This is the first of a two-part series tracking Oscar Wilde’s reputation in Ireland from his “disgrace” in 1895 to the present.
Oscar’s Shadow: Wilde, Homosexuality and Modern Ireland, by Éibhear Walshe, Cork University Press, €39.00, ISBN: 978-1859184837
This is a book which explores the impact of Oscar Wilde’s history and reputation on Irish society over a period of more than a century, from his trial and imprisonment in 1895 to our own times. In Éibhear Walshe’s view it is a story heavy with significance, as Wilde evolved from a position of muffled and embarrassed exclusion, extending over the long Catholic hegemony ‑ which marked the first half of the twentieth century ‑ via a cautious coming out from the 1960s onwards to what the author sees as his current position as emblem of a new tolerance and social inclusivity.
What results is as much a story about Ireland as it is about Wilde, as the writer and his reception are seen as a mirror in which aspects of the society – of a predominantly unattractive character – find their reflection. It is admitted that, at the time of his imprisonment, Irish commentators displayed a certain reticence and reluctance to condemn, compared to the ugly pleasure with which the British press greeted Wilde’s downfall. Although Éibhear Walshe brings forward a number of hypotheses to explain this reticence, arguably he does not succeed in making sense of the crucial divergence between British and Irish responses. Moreover, while such moments of tolerance are acknowledged, they do little to blur the main lines of his story. This tells of a society for which silence and suppression, or at best a minimal and distorted semi-acceptance, were the preferred means of dealing with the challenge Wilde represented and his potential for calling into question the oppressive cultural, religious and sexual norms of the new Irish state.
In discussing Wilde’s Irish reputation, Éibhear Walshe combines a broadly chronological approach with a thematic focus, as he traces how his subject was regarded by several generations of readers and, more broadly, how he was assessed and responded to in public comments over a period extending from the time of his imprisonment to the literary critics and queer theorists of our own day. He also probes the terms in which Wilde was viewed by fellow writers, from Yeats and Joyce to Thomas Kilroy and Terry Eagleton, the significance which they attached to his life, art and legend, and the differing uses they made of these. Genres surveyed include reminiscences, essays and other forms of writing, plays in which Wilde featured as a dramatic character, and his use as a floating literary and (in one instance) cinematic motif whose meaning might vary but was never less than significant. Above all Walshe is concerned with Wilde’s role as a form of cultural memory, an uneasy presence which could neither be acknowledged nor completely disowned, and which contained within itself the potential to disrupt a conformist and sexually monolithic society.
Wilde was a vivid presence in the writings of Yeats and Joyce. Although the recurrent engagement of both with his memory might seem to have placed him firmly within the twentieth century Irish narrative, Éibhear Walshe is not persuaded. While the significance of their response to Wilde is acknowledged, his position would seem to be that this counted for less when weighed against other, less benign forces which were coming to the fore in Irish society. In Walshe’s view, from the very beginning Wilde’s homosexuality was a “contested discourse” in his native country, “a discourse that became interconnected with Irish cultural nationalism”. Faced with the “powerfully homophobic culture of twentieth century Ireland”, space could be found for the “‘unspeakable’ Oscar Wilde” only by means of invented strategies, which attempted to mitigate his homosexuality by accommodating him within the pre-existing category of rebel, or, in a milder formulation, as a dissident. These contrivances proved to be of limited usefulness, as his memory “was gradually shifted from the mainstream discourse, particularly after the foundation of the Irish state in 1922, by the increasing conservatism of the largely Catholic political majority from the late 1920s onwards”. This unease was not confined to the Catholic majority; Wilde’s places of education, Portora and Trinity College, both associated with the Church of Ireland, “behaved with characteristic unease around the name of their infamous student” and “silenced” his name. In a country pervaded by an “official homophobia”, although Wilde possessed an attenuated presence as symbol of a “hidden tradition”, he survived as a ghostly figure on the margins, a “sexual other” whose unnameable sin had to be policed, and who was afforded little space in Irish literary or cultural life. With the coming of independence, the “nationalizing” of Wilde was revealed to have been a brief episode, as his “Anglo-Irish pride and his homosexuality were moved to the margin”.
