Nowadays, when you mention “vampires,” people tend to think of sparkly teens or pasty-faced creeps in collared capes moaning “I vant to suck your blood” in some generic Eastern European accent. While those might be the most iconic images of the bloodsucker zeitgeist, they’re not necessarily the best. Bram Stoker’s Dracula may have defined the vampire for the modern era, but although we associate the story with Transylvania, we tend to forget that Stoker* himself was actually born in Clontarf, County Dublin, which lends further credence to a simple truth: all the best vampires are Irish.**
Let’s consider three prime examples: Angel from Buffy/Angel, Mitchell from Being Human (UK), and Cassidy from Preacher. See? Even without any actual proof for my theory, I can already tell that you agree. It was that easy. I rest my case.
And yet I go on. The sparkle-vamp camp tends to forget that the thematic literary value of the vampire lies in the union of a blessing and a curse. It’s the temptation of immortality and strength at the cost of one’s family, friends, and soul. With a history rooted in religious turmoil, the Irish know a thing or two about the power of sin, as well as the guilt that so often accompanies it. Even though they’re not always active and practicing in their religion—which none of the aforementioned characters really were, prior to their conversions—that dogma is still culturally ingrained within them. After his soul was restored, Angel spent nearly 100 years wallowing in self-pity over the things that he had done as a vampire; Cassidy was involved in the Easter Rising of 1916 (which, well, certainly involved religious conflict, amongst several thousand other things), and decided to flee to America rather than face his family after surviving such a horrible massacre thanks to his newfound abilities (also that he ran away before the battle truly started, which was shameful enough). And even after they’ve begun to make amends for their past crimes, it’s never enough; no matter how many times they save the world, these Irish vampires never feel that they have done enough to make up for their blood sucking sins. The ol’ Catholic Guilt is a strong motivator, and when it comes to the Irish, it almost seems to be passed down through blood.
Blood. Vampires. See? We’re getting somewhere.
The Irish have a history of suffering and oppression that has permeated their culture as well (I’m well aware that we are certainly not alone in this, but that’s besides the point), and they tend to find refuge in humor and alcohol. Just as vampires tend to be seductive and mysterious, much of the appeal of the Irish people (if I do say so myself) is derived from this unlikely combination of brooding and jovial charm, of melancholy and light-heartedness. It’s a darkness, underscored by self-deprecation and a smile, underscored by even more darkness. This trait is only amplified in characters such as Angel, Cassidy, and Mitchell. They have outlived their lovers, made new friends, done right and saved lives, and while these personal victories might offer temporary pride or relief, these characters are still incapable of forgiving themselves of their own trespasses. Cassidy deals with this inner turmoil by turning to drinking and drugs and a carefree lifestyle, but as much as he pushes his suffering below the surface, that shadow still sneaks through. Mitchell and Angel both eventually find a strong and supportive group of friends that sympathize with their struggles (through fellow supernatural housemates, and Angel Investigations, respectively). Every now and then, they both show that they’re capable of having fun and enjoying their lives, but by the end of the night, both remain haunted by the notion that they don’t deserve the pleasure.
And then there’s alcohol, that dreaded liquid haven. The stereotypical image of the Irishman is as a heavy drinker (he says, as he orders his third beer), and while it may seem charming in commercials, alcoholism isn’t all fun and games. Addiction is a disease, often passed down through heredity—and it’s a trait that runs rampant in Irish blood. What is vampirism then, but an addiction to blood? Within their respective continuities, all three of these characters have proven themselves capable of surviving without eating humans alive—whether it’s animal blood, or stolen from a hospital, there are alternatives to the actual fangs-in-neck method of consuming blood. But the metaphor of blood-as-alcohol is strong—the act of consuming actual fresh blood from a human body is seen as euphoric, and Mitchell, Angel, and Cassidy are all seen to struggle with relapses. Sometimes they overcome it, but again, the temptation remains strong. Consider the first season Buffy episode, appropriately titled “Angel,” when Buffy (and the audience) first learns that Angel is a vampire. Darla bites Buffy’s mother and flees, leaving Buffy to enter her home as Angel holds her mother’s injured body, staring longingly at the blood dripping from her neck. The temptation is clear, but Angel understands the consequences, and so resists the urge. He knows that if he drinks a the blood of a living human being, he will continue to desire fresh human blood, which will send him spiraling downwards into the lifestyle that he has worked so hard to avoid. He is the vampire as addict, drinking blood instead of whiskey. Similarly, throughout the entire first season of Being Human, Mitchell must constantly contend with temptation (both of sex and blood, which, for thematic purposes, are essentially the same) from Lucy, a vampire whom he himself turned in a moment of uncontrolled passion. In the second seasons of their respective TV shows (Angel this time, alongside Being Human), both Angel and Mitchell are also forced to deal with what happens when they give in to their addictions and revel in them. Both characters turn back towards the darkness, while asserting somehow that they have it under control; but in both cases, it soon turns much, much worse.
There’s another important bit of common ground between these focal Irish vampires, and that is sacrifice. Because maniacal despot vampires might work fine as cardboard antagonists, but in order to carry a story, a protagonist must invoke sympathy, if not empathy, in his/her audience. And what dramatic action does that better than death? Vampires are immortal, of course, which makes this a difficult crutch to ride. But death has refused to stop the story for Mitchell, Angel, and Cassidy. Again, this is likely steeped in the Christian mythology that is innately and eternally intertwined with the fate of the Irish, but despite their flaws, each of these characters has proven himself as a hero through the act of martyrdom—and all but one of them came back to tell the tale.
Perhaps this all leads back to that ingrained Irish Catholic guilt that overwhelms our blood-sucking heroes, or that undying urge to compensate for the shame they felt while under the influence of vampirism. But what the Irish vampires have above so many others is a painfully human struggle; they may be fast healers with super-strength and longevity, but at their core, characters like Mitchell, Cassidy, and Angel still deal with the same emotional struggles as the rest of us (or at least that the rest of us can understand on an emotional level). They can’t just consume deer instead of humans and have it be done with, or sleep away the day inside a castle with a casket for a bed. The Irish have a dark history, and while they clearly didn’t invent the vampire, they certainly perfected it by finding that same darkness within their culture and spinning it out into the supernatural.
Also, and more importantly, brogues are much prettier than Germanic accents and us Irish folk are pretty much the best people ever. End of discussion.
*Stoker was also a Protestant, but we won’t hold that against him.
**The one exception being Spike, of course, but that’s a larger conversation for another time.
Tomás Pádraig Theodosius Doin is a Boston-based writer, musician, homebrewer, and new media artist. He enjoys Oxford commas, metaphysics, and romantic clichés (especially when they involve robots). His family battle cry is “Mullach abu!” in the Irish, which translates to either “Victory from the hills” or “On top forever,” and either one he’s fine with. Find out more at thomdunn.net.