Monday, October 14, 2013

A Wilde Irishman in the Canary Islands


     The first member of his family to settle in Ireland was a Colonel Wilde. He was the son of a Dutch painter whose work can be found today in the Hague Art Gallery. The colonel was awarded lands in Ireland after fighting with the troops of William III. One of his sons, Ralph, married Margaret O’Flyn. She was a descendent of one of Eire’s oldest families which gave its name to the district of Roscommon known as County O’Flyn. Ralph Wilde became Lord Mount Sandford of Casterlea.

     They had a son called Thomas. He became a highly respected practitioner known for his work caring for both rich and, gratuitously, the poor. He married Miss Amelia Fynne. She came from an even more distinguished Irish family although they were thought to be rather an eccentric lot. Thomas and Amelia had three sons and two daughters. The youngest was to become Sir William Robert Wills Wilde.
 Sir William Robert Wills Wilde

     Wills Wilde was born in 1815 and spent most of his youth exploring the hills and in the company of his friend Paddy Walsh who liked to dress unconventionally and played the violin. William was greatly influenced by his games teacher Dick Blacks, and especially by the Reverend Patrick Prendergast. Wilde described him as a very fine, courteous, white-haired old man. He was the last Lord Abbot of Connaught and it was from him that Wilde inherited an interest for languages and Irish traditions. But, like his father he also studied medicine.
     It was on account of his medical profession that he found himself bound for the Canary Island of Tenerife in 1837 when he was just twenty two. He was aboard the Crusader, a 130 ton schooner owned by Mr. Robert W. Meiklam, a consumptive Scottish merchant from Glasgow. Meiklam employed Wilde for the duration of a voyage in the Mediterranean and around the Macaronesian isles of Madeira and the Canary Islands in search of a miraculous cure for his tuberculosis.
                                                                      The Crusader
     Young William had a miserable time due to his irremediable seasickness. However he was able to write a detailed account of his experience in Narrative of a Voyage to Madeira, Teneriffe and Along the Shores of the Mediterranean, published in 1840. His observations were of great interest, not only to future visitors to the Canary Islands but also to doctors and scientists of the time. He and many other scientists and travellers from the British Isles in the 19th century who published articles and books about the Spanish islands can be regarded as literary benefactors of the Canary Islands, first as a health resort and later as a marvellous and interesting holiday destination.
     Soon after the Crusader anchored in the bay at Santa Cruz, Wilde took leave and was rowed ashore whilst his employer and baggage were made ready for a long coach ride to the Orotava Valley. The young doctor was not kind about Santa Cruz in his writings. All he found mildly interesting were Horatio Nelson’s flags, cross and other items relinquished after the admiral's defeat at the hands of the Santa Cruz garrison and General Gutiérrez in 1797. He described the port as one of the driest places he had ever set foot upon. Indeed it was, until future generations filled it with the rich parks and wide, tree-lined avenues Tenerife's capital boasts today.
 An old postcard of The port at Santa Cruz
     On their way to Port Orotava they decided to halt for some days at San Cristobal de La Laguna. The air was cool compared with the dusty heat by the coast. Besides, the bumpy, meandering and endless coach ride up the hill had been just too much for Mr. Meiklam to take so soon after so many days at sea. Wilde described the town of La Laguna, Tenerife's first and principal settlement at the time of the conquest in 1496, as beautiful but rather desolate, with hardly a soul in the streets. 
A sketch of San Cristobal de La Laguna in the 19th century
     It is still a beautiful town today, but it brims with life as home to the island's university and the streets and alleyways are filled with charming restaurants and shops. A valuable heritage of mansions, churches and convents persuaded the UNESCO do declare La Laguna a World Heritage Site in 1999.

The Orotava Valley
     The travellers marvelled when they caught their first glimpse of the Orotava Valley over the rim from the village of Santa Úrsula, especially when the cloud evaporated suddenly to expose the peak in the background. A majestic and endemic Canary pine, Pinus Canariensis, caught Wilde's eye too and he took seeds back to Ireland. Examples of the tree grew wonderfully in the botanical gardens of Trinity College, Dublin. 

     Wilde and his Scottish millionaire stayed in the enchanting little port which is now called Puerto de la Cruz. The young medicinal student described the houses as being well built with volcanic stone, white-washed and topped with roman tiles. He also noted the pleasant fresh sea air and temperature compared with the haze in Santa Cruz and the damp of La Laguna. But, as in La Laguna he found people avoided being in the streets, especially the women, who had a preference to just peep from behind little postigos inquisitively, closing them firmly if one became too impertinent. But Wilde  remarked that when they did come out and always accompanied, the young women were without a doubt the most attractive he had set eyes upon since leaving Ireland. Like so many others, he found the climate in the Orotava Valley ideal for curing health problems, especially those related to the lungs, and Mr. Meiklam's health appeared to improve during their stay.
The church and square in Port Orotava
          With regards his interest in botanical matters Wilde may have been harsh in suggesting that the gardens in La Orotava were not well maintained and that it was a pity they could not have been in English hands. It seems nobody thought of taking him to the magnificent botanical gardens. However his observations were generally accurate.  

Dragon trees (Dracaena draco)
     He was fascinated by the dragon trees but took his experiments too far by placing the sharp needle of an endemic cacti species, the Euphorbia Canariensis, into his tongue. He felt very strange and quite sickly almost at once and took a long time to recover. Perhaps nobody told him that the pre-Hispanic aboriginals used the latex from this particular euphorbia to catch fish, stunning them by squeezing droplets in the rock pools where they nibbled green algae like the Caulerpa Webbiana off the rocks or ambushed careless crustaceans. But evidently, when not attending to Mr. Meiklam, the young doctor spent the hours investigating. He gathering examples of local flora, unusual stones and even cochineal whose dye was once the island's principal export.
Euphorbia Canariensis
     The episode with the euphorbia confirmed that Wilde’s eccentric blend began to manifest itself in Tenerife. Robert Meiklam allowed him time to explore and the Irishman hired Cristobal, a giant of a guide also known as the Gomeran to lead him up Mount Teide. He also took another splendid herculean fellow with him whom he had met on the beach, simply because he had a marvellous sense of humour. For luggage he took a bottle of wine presented to him by the British Consul.
 Mount Teide
     They took just twenty hours to reach the tip of Teide from the port. To this day it is considered one of the fastest ascents ever. Perhaps it had something to do with that wine. Still on the peak, on the way back down, the guide took them to what is known as the ice cave. The entrance to the cave is a deep, vertical hole three quarters of the way up the volcano’s north face. It leads into a vast cavity which, even in the heat of August, but less so today as Earth warms up and the winters provide less snows, hides ponds of icy water and rock hard ice. Before the arrival of the modern refrigerator ice-collectors would be paid to climb the mountain and bring down mule loads of ice from volcanic cavities like this.

The Ice Cave

     After completing more travels to London, Vienna and Berlin where he met Alexander von Humboldt, the great German scientist and explorer who paid such tribute to the Valley of La Orotava, William Wilde returned to Ireland where he founded the St. Mark’s Ophthalmic Hospital in Casterlea. He became Queen Victoria’s eye specialist and almost at the same time married Lady Francesca Elgee, a passionate republican, poet and revolutionary. Perhaps this explosive combination, added to his own eccentric lineage, had something to do with producing the genius of a second son, poet and playwright, Oscar Wilde.         







John Reid Young, author of

"The Skipping Verger and Other Tales"

a selection of short stories set in the Canary Islands.


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