It was only in the 1960s, with Micheál Mac Liammóir’s dazzling one-man show The Importance of Being Oscar, based upon Wilde’s life and works, that the process of reversing this dismal narrative began. In Éibhear Walshe’s view, Mac Liammóir’s importance in restoring Wilde’s tarnished reputation cannot be overstated. His hugely successful production was “crucial for the process of cultural acceptance and rehabilitation of Wilde’s name in Ireland” and amounted to a “revolution” in public perceptions of a previously dubious figure. Moreover, Mac Liammóir’s success opened up other possibilities, as “the name of Oscar Wilde … was gradually re-appropriated by contemporary writers and critics, and within cultural discourse as a symbol of modernity and new-found tolerance”. Wilde’s changing reputation was of particular consequence for sexual minorities as in the 1980s he came to be seen as a “gay precursor” and as “a symbol of the politicisation of Irish lesbians and gays”.
Oscar’s Shadow tells how in the decades that followed, the remainder of Irish society followed in the wake of these initial recognitions, and Wilde’s “once shadowy figure” emerged into full view. Portora belatedly showed itself proud of its errant former pupil, while Trinity College made up for past coolness towards Wilde’s memory, commissioning David Norris to deliver a commemorative lecture in which he hailed him as “a fitting and heroic icon for the gay movement”. As was perhaps inevitable, outcrops of old thinking remained, with the Field Day Anthology’s construction of Wilde “as not quite Irish” falling short of what was required. Terry Eagleton’s “construction” of Wilde is also judged to be “retrograde” and marked by “a problematic disjunction between the celebration of Wilde’s political potential for radicalism and the representation of his unnatural sexuality, the subversiveness of one being undermined by the regressive gendering of the other”. In spite of the persistence of such outdated views, gradually in the 1990s Wilde “was accepted back into the fold of approved Irish writing”. The tale thereafter is one of boundless positivity and multiple forms of incorporation, as “both gay and straight Ireland sought to appropriate Wilde as a potent symbol of affirmation and a symbol for a reinvented Irish cultural modernity”.
Although in his final paragraph the author expresses concern that in 2010 Dublin Corporation turned down a proposal to rename Archbishop Ryan Park as Oscar Wilde Park, one feels he may be making this point to avoid any appearance of complacency. This is a story with an eminently happy ending, as Wilde moved from a position of rejection, or at best a grudging and qualified semi-admission to the Irish community, to a place at the centre of things. Oscar’s Shadow concludes with a celebration of Wilde’s role as a mirror in which Ireland may hope to find its better self. By the beginning of the twenty-first century Wilde had become “an icon for the modernization and liberalization of Irish society … a signifier for the wholesale rejection of the insularity and perceived narrow mindedness of the first sixty years of the new Irish state”. As this summary may suggest, Éibhear Walshe has fashioned a purposeful and ideologically attentive history of Wilde’s Irish reputation, in which that reputation acts as an index for the transformation of Irish society. While the story he tells is uplifting and rhetorically adroit, it may be worth inquiring whether it is also true.
In assessing the claims made in Oscar’s Shadow, much will obviously depend on the quality of the evidence produced. Walshe has certainly brought to light a lot of miscellaneous information regarding how Wilde was regarded in twentieth century Ireland, much of which he reads in terms compatible with the thesis being argued. There are, however, moments which might have given him pause, when the evidence seems to point in a quite different direction and suggests a more accepting view of Wilde than his analysis might lead us to expect. By far the most striking of these is evidence for regular productions of Wilde’s plays on the Irish stage, which suggests a level of interest incompatible with the prevailing narrative of marginalisation and semi-exclusion. Although such contradictory indicators are noted, curiously little is made of them, and they do not significantly modify the overall direction of the argument. There is, moreover, a wide range of evidence bearing on Wilde’s Irish reputation which finds no place in Oscar’s Shadow and which apparently escaped the author’s attention. The effect of this is to call into question the portrait of a society which was uneasy with Wilde’s name and memory and which sought to muffle his capacity for calling prevailing orthodoxies into question by a strategy of silence and isolation. As a surprisingly large amount of this material is in Irish, or involves individuals who were seriously committed to that language, it also casts doubt on the emerging consensus which sees the Ireland of those years as closing its windows on the world as it retreated into a reactionary nativism. Finally the effect of a wider canvass is to raise the question of whether assumptions regarding a pervasive Irish hostility to homosexuals from the 1880s to the 1960s may be mistaken.
