By Eleanor Fitzsimons
Good evening everybody and thank you for attending my talk on Oscar Wilde and the Irish community in London. It’s always a challenge to speak to an expert audience, but I hope you will find what I’m about to share with you to be of interest, and I invite you all to ask questions or add your observations at the end of this session.
Firstly, and stating the obvious here, Oscar Wilde was thoroughly Irish, as Irish as I am in fact. He was born on 16 October 1854, .to Irish parents, William and Jane Wilde, in a well situated but relatively modest terraced house at 21 Westland Row in Dublin, close to Trinity College. It’s now part of the university. As a child, he moved with his family to 1 Merrion Square, an imposing and prestigious house that many of you will have visited, I’m sure.
Aged nine, Oscar joined his brother, Willie, at Portora Royal School in Enniskillen, County Fermanagh, which he attended from 1864 to 1871. Aged sixteen, he left Portora with a royal scholarship to read classics at Trinity CollegeDublin, where he was a student from 1871 to 1874. Weeks short of his twentieth birthday, he was awarded a demyship to Magdalen College, Oxford, where he read Greats from 1874 to 1878. That was when he left Ireland. Oscar visited Ireland from time to time during his time at Oscar and after 1878, but he never lived there again. He had few ties to Ireland afterhis mother and brother left Dublin in 1879.
A brief note on the status of Ireland at the time. From 1801, and the Act of Union, until 1922, when she won her independence, Ireland was governed by the Parliament of the United Kingdom in London through their administrative headquarters at Dublin Castle. Many Irish people travelled to live and work in England, as they still do. The Common Travel Area remains in place affording rights to all of us to live and work throughout these Islands.
Like many Irish people, myself among them, Wilde was attracted to London by the opportunities available here. He was ambitious and determined to get on, and he made it his business to cultivate the good favour of the English public, particularly the upper echelons. He modified his dress and behaviour to do so. At least one Oxford classmate, John Edward Courtenay Bodley, remarked on Wilde’s Irishness, although he did not mention his accent:
A good-natured, though unsophisticated young Irishman…an unaffected youth, the cut of whose garments, though doubtless counted unexceptionable in Dame-street or College Green had a quaint look for “doing the high”. “Oscar Wilde at Oxford,” New York Times, 4 Feb 1882)
Wilde’s Irishness was remarked upon, often favourably. An excerpt from his entry in The Biograph and Review, Volume IV, 1880 (London, E.W. Allen, pp.130-131), reads:
“He [Wilde] is the offspring of a fervid and emotional race, and the child of two persons of unusual character. In him the strong emotional tendency of the Irish nature which with most of the race feeds personal feeling alone becomes, through intellectual development, an ardour for art and its glories.”
Wilde’s contemporary and compatriot George Bernard Shaw described him as “at root a very Irish Irishman, and, as such, a foreigner everywhere but in Ireland.” (cited by Hyde, Oscar Wilde, 37). Grant Allen called him “an Irishman to the core”.
It’s often suggested that Wilde modified his accent deliberately. I believe this may have been overstated. The Wildes would not have spoked with a very pronounced accent, certainly not a provincial accent such as the one Oscar’s mother mocked in a letter to him in June 1875, after a visit to Mayo: “The Irish accent is dreadful – I shudder – Maurnin Paaa-purrrrrs! How refined we are. Willie’s is the only refreshing accent I hear…”. Lecturing in America in 1882, Oscar said: “I wish I had a good Irish accent to read…to you in, but my Irish accent was one of the many things I forgot at Oxford.” Although playing to his audience, as ever, this suggests some regret at the loss of his accent, challenging the suggestion that this was deliberate. Frank Harris, an Irishman, observed that Wilde spoke French with an Irish accent. French poet Andre Raffalovich, a close associate of John Gray, when referring to the way in which Wilde spoke, described him as “very Irish”.
Wilde may have been obviously Irish in manner and appearance, but what is perhaps less easily discerned is his view on the fraught politics of the time, and his sympathy for the campaign of some measure of autonomy for Ireland. Commentators, among them Jerusha McCormack and Richard Pine, suggest Wilde was acutely aware of the horror of the Irish famine and that it informed his writing, thinking, and attitude to English politicians. Lecturing on Irish poetry in San Francisco in April 1882, to an audience sympathetic to the plight of post-famine Ireland, Wilde spoke of his “peculiar reverence and love” for the men of ’48 (a reference to the failed uprising of 1848), announcing that he was “trained by my mother to love and reverence them, as a Catholic child is the Saints of the Calendar”.
