usage stack instead of here. Questions like this are on topic here, but there's more expertise on language and usage over there. Nov 13, 2023 at 15:58

3 Answers 3

14

Derry

Stephen King said that he modelled his fictional town of Derry, Maine, after Bangor, Maine. As there is a Bangor in county Derry, Ireland, he decided to call his fictional Bangor, "Derry". King, who is of Ulster Scots (or "Scots-Irish") descent, wanted to set his book in Bangor because he perceived it to be "a hard-ass working class town". King even moved to Bangor with his family while working on It because: "I thought that the story, the big story that I wanted to write, was here".

The Irish as Being "a Step Ahead"

In the chapter from which you quoted the first paragraph, the narrator decides to tell the truth about the people of Derry – or in his words: to "flash[...] some of the skeletons in Derry's closet". Having gotten himself quite drunk, he finally feels ready to do so. Because, as he explains, sometimes you have to be drunk to tell the truth. The Irish know this and are a step ahead at it – that is, they drink a lot.

So:

"a step ahead" = heavy drinkers

The Irish as "God's White Niggers"

In It, the kids in "The Loser's Club" are bullied by one Henry Bowers. Henry Bowers is the name of a freemason and founder, in 1887, of the American Protective Association, a secret anti-Catholic society which worked towards keeping Irish, Italian and other Catholic immigrants out of the United States. Bowers and the members of the APA believed that Catholics were ruining America. At that time, the Irish immigrants were called "white niggers" (while Afro-Americans were called "smoked Irish").

So:

"God's" = Roman Catholic
"white niggers" = immigrants
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  • The "God's" portion of the phrase might refer to Irish being very likely Catholic, a variety of Christian, but an oft hated one in America's past.
    – user15742
    Nov 13, 2023 at 19:12
  • @frеdsbend Indeed, although it's much less of an issue today than it used to be, there are still factions in US Christianity which view Catholicism as an anti-Christian cult in disguise. I won't link to them, but Jack Chick's publications "Are Roman Catholics Christians?" and "The Prophet" are prominent examples of the genre. Nov 14, 2023 at 8:15
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The term is ambiguous and lacks a clear meaning, see Wikipedia.

In this context, it seems to mean Irish (and especially Irish immigrants) were considered lower class "trash" by other whites, and hence "niggers". It is of course a racist and offensive term to both Irish and Blacks, but in this case it seems to be used in a self-deprecating and self-aware way, i.e. "only niggers [blacks] and Irish [whom the speaker considers a kind of nigger anyway] know you cannot face the devil while sober".

(I hope I don't need this disclaimer, but I'm only using the offensive term "nigger" because the original text does).

5
  • That kind of article is what gives wikipedia a bad name. It will never be a good article, mostly because it's trying to make an encyclopedic entry for a colloquial term. WP is not a dictionary, one of their official rules, but they have tons of articles just like that, strongly favoring pejoratives. I would not cite it as evidence of anything, "unclear and ambiguous usage" included.
    – user15742
    Nov 13, 2023 at 14:31
  • @frеdsbend I agree the article on Wikipedia could be better, but it does answer the question correctly. Feel free to provide your own answer if you think you can do better; if it's good I'll upvote it just like I did the other existing answer. Other than that: comments in scifi.se are not meant for debate.
    – Andres F.
    Nov 13, 2023 at 14:51
  • I'm not debating. I'm explaining that your source is crap. Your answer is perhaps bettered by removing it.
    – user15742
    Nov 13, 2023 at 14:53
  • 1
    I think this answer is good and could be improved by clarifying that Irish descent has been considered a "race" in American history and there is a long history of anti-Irish racism in America. Just as the n-word is a racist slur that denigrates Black people, there are also racist slurs that denigrate people of Irish descent. In this case, King is using one racist slur to substitute for another one. See also the John Lennon and Yoko Ono song named "Woman Is the N___er of the World" (the full title includes the n-word). Nov 13, 2023 at 15:54
  • @ToddWilcox could you suggest an edit to my answer to add this? I agree it would improve it, but cannot make it myself right now and you seem to have more context :) (edit: oh, never mind. You have your own answer! I'll go upvote it)
    – Andres F.
    Nov 13, 2023 at 17:24
5

"The Irish know..."

This means that the Irish know that sometimes it's too hard to tell the truth and therefore shame the devil (AKA Mr. Splitfoot) when you're sober. So you have to get drunk sometimes to do the right thing (tell the truth). The Irish have a reputation (which seems to be partly justified) for drinking a lot. The character is suggesting that the Irish drink a lot to help them tell the truth more often. They know and understand that it's important.

"[The Irish are] God’s white n---ers"1

There is a long history of anti-Irish racism in America.2 As a Black American, the character we are reading from has been the target of racism, and that has shaped his character and view of the world. He is suggesting with this phrase that Irish Americans have also been targets of racism and therefore may have a similarly informed lived experience and views of the world.

God's view is relevant because in both scripture and popular belief, God favors the poor and disadvantaged (e.g., "the meek shall inherit the Earth"), which in the character's view includes targets of systemic racism.

So even though the Irish Americans are light-skinned, they are discriminated against and disadvantaged similarly to Black Americans, so the character sees Irish Americans as having some amount of God's favor, which perhaps includes a gift of additional wisdom about telling the truth, shaming the devil, and how drinking may help with that. In other words, God may have made them "a step ahead" of everyone else in that area of wisdom.

Another way to write the last sentence:

The Irish clearly understand, since they drink so much, that drinking can counter-intuitively help a person be virtuous. Maybe they know that because God has made life so hard for them in many other areas, and giving them this understanding is a gift to them to help balance the scales.


1. I've decided not to type out the racial slur that King uses. This is my personal decision and is not meant to suggest that anyone who chooses to type it out is making a bad choice.

2. https://picturinghistory.gc.cuny.edu/irish-immigrant-stereotypes-and-american-racism/

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