Éibhear Walshe discusses Yeats and Joyce’s interest in Wilde, seen in terms of their reconstruction of him as “the archetype of the tragic Irish artist”, but misses something of the drama and extent of their engagement. In 1906, when working in Rome, Joyce was sufficiently interested in Dorian Gray to read it in Italian translation. Writing to his brother Stanislaus, he combined enthusiasm with reservations, seeing the central idea as “fantastic”, but also spotting that “[s]ome chapters are like Huysmans, catalogued atrocities, lists of perfumes and instruments”. He added that, “I can imagine the capital which Wilde’s prosecuting counsel made out of certain parts of it. It is not very difficult to read between the lines.” Joyce read interestingly between the lines in an article on Wilde he published in a local newspaper in 1909 to coincide with the first production of Strauss’s Salomé in Trieste. At around this time he also wrote to Robert Ross, asking permission (which was granted) to translate The Soul of Man under Socialism into Italian. Close to a decade later, at the time he was working on Ulysses, Joyce acted as manager for a mixed group of professional and amateur actors in a production of The Importance of Being Earnest in Zurich. On the first night, in a moment of high spirits when the play had passed off successfully, Joyce called out to a friend in the audience, “Hurrah for Ireland! Poor Wilde was Irish and so am I.” It is a comment which, in the circuit of sympathy it establishes between the speaker, the author of the play, and Ireland, scarcely requires a gloss. Joyce got on with all members of the cast with the exception of Henry Carr, a former soldier and employee of the British consulate in Zurich, who played the role of Algernon Moncrieff. The quarrel between the two men over remuneration, which began almost immediately and turned bitter, resulted in Carr’s transformation into the aggressive Private Carr in the Nighttown episode in Ulysses. Wilde is, in fact, a presence from the very beginning of Ulysses. He acts as a point of reference in the conversation of the young men in the Martello tower in the opening section and thereafter weaves in and out of the novel not as a piece of Dublin small talk or local bric-a-brac, but invariable as a figure of weight. Like so many of Joyce’s obsessions, Wilde found his way into Finnegans Wake, where, drawing on Frank Harris’s biography, a copy of which Joyce owned, he features as an errant great white caterpillar, whose downfall obscurely parallels that of HCE in the Phoenix Park.
At the time of Wilde’s trials, WB Yeats gathered letters of support from a number of Dublin writers, which he personally delivered to the Wilde family. (It is reported that at this time WB’s father, John B Yeats, who had been a friend of Sir William Wilde, offered to testify on Oscar’s behalf.) Yeats included an extended portrait of Wilde in his autobiographies, which is striking in its insights and testifies to the impression the older writer made upon him. He saw Wilde, in somewhat unusual terms, as a man of action born into the wrong age, while sharing the view, widespread among his contemporaries, that Wilde was more significant as a talker than a writer. Yeats went on to place him in the nineteenth phase of the moon in A Vision, in the company of Byron and D’Annunzio, as an example of “The Assertive Man”, for whom Unity of Being was no longer possible and who inhabited the domain of “the artificial, the abstract, the fragmentary, and the dramatic”.