Yet, Wilde was his own man. In “The Irish Oscar Wilde: Appropriations of the artist,” (Irish Studies Review, December 1999) Máire Ní Fhlathúin cautioned that readers cannot view Speranza’s ambitions for her son as “a vital element of the picture of Wilde himself”. She disputes postcolonial attempts to define Wilde in terms of his politics, and postulates that he was an opportunist who changed his persona, often contradictorily, to suit his audience and purpose. On politics, perhaps the subtle opinion Wilde offered in 1882, in an interview with an American Newspaper best expresses his wishes for his nation:
Undoubtedly, in America, Wilde felt free to speak out against the British establishment and its treatment of Ireland. Of course, this often reflected the sentiment of his audiences. While in England, he wrote of “our English land”. In his poem “Ave Imperatrix” his narrator eulogizes “our English chivalry” and “quiet English fields,” Yet this poem also laments the price paid by the colonizer: “And thou whose wounds are never healed/Whose weary race is never won/Cromwell’s England! must thou yield/For every inch of ground a son?”
Wilde was a chameleon, a wearer of masks. In Inventing Ireland, Declan Kiberd suggests that: “Wearing the mask of the English Oxonian, Wilde was paradoxically freed to become more ‘Irish’ than he could ever have been back in Ireland”. Richard Pine considers Wilde as an outsider of both Irish and English culture. In anonymous criticism, he was prepared to criticize England’s treatment of Ireland. In “A Chinese Sage” (The Speaker, 8 February 1890), he wrote: “Were he [Chuang Tzu] to come back to earth and visit us, he might have something to say to Mr. Balfour about his coercion and active misgovernment in Ireland”. Yet in a letter to James Nicol Dunn, Managing Editor of Henley’s Scots Observer, an anti-Home Rule newspaper, Wilde made it clear that he did not wish for his name to appear.
When it came to politics, Wilde took a keen interest in that fate of Charles Stewart Parnell, leader of the Irish Parliamentary Party, which held the balance of power during the Home Rule debates of 1885–1886. Wilde attended sessions of the Parnell Commission, and his library contained 13 volumes of proceedings. Yet, it may be that his sympathies lay with a man whose private life was being used to depose him. In “The Soul of Man” (1891) Wilde criticised the media in a way that appears supportive of Parnell:
The harm is done by the serious, thoughtful, earnest journalists, who solemnly, as they are doing at present, will drag before the eyes of the public some incident in the private life of a great statesman, of a man who is a leader of political thought as he is a creator of political force, and invite the public to discuss the incident, to exercise authority in the matter, to give their views . . . in fact, to make themselves ridiculous, offensive, and harmful. The private lives of men and women should not be told to the public. The public have nothing to do with them at all.
He invoked his Irishness on occasion when he felt rejected by the British establishment, such as when his play Salomé was refused a licence, or when in “de Profundis,” he extended his personal grief into a reflection of the historical when he wrote to Lord Alfred Douglas of “the ruin your race has brought on mine”. In The Importance of Being Paradoxical, Patrick M. Horan writes: “being in the Irish minority strengthened Wilde’s notion that most artists were alienated and unappreciated by the populace”.
Wilde often spoke of the kinship between people from the Celtic nations. In a letter to Grant Allen, whose father was Irish, he suggested “all of us who are Celts, Welsh, Scotch, and Irish, should inaugurate a Celtic Dinner, and assert ourselves, and show these tedious Angles or Teutons what a race we are, and how proud we are to belong to that race”. In The Woman’s World, which he edited for two years, he lent practical support to Irish cottage industries, publishing articles on activities like lacemaking and weaving. What of his compatriots, fellow Irish people in London, among them his mother and his brother? As Roy Foster puts it in Conquering England: Ireland in Victorian London: “London was the magnet for generations of middle-class Irish arrivistes determined to make their mark”. In his fascinating A survey of the Irish in England (1872) Hugh Heinrick reported:
There is not a newspaper in London without its one, two, three and four Irish writers and Irish reporters on the staff – indeed, Irish reporters are not alone numerous, but are the best and ablest who supply the daily papers with the Court and Parliamentary records of the day.
