Oscar Wilde the Irishman: A speech he made in Minnesota on St. Patrick’s Day, 1882.

Much time is devoted to speculation as to exactly how Irish Oscar Wilde believed himself to be. Although he truly saw himself as a citizen of the world, and was careful to ingratiate himself with those who occupied the highest positions of power and influence in England, he was also the son of an Irish nationalist mother.

On 17 March 1882, Wilde, aged twenty-seven, participated in the St. Patrick’s Day celebrations that were organised in the city of St. Paul, Minnesota. He was touring America at the time, lecturing to audiences the length and breadth of that emerging nation. A comprehensive account of the event, including his apparently impromptu remarks, was carried in the Saint Paul Globe the following day. This is Wilde at his most Irish – he was wise to give his audience what they wanted. Perhaps he was also sincere in his sentiments.

Here’s my account of the occasion, based on the report in the Saint Paul Globe:


On a rainy St. Patrick’s Day in 1882, in the city of St. Paul, Minnesota, Father John Shanley took to the stage at the Opera House and declared that he was:

…pleased to announce the presence with them of a son of one of Ireland’s noblest daughters – of a daughter who in the troublous times of 1848 by the works of her pen and her noble example did much to keep the fires of patriotism burning brightly in the hearts of Ireland’s sons. A son of that noble woman was present in the person of Mr. Oscar Wilde, who had kindly consented to say a few words on this happy occasion, and whom he had the pleasure of introducing

Wilde, who had been sitting in a box to the side of the stage, ‘skipped’ onstage, dressed in ‘his too too raiment,’ the outfit he had worn when he had delivered a lecture the previous night. This was described as:

cut away coat, velveteen waistcoat, velvet knee britches, black stockings and pumps, one hand gloved in a white kid, the other bore lace handkerchief and necktie, and the long straight brown hair hanging down upon his shoulders.

Wilde was greeted with ‘a generous demonstration of applause,’ which he acknowledged with a slight bow from the front of the stage. He began to speak:

Ladies and gentlemen, when I gave myself the pleasure of meeting with you to-night, I had not thought I would be called upon to say anything, but would be allowed to sit quietly in my box and enjoy listening to the loving and patriotic sentiments that I knew would be given voice. But the generous response you have given to the mention of the efforts of my mother in Ireland’s cause, has filled me with a pleasure and a pride that I cannot properly acknowledge. It is also a pleasure to me that I am afforded this opportunity during my visit to America to speak to an audience of my countrymen, a race once the most artistic in Europe.

There was a time before the time of Henry II, when Ireland stood at the front of all the nations of Europe in the arts, the sciences and general intellectuality. The few books saved from the general wreck are remarkable for their literary excellence and beauty of illustration. There was a time, too, when Ireland was the university of Europe – when young Monks educated in Ireland went forth as educators to all other European countries, while at the same time students from these same countries flocked to Ireland to study the arts, etc., under the great masters of Ireland. There was a time when Ireland led all other nations in working in gold. In those times no nation built so splendidly as did Ireland. The cathedrals, monasteries and other public edifices of  those days showed a higher style of architecture than that of any other nation.

Those proud monuments to the genius and intellectuality of Ireland do not exist to-day. When the English came they were burned. But portions of these blackened, mouldering walls still remain to remind visitors of the beauty of the work wrought by Ireland, for the pleasure and enjoyment of Ireland, in the days of her greatness. But with the coming of the English, art in Ireland came to an end, and it has had no existence for over 700 years. And he was glad it had not, for art could not live and flourish under a tyrant.

Art was an expression of the liberty loving, beauty loving sentiment of a people. But the artistic sentiment of Ireland was not dead in the hearts of her sons and daughters, though allowed no expression in their native country. It is that sentiment which has reduced you to meet here to-night to commemorate our patron saint. It finds expression in the love you bear for every little nook, every hill, every running brook of your native land. It is shown in the esteem you bear for the names of the great men whose deeds and works have shed such lustre upon Irish history. And when Ireland gains her independence, its schools of art and other educational branches will be revived and Ireland will regain the proud position she once held among the nations of Europe.

He thanked the audience once more, and was rewarded with ‘generous applause as he withdrew from the stage’.

For more on Oscar Wilde read my book Wilde’s Women


For  more on Wilde’s lecture tour of America visit this brilliant website: http://www.oscarwildeinamerica.org

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