In view of both men’s shared interest in Wilde, it seems appropriate that he should have featured in the conversation during Yeats’s first meeting with Joyce in 1902. Yeats tells us that he was initially puzzled by the young apprentice writer and took him for a typical Royal University student, who believed that “everything has been settled by Thomas Aquinas”. He later realised that this judgment would not stand, and that he was in the presence of an independent spirit, when Joyce remarked of Wilde’s deathbed conversion to Catholicism that he hoped this was not sincere as he “did not like to think he had been untrue to himself at the end”.
Oscar’s Shadow locates the Wilde trials during a period which, according to Michel Foucault, was crucial for the emergence of the modern idea of the homosexual as a distinct category. In this view of things, which is asserted rather than demonstrated, “it was only with Wilde that the conjunction of private sexual acts and public exposure marked a sustained engagement with the idea of the Irish homosexual as an identifiable type”. Viewed in local terms, Wilde’s downfall in 1895 took place between two major homosexual scandals, in 1884 and 1907, both involving senior officials of the Dublin Castle administration. Éibhear Walshe notes, but arguably fails to explain, the contrast between the comparatively restrained terms in which Wilde’s misfortunes were reported by Irish newspapers and the more robust approach adopted during the course of the earlier and later scandals. In his view both of the Dublin Castle affairs were characterised by “opportunistic nationalist anger against Crown administrators … expressed in virulently homophobic newspaper outpourings”. As these episodes provide the first items of evidence cited in support of a generalised claim of Irish homophobia, they may be worth looking at a little more closely.
The first of the Dublin Castle affairs, which took place in the mid-1880s, had its origin in charges made by Tim Healy, one of Parnell’s principal lieutenants, against County Inspector James Ellis French of the Royal Irish Constabulary. As the affair unfolded these were supplemented by charges against Gustavus Cornwall, secretary of the General Post Office. The accusations – well founded it seems – that French had been sexually involved with young police officers and that Cornwall was a well-known figure in Dublin’s homosexual brothels, were published in William O’Brien’s newspaper United Ireland. O’Brien, like Healy, was a leading member of the Irish Parliamentary Party and a close associate of Parnell. He was also, as a man without intimate connections – all of his family had been swept away by TB and in the 1880s he was still unmarried – wholly without fear, and one of the most formidable opponents of landlordism in Ireland.
The background to the charges made by Healy and O’Brien was the ferocious struggle between landlords and tenants which wracked Ireland in the 1880s, and during which the Dublin Castle administration – with its extensive apparatus of coercion acts, police, sheriffs, special magistrates, crown prosecutors (including Wilde’s future nemesis, Edward Carson), and a politicised judiciary which took its instructions from the executive – was widely seen as an instrument of the landlord interest. In this struggle it was O’Brien rather than Healy who bore the brunt of the battle, as he confronted the resources of the coercionist regime of Lord Lieutenant Spencer and Chief Secretary Trevelyan. As a contemporary recalled, “Lord Spencer struck with the Coercion Act and Mr. O’Brien with his pen, and thus Mr. O’Brien advanced to be one of the most powerful and popular figures in the country. Every word of his articles was read with feverish interest and with an immediate response.”
Although both of those accused by United Ireland sued the newspaper, French backed off as he was aware that his accusers had compromising information on him from within the Royal Irish Constabulary. Cornwall, whose nerves were stronger, pressed on with his libel action, which he ultimately lost. French and Cornwall were, as everyone involved understood, surrogates for Spencer and Trevelyan, who were attacked via their subordinates. In the words of Tim Healy they were “instruments of the Spencer regime”. In his account of the affair Éibhear Walshe is responsive to its homosexual aspect but displays a poor ear for its intensely political character. It is striking that his only characterisation of Spencer and Trevelyan should be as “Dublin Castle administrators”, a designation which would surely have surprised those two eminent Victorians. The pair possessed deep roots in England’s landed and intellectual aristocracy.