Politics too was dominated by debate on Home Rule and “the Irish question”. Irish literary groupings and societies were springing up throughout the city. Key Irish figures who interacted with Wilde were operating in London, in the spheres of politics and media, carving out positions of considerable power and influence. Among them was Justin McCarthy (1830-1912), editor of the Morning Star, leader writer for the Daily News and a nationalist MP (1879-1900). He was also a close friend to Bram Stoker. In his biography of Wilde, Matthew Sturgis describes how McCarthy dominated London’s “ex-patriot ‘Irish brigade,’ a heterodox group composed mainly of literary and political types,” a group that Wilde cultivated. Wilde also admired McCarthy’s son, although the younger McCarthy was to write a scathing and very personal review of Lady Windemere’s Fan for Gentleman’s Magazine:
McCarthy senior was more supportive. They moved in the same literary circles. When McCarthy read a paper on “The Literature of ‘48” at the Southwark Irish Literary Club in January 1883, Wilde was in the audience. In an interview he gave to the St. Louis Globe-Democrat in February 1882, Wilde described McCarthy senior as “a writer of brilliancy”. When McCarthy edited Irish Literature (published in 1904), he devoted 19 pages to Wilde’s writings, including “The Selfish Giant”, an extract from “The Decay of Lying”, and six poems. The accompanying biographical note was wholly laudatory, and dealt particularly sensitively with Wilde’s tragedy, ending:
Far less sympathetic to Wilde was Thomas Power (T.P.) O’Connor (1848-1929), a powerful man with a similar profile to McCarthy. O’Connor moved to London as sub-editor of the Daily Telegraph. He was elected as an MP in 1880, and he contributed a nightly sketch of proceedings to the Pall Mall Gazette during this time. He also founded, and was first editor of, The Star (1887), the Weekly Sun (1891), the Sun (1893), M.A.P. and T.P.’s Weekly (1902). O’Connor’s Weekly Sunfollowed Wilde’s career with insinuation, curiosity and lack of sympathy. He almost certainly wrote that paper’s assessment of Salomé: “Anything more loathsome and revolting than the atmosphere Mr. Wilde has created in this drama it would be difficult to imagine.” Wilde was aware of his hostility and declared “for some years past all kinds of scurrilous personal attacks have been made upon me in Mr. O’Connor’s newspapers”. Most bizarre of all was this accusation of plagiarism:
In “Oscar and The Irish” (Dublin Review of Books, January 2013), Brian Earls speculates that O’Connor’s dislike of Wilde’s persona was related to elements in his own personality with which he was ill at ease and wished to conceal.
There were influential Irish men who supported Wilde even though not personally acquainted with him. Timothy Michael (T.M.) Healy (1855-1931) was a politician, journalist, author, barrister and somewhat controversial Irish MP. His “Healy Clause” in the Land Law (Ireland) Act 1881, provided that no further rent should be charged on tenant’s improvements. He would become first Governor-General of the Irish Free State in the 1920s. Healy was a brilliant debater with a keen intellect. For several years, he operated as Parliamentary correspondent for The Nation, Speranza’s old paper, which was owned by his uncle. He wrote numerous articles in support of Parnell, but he turned against him later, on account of his scandalous private life. Parnell: “Who is the master of the party?” Healy: “Aye, but who is the mistress of the party?” Although Healy didn’t know Wilde personally, he greatly admired his parents. In 1895, he “begged” FrankLockwood, the solicitor general in Lord Rosebery’s Liberal administration, not to proceed with charges against Wilde for a second time, as he “wished the mother should be spared further agony”.
In Wilde’s time, the Irish literary and political community in London was riven in two. Earlier Irish literary migrants, who had relocated for social, economic and cultural reasons, took a keen interest in politics too. They identified as Irish nationalists, but they were eager participants in British political and cultural life. Their hybrid identity was carefully crafted. By the 1880s, these Irish writers were well established in Liberal London. Many, among them T.P. O’Connor and Justin McCarthy, played a prominent role in the Liberal Home Rule campaign of 1886-92. They wrote for an English readership, even when they were writing about Ireland. Lady Wilde fits quite neatly into this category.
A new generation of Irish literary emigrants arrived during the 1880s and 1890s. Their passion was for an Irish cultural revival. They established the Southwark Irish Literary Club, the Irish Literary Society that followed, and the London Gaelic League. These cultural revivalists were suspicious of the earlier arrivals, certain that they had diluted their Irish identity. These cultural nationalists wanted to explore and assert their separate Irish cultural identity. Many, prominent among them W.B. Yeats, would return to Ireland to help bring about a Gaelic revival. Although Wilde did not fit into either category, he engaged with both.
