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The Great Famine: Speranza Responds

Speranza, Lady Jane Wilde

Jane Wilde

When she decided to send poetry to The Nation newspaper in response to a call for contributors, Jane Elgee, who would become Jane Wilde on marriage, chose the pseudonym Speranza, the Italian word for hope, which she described as her, ‘nom de guerre, or rather nom de vers,’ and which formed part of her motto ‘Fidanza, SperanzaCostanza’ (Faith, Hope, Constancy).

The first poem from the pen of ‘Speranza’ was ‘The Holy War’, translated from a German original and published The Nation on 21 February 1846. Jane signed the accompanying letter ‘John Fanshaw Ellis’, a pseudonym adopted to conceal her activities from her unsympathetic family; she may also have assumed, with good reason, that a male contributor would be looked upon more favourably.

In February 1847, the Great Famine in Ireland reached it’s height. The horror of this tragedy radicalised poet Jane Elgee, in her mid-twenties by then, prompting her to adopt the name ‘Speranza’ and write inflammatory poetry  in response. Later, she would marry William Wilde and become the mother of Oscar. Here’s an excerpt from Wilde’s Women describing her response to the famine:

In 1847, Jane found a catastrophe to write about: Ireland’s rich soil yielded an abundance of high quality grain, meat and dairy products, and landowners sold the bulk of their produce overseas. When the price of grain became artificially inflated during the campaigns against the French, it was designated a cash crop for export. At the same time, the Irish population was growing inexorably, from five million in 1800 to in excess of eight million by 1841. The teeming families that farmed thousands of sub-divided smallholdings, half of them covering less than five acres, were required to survive on the potato crop alone. When the blight that ravaged America in 1842, crossed the Atlantic in the years that followed, the subsistence farmers of Ireland were hardest hit. Harsh governance and the laissez-faire trading policies adopted in Westminster exacerbated the problem, leading to famine in one of the most fertile countries in the world.

Jane’s words had a galvanizing effect: ‘a nation is arising from her long and ghastly swoon’, she declared.* In ‘The Lament’, she gave voice to the Young Irelanders’ criticism of the increasingly ineffectual Daniel O’Connell: ‘gone from us…dead to us…he whom we worshipped’, she wrote. In ‘The Voice of the Poor’, she railed against the horrors of famine, writing, ‘before us die our brothers of starvation’; ‘The Famine Year’ condemned the arrival of, ‘stately ships to bear our food away’; ‘The Exodus’ lamented the ‘million a decade’ forced to flee their homeland. The most popular of Jane’s compositions was ‘The Brothers’, a rousing ballad eulogising Henry and John Sheares, one a lawyer, the other a barrister, both United Irishmen hanged for their part in the rising of 1798. In tone and theme it shares much with her son’s Ballad of Reading Gaol and it was taken up by the street balladeers of Dublin.

Snow lay deep when the famine reached its height in February 1847, and a typhus epidemic raged uncontrollably. The non-interventionist policies adopted by the newly installed Whig government were proving disastrous, and the soup kitchens and relief works set up to help the starving population were woefully inadequate. As the country headed inexorably towards insurrection, Jane’s contributions became increasingly provocative. Her poem, ‘The Enigma’ described how the living envied the dead as Ireland’s abundance was, ‘taken to pander a foreigner’s pride’. She lamented the loss of, ‘the young men, and strong men,’ who, ‘starve and die, for want of bread in their own rich land’.

When the offices of the Nation newspaper were raided in July 1848, editor, Charles Gavan Duffy was arrested and charged under the new Treason-Felony Act for publishing a newspaper article advocating the repeal of the Act of Union, a crime that carried the penalty of transportation. While he was in prison awaiting trial, he entrusted editorship of the Nation to his sister-in-law, Margaret Callan, aided by Jane. On 22 July the Nation carried Jane’s inflammatory poem, ‘The Challenge to Ireland’. The following week, she wrote an unattributed leader titled ‘Jacta Alea Est’(the die is cast); it was an unmistakable call-to-arms:

‘O! for a hundred thousand muskets, glittering brightly in the light of Heaven, and the monumental barricades stretching across each of our noble streets made desolate by England…’

As if this were not sufficiently treasonous, she beseeched:

‘Is there one man that thinks that Ireland has not been sufficiently insulted, has not been sufficiently degraded in her honour and her rights, to justify her now in fiercely turning on her oppressor?’

* From ‘Forward!’ by Jane Wilde, originally titled ‘To My Brothers’ in Poems by Speranza (Dublin, James Duffy, 1864), p.35

Source: Wilde’s Women by Eleanor Fitzsimons



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