John Poyntz Spencer, the Fifth Earl Spencer, a confidant of Gladstone and ancestor of Lady Diana Spencer, came from one of the great Whig landowning families, whose energy and acquisitiveness over the generations did so much to shape their country’s course. For his part, George Otto Trevelyan was a scion of the Clapham Sect, that network of families and connections whose intellectual and ethical influence was so pervasive in nineteenth century England. His father, Charles Trevelyan, was, as assistant secretary of the Treasury, the chief executive officer of the Great Famine of the 1840s. An uncle, Thomas Babington Macaulay, was Victorian England’s most popular, and arguably most representative, historian, while his son, GM Trevelyan, proved to be one of the most belligerent Whig historians during the first half of the twentieth century. Healy and O’Brien thus found themselves pitted against two powerful and impressive representatives of English will in Ireland.
Following the failure of the Cornwall libel action, the authorities cracked down on those whose activities the scandal had brought to light. Éibhear Walshe quite properly draws attention to the fate of those otherwise obscure men, with no involvement in the affairs of Dublin Castle, who paid a heavy price for their sexual activities. (One, a Rathmines shopkeeper called James Pillar, received a cruel twenty years prison sentence.) He finds no room in his narrative, however, for other victims from those years, whose fate provided the context for the Healy/O’Brien assault. In their memoirs, both men portrayed the early 1880s as a particularly envenomed period in relations between the Dublin Castle administration and Irish society, as the authorities made increasing use of the death penalty following convictions obtained on the flimsiest of evidence. As O’Brien later recalled, “man after man mounted the scaffold protesting his innocence, and a horrible conviction over spread the country that we were witnessing a series of reckless, more or less haphazard assassinations”. Two executions, in particular, those of Francis Hayes and Myles Joyce, outraged public opinion. The fate of Myles Joyce, a monoglot native speaker, who went to the gallows protesting his innocence in uncomprehended Irish, struck a particularly deep chord. In O’Brien’s outraged account, the authorities had established a reign of terror, “under which the hangman kicked Myles Joyce’s body through the trap-door while he was in his pathetic Gaelic declaring the innocence which nobody now doubts”. Such determination to bring about the death of both men in spite of widespread doubts regarding the evidence on which they were convicted suggested a certain casualness on the part of the authorities regarding Irish lives. This background is, unfortunately, invisible to Éibhear Walshe, with the result that his account lacks a significant dimension.
In their struggle with “the mad ex-Indian officers, roguish lawyers, and scurvy agents provocateurs who had control of the machinery of Law and Justice in Dublin Castle”, O’Brien and Healy were prepared to use any weapon that came to hand, including the sexual lives of their enemies. Faced with the coercive language of law and power, they responded with a counter-language of moral outrage and sexual disgrace. As is clear from their later reflections, the motives of both in conducting the dispute were overwhelmingly political, rather than moral or sexual. If their opponents’ weakness had been in some other area, they would have struck at that. Healy’s private attitude towards the transgressions of Cornwell and French was almost flippant, suggesting that we can legitimately read back from his intensely political response at the time of Parnell’s involvement in the O’Shea divorce case (“We remitted his philanderings to moralists. We were politicians who wished to keep the movement on an even keel …”) to the events of 1884. In his assault on Parnell, as in the earlier scandal when he suggested that Spencer be dubbed Duke of Sodom and Gomorrah, Healy was notable for the ferocity of his language. He was a Thersites figure – his opponents would have called him a foul-mouth – who brought an intense vituperative energy to bear on his opponents, whether Spencer and Trevelyan, or his former leader, Parnell.
It is doubtful if William O’Brien, a more serious individual, shared Healy’s easygoing attitude to the private lives of his opponents. The two men not only differed in their rhetoric but strike one, more fundamentally, as having different relationships to language. As O’Brien believed the authorities wished to use the Cornwall libel action to close down United Ireland he fought his corner with the energy of a man who had everything to lose. In so doing he employed the moral categories and vocabulary of the late Victorian era with a journalistic fluency that has led Éibhear Walshe to characterise him as “profoundly homophobic”. He was, in fact, a man of liberal disposition, who found himself energised by the desperate circumstances in the Irish countryside and by what, as a parliamentarian, he experienced as an “ocean of English cant and ignorance and anti-Irish prejudice and stolid self-sufficiency that overflows the English House of Commons when they come to deal with Irish matters”.
