Saturday, November 29, 2014

All Things Irish -- Oscar Wilde and Irish Potatoes

The potato is very high in potassium. Did you know that? You wouldn't think it, would you? But it's true. One of the many happy by-products of doing this All Things Irish series is all the other stuff I've been learning. Did you know the white potato is a tuber while the sweet potato is a root . . . and not even a potato? The list goes on and on and on, but with each new and exciting fact, I travel farther afield of my original intention: All Things Irish. This time I've chosen Oscar Wilde and Irish potatoes.

The Irish Potato

I'm going to start with the humble Irish potato and get to the arrogant fop later. The name "Irish potato" simply means a white potato as opposed to a sweet "potato" (I'll be putting air-quotation marks around this now for the rest of my life). So Irish potatoes have nothing to do with Ireland. Or do they?

Well, it seems that a white variety of the tuber was cultivated in Londonderry, New Hampshire in 1719 from stock brought over by Scotch-Irish (also Ulster Scots) immigrants. The patata had of course orginated in Peru or Bolivia, was taken to Europe by the Spaniards, made its way to Ireland, which was then under the oppression of England causing lots of Scotch-Irish people to emigrate--and some of these Scotch-Irish folks wound up in Londonderry, New Hampshire. The Irish potato should be called the global potato. Or the proverbial hot potato. As far as I know, only US-Americans refer to the white potato as Irish. When my Irish friends use the term "Irish" potato, they seem to be referring to a method of preparation or potatoes grown in Ireland rather than a specific variety. So bottom line: the Irish potato isn't Irish; but at least it is a potato, which is more than the sweet "potato" can say. 

Here's another fun fact: In a study done in 2012, Ireland wasn't even in the top 25 producers of potatoes in the world. China and India combined grow one-third of the world's supply of spuds. Ireland has moved on to bigger and better crops of a completely different nature to fuel its economy. But this is now. What about then, when for many Irish the potato was just about the only source of food?

The Irish Lumper is the spud at the center of the Irish Potato Famine of 1845-1850 (which some historians classify as genocide since Ireland, even during the worst years of the famine, was exporting enough grain crops to feed its own population). Historians agree that, like previous crop disasters, the famine could have been prevented. Ports should have been closed, and grain and other harvested crops should have been kept on the island to feed the Irish population. These commodities were exported while the peasants starved. It must be added, Ireland was not the only country hit by the blight. Belgium, the Netherlands, Spain, Sweden, Prussia and France all suffered to some extent from the famine; but the Scottish Highlands and Ireland were hit the hardest.

More than a million of the poorest people in Ireland died and an estimate 2 million people from Ireland and the Scottish Highlands combined emigrated. The famine came to an end just a few years before the birth of one of Ireland's most celebrated--and arrogant--wordsmiths. But is he really Irish?

Oscar Wilde

I wish I'd known the following quip from Oscar Wilde when I was putting the final touches on my book Conversations with S. Teri O'Type. It sums up my approach to the story and the characters so well. I said something similar in an interview when asked if there wasn't something quite serious at the core of all the camp and slapstick. "Nothing's serious here except everything," I replied, but of course Oscar Wilde put it better:

"Life is much too important a thing to ever talk seriously about it." - Oscar Wilde

Wilde is perhaps best known for his quips (but of course also for his poetry and his only novel The Picture of Dorian Grey). There are books of Oscar Wilde quotes, web sites dedicated to them and someone quoting them right now trying to amuse someone with borrowed wit. And they are funny or humorously poignant or biting. Some, however, are simply mean: they out Wilde's cringeworthy snobbery--as in this one (sort of ) about travel:

“I never travel without my diary. One should always have something sensational to read in the train.” - Oscar Wilde

Wilde once said "I put all my genius into my life; I put only my talent into my works." Even the most hardcore self-promotion junky these days would steer clear of statements like that. All of this being said, his poetry avoids this arrogant, flippant tone. It's dramatic and serious in contrast to the public figure Wilde cut.

I think what people overlook most about Wilde is that he seems--also in his life (not only in his art)--to have grown out of the quipping fop into a more serious, contemplative person in prison (he spent two years in prison on charges of "gross indecency"). At this point and according to him, his life-long endeavor of self-realization through pleasure became a quest for "the nobility of the soul" through pain and sorrow. 

I'm not sure I'd have liked Wilde if I'd been one of his contemporaries and had social interaction with him. I wonder if I'd have liked his poetry. I'm sure I would have avoided the person. I'm not sure there has ever been a writer more willing to talk about his own talent than Oscar Wilde. But all this is beside the point.So bottom line: there's a lot about Oscar Wilde I'm simply not sure about.

Was Oscar Wilde Irish? Born Oscar Fingal O'Flahertie Wills Wilde in Dublin, he does certainly sound Irish. But it turns out to be a bit more complex than that. Wilde's family were what was known then as Anglo-Irish, a social upper class of intellectuals and landowners in Ireland of mixed English, Welsh, and Irish heritage. The situation of the Anglo-Irish was to feel English in Ireland but Irish in England.

After attending Trinity College in his late teens, Wilde sailed off to Oxford to complete his education and his introduction into English society. His mother is reported to have encouraged him to lose his Irish accent (and he is reported to have said the first thing he lost at Oxford was his Irish accent). I would love to hear him speak. Isn't being Irish so much about sounding Irish?

What's your opinion of Oscar Wilde? Or Irish potatoes, for that matter?

In my mission to learn All Things Irish, I'm calling on you to help. What should I research? What's Irish to you?

I must be off,


Christopher Allen is the author of Conversations with S. Teri O'Type (a Satire), an episodic adult cartoon about a man struggling with expectations. Allen's award-winning fiction and non-fiction have appeared or are forthcoming in Indiana Review, Quiddity, SmokeLong Quarterly: the Best of the First Ten Years anthology, Contrary, Prime Number Magazine, [PANK], Necessary Fiction, and Word Riot. A finalist at Glimmer Train in 2011, Allen has been nominated for Best of the Net and the Pushcart Prize twice.