Saturday, 16 March 2013

Oscar Wilde, Ireland, and an American St. Patrick’s Day

Oscar Wilde was a son of Ireland. His father, Sir William Wilde, grew up in the west of that country, where he developed a love of its landscape, rich history and folklore. He trained as an eye and ear surgeon in Dublin and ministered not only to the royal houses of Europe but to the poor peasants of Ireland who, lacking money, repaid him with legends and superstitions [1]. Oscar’s mother, Lady Jane Wilde, later published her husband’s collection of Irish myths, but by this time had already secured her own place in the firmament of Irish literature. During the 1840s, when the Great Famine was driving thousands of Irishmen and women to America or to the grave, and the Young Ireland movement was advocating armed rebellion against their English overseers, “Speranza”, as the then Jane Elgee styled herself, penned poetry of such patriotic force and vigor she may rightly be credited with inspiring the Irish nationalist movement of the mid-nineteenth century [2].

Oscar spent his youth in Dublin, then the second largest city in the British and Irish Isles, and at the family’s fishing lodge in Connemara, on the west coast of Galway, which his father had built on the supposed site of the legendary battle of Moytura. He was educated first at Portora Royal School at Enniskillen, County Fermanagh, declared by Lady Wilde to be “the Eton of Ireland” [3]. Whilst a pupil there he once announced with characteristic prescience that his great ambition was “to go down to posterity as the defendant in such a case as Regina Versus Wilde” [4]. He later attended Trinity College Dublin, where he met the man who was to assist him in realising his dream: in 1895 Edward Carson would defend Lord Queensbury in Wilde’s action for criminal libel and “pursue his case with all the added bitterness of an old friend” [5]. For the time being the exact contemporaries sparred more gently as members of the “Hist”, Trinity’s debating society [6].

Ireland was all that Wilde had ever known. Yet he was soon to cast off his Irishness, shedding his accent and even his nationality, as though he were a butterfly shedding the chrysalis. The Empire’s second city was insufficient for one whose ambition was to conquer the literary world. He crossed the Irish Sea and completed his studies at Oxford, with one eye on the metropolis. In 1879, after the death of Sir William, Speranza sold the old family mansion in Dublin’s Merrion Square and followed Oscar and his brother Willie to England, conceding that “both of my sons prefer residing in London, the focus of light, progress and intellect” [7].

Wilde returned to the land he called “the Niobe among nations” [8] but a few times, and never after he had established himself as a leading London playwright. But it is unsurprising that one who so often spoke of life as a masquerade occasionally allowed his English mask to slip, although only when it served him to display the Irish mask beneath. One of those occasions was St. Patrick’s Day 1882. Wilde was two months into his American lecture tour, his quest to civilise a nation, and, if possible, secure sufficient “golden fruits” to fund “a winter in Italy and a summer in Greece” [9]. However, despite sell-out performances in New York and Chicago, he was finding that his lectures on “The English Renaissance” were failing to enthuse audiences who were more interested in his outlandish aesthetic costume than anything he had to say. Attendees at Philadelphia “were so cold that he several times thought of stopping and saying, ‘You don’t like this, and there is no use of my going on’” [10], and the boisterous students at Harvard and Rochester heckled, hooted, attempted to shut off the lights, and were eventually ejected by the police [11, 12]. After only 250 people attended a March 15th lecture in Minneapolis, where Wilde’s delivery was pronounced “flat and insipid” [13], he was finally persuaded of the benefit of tailoring his speeches to his audience. And today, March 17th, Wilde’s audience comprised the sons and daughters of Erin of whose Exodus his mother had sung.

It was a rainy day in St. Paul, Minnesota, but the Irish and their descendents were out in force, their love of country amplified, as it so often is, by their remoteness from its shores. The celebrations at the city’s opera house were commenced by the evocatively named Bishop Ireland, who delivered a sermon on St. Patrick. This was followed by a rendition of the patriotic hymn “Come Back to Erin” (which was, ironically, penned by a native of London), and then Captain O’Conner of the Knights of St. Paul gave a rousing speech on God and Country, with much mention of the English despotism, landlordism and feudal barbarism under which his countrymen were subsisting, which culminated with what was effectively a call for armed rebellion. Similarly red-blooded addresses were given by other eminent émigrés, each of whom made it very clear that there was only one answer to “the Irish question”.

And then Father Shanley, the event’s master of ceremonies, announced “the presence with them of a son of one of Ireland’s noblest daughters”. Wilde exited his box beside the stage and joined Father Shanley. He began a speech that he claimed was extempore, but which was plainly tailor-made for the “race once the most artistic in Europe”. He lamented the loss of Ireland’s great cultural heritage, harking back to a time “when Ireland stood at the front of all the nations of Europe in the arts, the sciences and general intellectuality...when Ireland was the university of Europe”. Yesterday he had given his usual lecture on art in the very same theatre, when he “spoke in a decided English aw-dialect, and his brogue gave no trace that he was an Irishman” [14]; perhaps his Irish lilt shone through now as he adopted the role of the seanchaí—the Irish bard—and conjured images in the minds of the men and women of St. Paul of the magnificent “cathedrals, monasteries and other public edifices” that “showed a higher style of architecture than that of any other nation.” After pausing for effect he made it clear what had happened to those triumphs of design and execution: “when the English came they were burned”. And it was not only the buildings of Ireland that the English invader had demolished. Art, too, had been crushed beneath his boot: “with the coming of the English, art in Ireland came to an end, and it has had no existence for over 700 years.” He was glad it had not, “for art could not live and flourish under a tyrant.”

As the reporter for the St. Paul Daily Globe attested, “Wilde’s remarks were closely followed by the audience, which testified its appreciation by generous applause as he withdrew from the stage” [15]. Oscar’s Irish mask had served him well. From time to time he would wear it again, but for now the English mask was his preferred disguise. Within three days he was back lecturing on “The English Renaissance”.

1. Ellmann, R. (1987). Oscar Wilde. London: Hamish Hamilton, p10.
2. Coakley, D. (1995). Oscar Wilde: The Importance of Being Irish. Dublin: Town House, p10.
3. Pearce, J. (2004). The Unmasking of Oscar Wilde. San Francisco: Ignatius Press, p40.
4. Harris, F. (1918). Oscar Wilde: His Life and Confessions. New York: Privately printed, p25.
5. Ellman, p414.
6. Coakley, p174.
7. Ibid, p179.
8. Lewis, L., & Smith, H. J. (1936). Oscar Wilde Discovers America: 1882. New York: Harcourt, Brace and Co., p168.
9. Holland, M., & Hart-Davis, R. (Eds.). (2000). The Complete Letters of Oscar Wilde. London: Fourth Estate, p135.
10. Sacramento Daily Record Union, 4th Feb 1882.
11. Brooklyn Daily Eagle, 2nd Feb 1882.
12. Olean Democrat, 9th Feb 1882.
13. Morris, R. (2013). Declaring his Genius: Oscar Wilde in North America. Cambridge, MA: Belknap Harvard, p127.
14. St. Paul Daily Globe, 17th March 1882.
15. St. Paul Daily Globe, 18th March 1882.

Discover more about Oscar Wilde's American lecture tour, and our comic about it, at oscarwildecomics.com