The Irish Literary Society founded in 1892 and in existence to this day, has its roots in the Southwark Irish Literary Club, founded in 1883, with Francis Fahy (1854-1935) as its President. Fahy was a guiding light in the first wave of Irish cultural revivalism in London, which he described as: “The world-city of my reading and my dreams”. Yeats left us a colourful description of the Southwark Irish Literary Club:
Fahy mentions Wilde:
Wilde’s presence at the Southwark Irish Literary Club was greeted with some scepticism by members. As W.P. Ryan observed in The Irish Literary Revival (1894):
Some members of the club saw irony in this as they viewed Wilde as ‘the representative of a movement with which Young Ireland could have no sympathy; – the very head centre of aestheticism himself – more curious still, that this same representative should be the son of “Speranza’.
Another literary organization with a high Irish participation that Wilde engaged with was the Rhymers’ Club, active from 1890 to 1895. Poet Arthur Lynch described them as, “a small assemblage of poetically pious young men”. Members met to read aloud and criticize each other’s work. Early meetings took place at 20 Fitzroy Street, where Lionel Johnson, who introduced Wilde to Lord Alfred Douglas, lived. Wilde attended the first meeting there, but he stopped attending when the rhymers took to meeting monthly at Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese, off Fleet Street, where they drank beer and smoke long, clay churchwarden pipes. As Yeats put it in Four Years: “If we met in a private house, which we did occasionally, Oscar Wilde came. It had been useless to invite him to the ‘Cheshire Cheese’ for he hated Bohemia.”
In a letter to Ernest Rhys, dated February 9, I890, Herbert Home wrote:
I asked the rhymers here the other evening: Oscar came in at the end, after the rhymes were all over, and smiled like a Neronian Apollo upon us all. A kind of enthusiasm or inspiration followed.
Needing more than the Rhymers, Yeats was key to the founding of the Irish Literary Society, built on the circle of Irish writers connected with Tinsley’s magazine and its editor Edmund Downey, whose partnership Ward and Downey published Lady Wilde’s books. Wilde was a charter member, as were his mother and his brother. According to W.P. Ryan:
“When it was suggested that Oscar Wilde should be invited to join the Society, one who knew him said that he would certainly put off the matter with a quip or a paradox, which, however, would be a good one, and worthy of being entered in the minute book. This friend was a false prophet, for Oscar Fingal O’Flaherty Wills Wilde was soon an honoured name on our register. His brother, William Wilde, an old contributor to Kottabus, came also.”
Wilde had his supporters in the society of course. Stephen Lucius Gwynn, secretary of the Irish Literary Society and member of Irish Parliamentary Party declared: “There is no doubt at all about the gifts from Oscar Wilde”. He had his detractors too. According to Yeats, Downey was to become the only Irish man of letters to turn down his request for a letter of support addressed to Wilde at the time of his trials in 1895. Yeats regarded Dowden’s grounds for refusal, that he did not care for Wilde’s writings, as spurious. Another detractor was Australian-born poet Arthur Lynch. His extreme action prompted the following from John Yeats in a letter to his daughter Lily, which he wrote in June 1894:
An ambitious young writer, Yeats was also a shy man who found Wilde to be a kind and encouraging role model. He was astonished by the brilliancy of his talk. They met in London in 1888 and developed a friendship. Yeats even spent Christmas day 1888 with the Wilde family, although he did detect something “too perfect” about it all. In Four Years, Yeats recalled Wilde saying to him of the Irish, “we are a nation of brilliant failures, but we are the greatest talkers since the Greeks”. He recognised Wilde as a radical critic of English society, which chimed with his own cultural nationalism. In a review of Lord Arthur Savile’s Crime and Other Stories, he described Wilde’s works as “an extravagant Celtic crusade against Anglo-Saxon stupidity”. In United Ireland (26 September 1891), Yeats wrote:
Beer, bible, and the seven deadly virtues have made England what she is,” wrote Mr. Wilde once; and a part of the Nemesis that has fallen upon her is a complete inability to understand anything he says. We should not find him so unintelligible—for much about him is Irish of the Irish.
In Wilde’s time of greatest need, Yeats supported him publicly, collecting letters of support from fellow Irish writers. In Memoirs, Yeats disclosed that his father, John B. Yeats, had encouraged him to see if he “could be of any help”, adding: “He [Wilde] was very kind to you, perhaps he may wish to call you as a witness to something or other”.
