This Month in Celtic History
by Stephen Paul DeVillo

October 2004


16 October 1854:   Oscar Wilde, Irish author, born.

One of Ireland’s most famous literary figures, Oscar Fingal O’Flahertie Wills Wilde was the son of the Irish nationalist poet Jane Elgee, who wrote under the name of “Speranza” and who claimed (doubtfully) descent from the Italian poet Dante. Speranza was moreover the grandniece of the Irish writer Charles Maturin, whose strange novel Melmoth the Wanderer is considered a forerunner of Gothic fiction. Oscar’s dad, William Wilde, was a noted eye surgeon with an interest in Irish archaeology who wrote on the prehistory of the Boyne Valley. He named his son, it is said, for Oscar, son of Oisin from the old Gaelic stories of the Fianna.

Oscar was brought up in a heady atmosphere of literature and poetry, promoted at the weekly salons the Wildes held at their house on Merrion Square in Dublin, where among their frequent guests was the young Bram Stoker, future author of Dracula. Bram and Oscar were schoolmates at Dublin’s Trinity College, where legend has it that Oscar briefly courted Stoker’s future wife Florence Balcombe. After his short stint at Trinity, Oscar moved on to Oxford University where he began to distinguish himself with his published poetry.

His early years were not a seamless success by any means. While the six-foot, three-inch Oscar became a fixture at gallery openings and gatherings of the London literary set, he was early on a target of the satiric magazine Punch, and the Oxford Union even took the extraordinary step of rejecting, on the grounds of unoriginality, a volume of his poems that he had sent as a gift. His first play Vera had its London production hastily canceled due to concern that its plot based on Russian revolutionaries would offend the English royal family in the wake of the assassination of Czar Alexander II. The play eventually premiered on Union Square in New York, where amidst generally hostile reviews it closed after a week.

Though Vera bombed, Oscar achieved fame in America when the D’Oyly Carte company tapped him to conduct a lecture tour as a representative of the budding Aesthetic Movement. The movement’s core idea that beauty was something to be pursued for its own sake was a somewhat radical notion at the time, especially in the hard-nosed business atmosphere of 1880s America. The American press had fun lampooning Wilde and his trademark outfit of velvet knee-britches and hand-held lily or sunflower. (The velvet britches were actually adapted from the ceremonial uniform of his Oxford Masonic Lodge and he soon exchanged them for ordinary trousers.) In one legendary stop at Leadville, Colorado, miners expecting a wimp were surprised to find the affable whisky-drinking Wilde touring a lead mine. His scheduled lecture that evening was on the poet Oliver Goldsmith. The story has it that on being informed that Goldsmith was dead, one member of the audience wanted to know “who shot him?”

Throughout the course of Wilde’s long tour of America, the Irish-American community wasn’t always sure of what to make of him. He was accepted in many places as an Irish celebrity, but the Irish Nation newspaper in New York groused that he was “phrasing about beauty while a hideous tyranny overshadows his native land.” Though his repertoire of lectures included one on “The Irish Poets of 1848” (which included his mother Speranza,) Wilde tended to avoid nationalist politics.

But the events of the day sometimes intruded anyway. Reporters sought him out for a comment on the gruesome murder on 6 May 1882 of Chief Secretary Lord Frederick Cavendish in Dublin’s Phoenix Park by a nationalist splinter group calling themselves the Invincibles. Wilde knew Cavendish as a dinner guest at Merrion Square, and noted that “when liberty comes with hands dabbled in blood it is hard to shake hands with her,” but then went on to say that “we forget how much England is to blame. She is reaping the fruit of seven centuries of injustice.”

Back in London, a newly-married Wilde pursued a career as a poet and a magazine editor and expanded his literary career with the publication of the novel The Picture of Dorian Gray. While the book has remained popular to this day, at the time it was considered immoral by some reviewers and banned from a number of libraries and booksellers. It is possible that dark rumors already circulating about Wilde’s private life had something to do with the mixed reviews the book received. Shrugging off the critics, Wilde moved on and soon hit his stride as a playwright, producing in succession such hit plays as A Lady of No Importance, Lady Windermere’s Fan, and The Importance of Being Ernest.

But Wilde’s meteoric rise was followed by an abrupt downfall when a libel suit against the Marquess of Queensberry backfired and led to his trial and conviction for “indecent acts.” His two-year prison sentence inspired his popular poem “The Ballad of Reading Gaol,” and the haunting “De Profundis.” Broken in health and spurned by the society that had once lionized him, Wilde emerged from prison and went into exile in France, where he died in 1900.

Though Wilde had quit the world, it seemed that the world was not quite done with him. The nude angel on the monument carved for him by Jacob Epstein was judged indecent by the keeper of the Pere Lachaise cemetery in Paris, who kept the monument cloaked under a tarpaulin until about the end of World War I. Around the time the tarpaulin came off, a production of his play Salome opened in Paris and provoked more scandal. Spiritualists, among them Arthur Conan Doyle, even sought him out in seances and claimed to produce still more quotable quotes from the ever witty shade of Oscar Wilde.

Today, more than a century after his death, Oscar Wilde is commemorated by a polychrome bronze statue in Dublin’s Merrion Square, in which Wilde sits with a bemused expression across the street from his childhood home. His writings and poetry are still in print, his plays are still produced, and his quips and witticisms have become part of the English language. “The only thing worse than being talked about,” he once assured a friend, “is not being talked about.”

For more information on Ireland, see the Irish Nation Page.

The stories featured in This Month in Celtic History are drawn from the over 1000 anniversaries of people and events from the histories of the six Celtic nations of Ireland, Scotland, Wales, Brittany, Cornwall, and the Isle of Mann in the 2005 Celtic Calendar, now available from the Celtic League American Branch.

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