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. 

Sunday, November 23, 2014

All Things Irish

Picture actually taken in Scotland, but hey.
Over the last few weeks I've become increasingly more worried that I don't know jack about my new home, so I've decided to become better acquainted with all things Irish. This is a bit of a change from my usual approach to travel and new places. Usually I just stumble right in and play dumb. Like a puppy. Who doesn't love a puppy?

But this time I want to be a bit smarter. I have quite a few Irish friends, you see. What if they tested me? What if I suddenly found myself in the midst of a quiz night at my local pub and the subject were "All Things Irish"? Would I be prepared? Is cider actually Irish? Is "Oh Danny Boy" Irish? What about Guinness and Oscar Wilde? Irish? What about the clover in that picture up there? Irish? What about James Joyce and "Irish" stew? Irish? All of them?

"Oh Danny Boy"

First, I have to say this is one of my favorite tunes or "airs" as I've learned in the last few hours. It might have actually started as a "purth," which means a harp tune. You're welcome! You're not three paragraphs into this post, and you've already learned so much. I know what you're thinking: big changes at I Must Be Off! We're going all educational.

Is the lyric to "Oh Danny Boy" Irish? No. A song with this lyric was written by Frederic(k) Edward Weatherly, an English lawyer and prolific songwriter, in 1910--and apparently the tune sucked. His sister-in-law in America, though, came to his rescue with an "ancient" Irish air called "The Londonderry Air" or "Air from County Derry" as it's called by Irish nationalists (Derry was renamed Londonderry when it was occupied by the British). The air and the lyric made magic. If you can keep yourself from weeping uncontrollably when you hear Sinead O'Connor sing this haunting a cappella version of "Oh Danny Boy" (below, not chosen for its obvious political message at the end!) or Londonderry Air played on the harp and flute, well, you have no soul. And I don't mean the James Brown kind of soul; I mean an actual soul.

Now, imagine that you're Irish and living in the early 17th century. Apparently there are blind harpists and blind fiddlers everywhere. You can't throw a sheep without hitting one. One of them, Blind Rory Dall O'Cahan pens "O'Cahan's Lament," a purth (see above), after his family's land is confiscated by the British. The air was brought into the 19th century by the, yes, blind harpist Dennis O'Hampsey.

Or if you want to believe a blind fiddler penned the air, you can have Blind Jimmy McCurry, the blind fiddler of Myroe. I don't know, I like the blind harpist version better. And it's a century older.

One last comment about the song: I grew up in a devout Baptist family/church in the South, so my first experience with this tune was in the song "He Looked Beyond my Fault and Saw My Need," sung live below at Carnegie Hall by Andraé Crouch.

For now, I'm satisfied with my depth of knowledge here. Onward. To Guinness . . .

Guinness Beer

Before I was diagnosed with Celiac disease, I drank my share of Guinness (and in my ignorance suffered the corresponding intestinal difficulties). I haven't had a Guinness in ten years. Sadly. I still remember the taste, though. I sometimes ask to sniff it when I'm in the company of those who can drink it. If Guinness came out with a gluten-free beer, I'd be very grateful. And fatter.

But is Guinness Irish? Simple answer: yes, of course it is. The brewery was founded by Arthur Guinness from Celbridge, County Kildare--definitely Irish and defnitely Protestant. Until the 1960s, you were forced to resign from the brewery if you married a Catholic. Ergo: very Irish, nicely embroiled in the history of Catholic vs. Protestant. Can't get any Irisher than that.

Long and complicated answer: no, of course it (and by "it" I mean the beer) is not Irish, or at least not in the beginning and not anymore. The type of beer, the stout or porter (not exactly the same thing), is apparently of British creation of the 18th century, so the type of beer Guinness makes is not of Irish origin.

In 1997, Guinness merged with the company Grand Metropolitan to form the company Diageo, headquartered in London (so not Ireland)--which is surprising considering the lower tax rate in Ireland. The beer is now brewed in nearly 60 countries, and only two of those countries have Ireland in their names. I've heard friends say there are unfortunate variations among breweries. It's similar to other products made all over the world. Take the humble Snickers. It tastes cloyingly sweet in the US, a little salty in Europe. Take, however, Jack Daniel's. Whatever you think of Jack, you have to accept that it's a Tennessee whiskey. Jack Daniel's was founded by a Tennessean, and every drop of it is made in Lynchburg, Tennessee. The company also defies the debatably correct definition of its product as a bourbon, which is very much like us Tennesseans. The only thing that speaks against Jack Daniel's being a Tennessee whiskey is the sad fact that since 1956 it has been owned by a Kentucky company. What is the world coming to?

Next time I'm going to do some research into Oscar Wilde for me and you. Are you Irish or just want to know more about Ireland? Would you like to suggest something I should research on my quest to learn All Things Irish? I'd love some suggestions.

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. 

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

At Home in Dublin

Sunday morning when the sun finally came out over Dublin
Disclaimer: I cut the tip off my left Birdie finger while cooking breakfast on Sunday morning in Dublin, so it's all wrapped up now and creating a very "stiff" typing experience for me. Don't rag me on the typos.

Apart from dicing a digit with the onions, Dublin is great fun. Our TV now works, so we--and by "we" you know I mean Ian the Lion-Hearted Sailor--decide to watch black-and-white documentaries about WWI and WW2 ALL fricking weekend. Yes it's Remembrance Sunday in Britain, but we are in Ireland. Still. OK. I get it. And after nine or ten hours of black-and-white footage of mud, carnage, futile hatred and more futile hatred, I most certainly will never forget . . .

. . . the Hell of war. Really. There are no words apart from WHY DO WE DO THIS TO ONE ANOTHER? It's unimaginable that the people who actually fought these wars understood the reason they fought. So many people gave their lives for the geopolitical ambitions of a few evil men. And, yes, millions more lost their lives trying to stop them. And then the victors stamped their boots so hard on the losers' faces that the losers could do nothing but retaliate. The Germans (now) have a saying:
Imagine there's war and no one comes.

The deep structure of this quip is the idea that the masses might decide not to fight for their leaders' global hegemony, that the masses on both sides might just decide to live their lives in peace. Imagine that. It's easy if you try. Of course the Germans have a very good reason to be anti-war. As most Germans alive today had nothing to do with WW2 but nevertheless take the responsibility for it never happening again, they are big promoters of diplomatic solutions.

Actually--and correct me if I'm wrong--the Germans were prohibited from aggressive acts of war after WW2. Their army can be deployed only for peace-keeping missions and for self-defense. When they are critical of the US and other countries for playing world police, it's important to understand that they are simply warning against their own mistakes: aggression feeding aggression. If you insist on an eye for an eye, you'll all be blind. What good is that?

Trinity College: on our Sunday walk
So I cut my finger. I'm watching all this footage of bloodshed, and I cut my finger.

"Plasters," I say. I don't yell or moan or whinge. It doesn't really hurt. It's a new knife.

"We don't have any," Ian the Lion-Hearted Sailor says--totally unimpressed, eyes glued to WW2.

"I cut the tip of my finger off," I say.

"Why?" he asks.

"Why??" I say. I don't tell him the omelet I'm giving him may or may not have my flesh in it.

It's Sunday, and the pharmacy around the corner isn't open. Holding my left hand above my heart, I walk to the little market around the next corner. It's throbbing gently: the finger not the heart or the market, although the heart is pounding fairly relaxed as well. Long story short, I get the plasters (adhesive bandages for you Yanks) I need and we set off to explore our new environs. We're going shopping. For shoes. I've had the same shoes for the last three or four years, so I'm all about the new shoes.

So I buy trousers. I call them my Dublin trousers, the ones I'll leave here so I don't have to schlepp so much back and forth. I also buy a jumper (a sweater for you Yanks).

We buy no shoes. The shoes are too expensive. It's not as if we are walking barefoot through the streets of Dublin. Ian the Lion-Hearted Sailor is just worried that Dublin will get cold and that our shoes will be inadequate, too porous. I'm trying on my third pair of jeans. Who cares about shoes?

"Cider?" I say as we're leaving a shop.

"I know the place," Ian the Lion-Hearted Sailor says.

"Lead the way," I say.

"I will," he says.

"Well do it, " I say.

"I will," he says.

"Stop it," I say.

Nice people. Good beer (I'm told). And excellent cider.

And so we end up at a pub called The Brew Dock. It's not far from our flat actually, and they have gluten-free meals marked on their menu. I have the veggie burger with potato planks. I'm calling them planks because that's what they are. They're actually better than the burger, which is just OK but gluten-free so I'm happy. But much better than the burger and the potato planks is that the guy serving them says, "Just so you know, the potatoes were fried in a separate oil than the fish." (The fish is breaded.)

"Wow," I say. "Thank you." So these guys know the ropes with Celiac Disease. I'm a fan.

And even better than this, they have a cider on tap that is not Bulmers. Bulmers is fine, but sometimes I'd like to try something else. The cider they have on tap is dryer than Bulmers. Crisper. Lighter. Mac Ivor's.

The wonderful thing about The Brew Dock--at least on the day we grace their presence--is that I know ALL the songs on the CD they're playing. You might call these oldies, but I'd like to call them just very very good music. And of course I sing all the words to all of them. I love Ireland. When you sing along to the songs in the pub in Dublin, you can bet a few other people will sing along with you. Song is so important here. I feel at home. The bartender notices I'm singing, adds a harmony. Someone else starts humming. The whole place could explode with this common feeling, this shared love of song. I miss this. This doesn't happen in Germany.

What makes you feel at home?

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.