Another prominent Irish writer in London at that time was George Bernard Shaw. Wilde and he were recognised as the first Irish playwrights in decades to make an impact on the London stage. Each admired and was influenced by the other. Wilde wrote to Shaw: “we are both Celtic, and I like to think that we are friends”. He alone in literary London signed Shaw’s petition in support of Irish-American anarchists involved in Chicago’s Haymarket Riots. Shaw wrote: “It was a completely disinterested act on his part; and it secured my distinguished consideration for him for the rest of his life.” Yet, wildly different in temperament and inclination, they developed an uneasy friendship, and met mostly by chance. Shaw first met Wilde at one of Lady Wilde’s gatherings, and described how Wilde:
After Wilde was imprisoned, Shaw drafted a petition for his release to the Home Secretary and discussed its circulation with Wilde’s estranged brother. Disheartened, by his lack of support, Shaw concluded that, since only he and Reverend Stuart Headlam had signed it, it would do no good, ‘as we were two notorious cranks, and our names alone would make the thing ridiculous and do Oscar more harm than good’.
Less supportive was influential Irish novelist, short-story writer, poet, art critic, memoirist and dramatist George Moore, who moved to London in 1869. Moore grew up in the West of Ireland and became friendly with young Willie and Oscar, who spent summer holidays at nearby Moytura. He refused to acknowledge Wilde as an artist. In a letter to Frank Harris, a colourful, opportunistic Irish newspaper editor in London, who knew Wilde well, Moore wrote at length about his low regard for Wilde as a writer.
Wilde found Harris brash and combative, but they maintained an association for years. It was Harris who tried to talk Wilde out of the libel trial shortly before it began. Shaw wrote:
Perhaps the most extraordinary association Wilde had with a compatriot was with Edward Carson. Both were born in 1854. Both grew up in upper-middle-class Dublin, Wilde in Merrion Square and Carson in nearby Harcourt Street. It’s likely that they played together as five-year-old children, while on holiday in Dungarvan, Co Waterford in 1859. They were in Trinity College Dublin around the same time and were said to be friendly there. Yet, when Wilde learnt Carson was defending Queensberry, he is said to have quipped about “Ned” Carson: “No doubt he will perform his task with all the added bitterness of an old friend.”
Carson was politically ambitious. A Unionist MP for Dublin University, he would go on to play an astonishing role in the partition of Ireland. He had his political reasons for defending Queensberry. He never accepted Wilde’s literary genius and described him as a “charlatan”. Yet, after the libel trial Carson also was reported to have said to his wife, “I have ruined the most brilliant man in London.” Ahead of the second criminal trial against Wilde, Merlin Holland notes, Carson is believed to have interceded on his behalf, saying to the British solicitor general: “Can you not let up on the fellow now, he has suffered a great deal?”
My talk thus far has been dominated by men, and as author of Wilde’s Women, I must give the women their say. One Dubliner who disliked Wilde intensely, and he her, was Lady Colin Campbell. Born in Dublin in 1857, Gertrude Elizabeth Blood (1857-1911) was intelligent, cultured and beautiful. In 1881, she married Lord Colin Campbell, but their marriage failed. In 1884, she obtained a separation on the grounds of cruelty. Their very public divorce, with sordid accusations of adultery, made her a household name. After reading her novel, Darell Blake, Wilde concluded that she had “exhausted all her powers of imagination in the witness box”. She called him “the great white slug” (or perhaps caterpillar, accounts vary).
Another Irish woman writer who fell out with Oscar Wilde was Edith Somerville, one half of Sommerville and Ross (her cousin Violet Martin, who wrote as “Martin Ross”), authors of The Irish R.M. In April 1888, she visited Oscar Wilde at the offices of The Woman’s World. She gave an account of their encounter in a letter to Martin:
Wilde’s plight in 1895 caused a split between Dublin-born sisters Julia and Eliza Davis, who he had played tennis with in his youth. In My Sentimental Self, fashion columnist Eliza described: “Oscar [playing tennis] in a high hat with his frockcoat tails flying and his long hair waving in the breeze”. During a long affair with Henry Irving, Eliza attempted to persuade him, unsuccessfully, to stage Wilde’s play The Duchess of Padua. Yet, in 1906, when her sister Julia, writing as Frank Danby, released a novel titled The Sphinx’s Lawyer, accused her of attempting “to defend the undefendable Oscar Wilde.”
Finally, to an encounter Wilde had with an Irish woman of no literary significance, that perhaps highlights his true nature. Here’s an excerpt from Wilde’s Women: