Today, during my travels I was lucky enough for my tour bus to stop just outside of Merrion Square. I hopped off and stood across from Oscar Wilde’s childhood home, though unfortunately the college was not running any tours. (I’ll have to make a return trip to see inside!) Just before my arrival, I’d finished Wilde’s “The Importance of Being Earnest,” so I was eager to explore an area in the hopes of feeling closer to the playwright. I had to content myself with seeking out his statue, located across the street in a shaded corner of the Square’s park. As a vocal member of the LGBT community, Wilde remains a figure I’ve long admired. The sprawling lawns and greenery took my breath away, and people roamed about in tour groups, with their children, or walking their dogs. The statue itself lounges on a large stone, reclining in what looks like a brightly colored smoking jacket. As noted on the website for his home tours, depending on your angle his face smiles or frowns. This was an especially fun fact to learn upon leaving the park because I originally tried to take a photograph on the left side, but didn’t like my expression, the lighting, view of the statue, or generally anything about the picture. So, I had my companion take a few from the opposite side (they’re a bit candid), and lo’, they’ve become some of my favorite pictures since beginning this trip! It just goes to show you how a different perspective can impart an entirely new meaning!
The unique nature of Wilde’s memorialized statue makes me think about history, and how its preservation all depends on the presentation. From one angle, it appears one way, and from another, one sees a complete change in interpretation, a theme explored last week through “That the Science of Cartography Is Limited.” Furthermore, this brought to mind something I’d read in Kilfeather’s book, about the Penal Laws in Ireland against Catholic Irish (44). First passed in 1691, the Penal Laws continued over the years to legally discriminate on the basis of religion, denying legal rights, property rights, and even higher education to those of the Catholic faith in the hopes of converting all of Ireland into a Protestant country under the rule of the British Empire. As a result, most upper-class citizens were British transplants or Protestant Anglo-Irish, with Catholics continuing to be limited to lower-class citizens/ Similar practices occurred later in Irish history, with the Famine Roads as Boland wrote, linked to the practice of “souping” by the Protestant missionaries during times of starvation to target impoverished Catholic people. Though at first, it seems like charity to offer food to the masses, this was only done in exchange for public work, or conversion. It was another way to exert dominance over the marginalized, and as Kilfeather informs us, many Catholics converted in appearances only, forced to live a secretive double-life in order to remain true to their own desires and avoid persecution.
This pressure to conform to English standards is furthermore discussed in the 1892 speech, “The necessity for de-Anglicizing Ireland.” The speech centers on the Irish desire for their own cultural identity and autonomy apart from their transgressors, but how they still, perhaps out of necessity, do what they can to assimilate to English expectations, thus degrading any chance of remaining their own people or country. It is true that the English impact left lasting scars upon the Irish still felt to this day (2). I’ve Irish friends who at once are grateful for their bilingual aptitudes, and proudly converse in Irish whenever they can, but bemoan that they learned it in school classrooms much like we American students might half-heartedly learns a second grade level of Spanish or French. To them, they have been robbed of native fluency in their “mother-tongue,” English being the language they use at home, which does not meet their ideas of being “really Irish.” This sentiment of self-presentation carries into Wilde’s play, which as previously mentioned, I read before my lark before the author’s statue. The play depicts a hilarious comedy of errors in which two friends tangle themselves in a web of lies trying to woo their intended fiancees using impersonation. In both pretending to be Ernest, Jack’s false hedonistic persona, the pair stray further and further from any earnest truth.
However, I think the play engages in an interesting discussion of just what it means to be truly honest with ourselves, about ourselves. Neither Jack or Algernon may be Ernest as he appeared in their fabrications, to be fair, but in taking on his identity to win love by deception, they reveal a lot about their true nature as human beings. And Jack, who invented Ernest as a means to indulge in pleasurable pursuits unbefitting of his image, used the character to explore hidden sides of himself he would have otherwise been denied. I think this makes abundantly clear the human practice of formulating an identity out of a range of experiences. Our “self” has always been a malleable thing. Even if begun as a ruse, Jack discovered aspects of his nature which became at times more real than his controlled behavior towards his servants, his neighbors, or his ward. In fact, even before he realizes the history behind his birth, he projects Ernest in adherence to one type of expectation just as he crafts the identity of “Jack” to satisfy another. It seems incredibly fitting then that this play was written not only in an era of Ireland’s Celtic Revival but also around the time of the writer’s infamous trial for Homosexuality. Wilde’s point might be, that there is no one true self above all others. Rather, life is a conglomerate of experiences, histories, and occurrences. We shape our society as it in turn shapes us. And if at some points we must act in ways which go against the values we previously held, or the ideas we had about who we were as people, it does not matter because who we become, for whatever reason, genuinely reflects who we are. There is no right truth or wrong truth. There is only the truth, and many different facets can exist in tandem. Wilde loved men but also was known to have a happy marriage to a woman. My friends are fluent Irish speakers, but they learned it in a different way than their ancestors did, and also speak the language of their oppressors. In the past, some Irish practiced dual faiths for their protection, and salvation. Though the statue smiles or frowns at different angles, it remains a single statue, with a single myriad of expressions. Like Wilde, I think we must embrace the many aspects of our stories in order to present the most authentic version that we can of who we are.