In spite of the intensity of the dispute, once the Land War was over O’Brien sought reconciliation with former opponents, was anxious to find an honourable role in Irish life for former landowners, was critical of excessive church influence in politics and willing to promote accommodations between North and South in the hope of averting partition. Edward Carson, who as a government lawyer prosecuted O’Brien in the 1890s but in the changed circumstances of the early twentieth century had to do political business with him, described him as one of the most charitable men he ever met. O’Brien was unusual in the leadership of parliamentary nationalism in his concern for the wellbeing of rural labourers and the impoverished subsistence farmers of the West. The language he employed at the time of the Dublin Castle scandal was specific to that occasion and, to the best of my knowledge, was never employed in any other context, during the course of a long life in which he never ceased writing. In short, the historical setting and character of the main actors amount to a significant qualification to charges of virulent and profound homophobia.
By an unexpected twist of fate, O’Brien came to have an indirect relationship with Wilde. In 1890 he married Sophie Raffalovich, the Parisian daughter of a Russian Jewish banker. In late 1892 Sophie’s brother André, a man of wide culture and literary aspirations, replaced Wilde as patron, and perhaps lover, of the poet John Gray (“an extraordinarily good looking youth”). The relationship between Wilde and Raffalovich was strained from an early point; Wilde commented unkindly that the young Russian “came to London with the intent of opening a salon and succeeded in opening a saloon”, while Raffalovich seems to have found something disquieting in Wilde’s overstated personality. The latter’s witticisms, directed at a younger man whose wealth and ambitions exceeded his talent, evidently stung. In autumn 1895 Raffalovich took his revenge on Wilde, then in prison, in a forty-seven page pamphlet, published in Paris, entitled L’Affaire Oscar Wilde. Most readers have judged this to be a mean-spirited production. In the view of one of Wilde’s French admirers, its commentary was motivated by hatred and jealousy, linked to the two men’s shared involvement with Gray. If so then hatred, combined with local knowledge gained from his Irish connections, inspired Raffalovich to moments of insight. He wrote: “Oscar Wilde a toujours été très irlandais, pouvant parler plusieurs heures sans se fatiguer, aimant le son de sa voix lente, riant violemment à ses plaisanteries incessantes, faisant souvent l’effet de mâcher ses mots comme s’ils étaient des bonbons.” [Oscar Wilde has always been very Irish, able to talk for several hours without getting tired, delighting in the sound of his slow voice, laughing uproariously at his own incessant jokes, often seeming to chew on his words as if they were sweets.]
At the time he wrote these words Raffalovich was on the way to following John Gray into Catholicism, and to becoming an eloquent proponent of the view that homoerotic desire should not be acted on but could only become creative at a sublimated, spiritual level. Following Gray’s ordination, the pair lived out their lives together in Saint Peter’s parish in Edinburgh, where Gray served for many years as a priest, while Raffalovich, a member of the Dominican Third Order, was a patron of the arts and daily communicant. In 1934 Sophie O’Brien, then a widow, commemorated her recently deceased brother and his companion in an article entitled “Friends for Eternity: André Raffalovich and John Gray”. The article, which appeared in the Jesuit magazine The Irish Monthly, began: “In the brilliant London literary and social life of the later years of 1880, two young men met and were attracted to each other.” As, because of the Wilde connection, the history of both men was well known, the import of Sophie O’Brien’s opening sentence must have been clear to many readers. Her memoir tells of two young men, of intense intellectual and spiritual yearnings, whose shared lives were lived in a dimension shaped by a sense of God’s presence. “The two friends,” she wrote, “worked in a rare union of heart and mind in God’s service.” When Raffalovich died in early 1934, all joy went out of the life of John Gray, who survived his friend by only four months. The pair were buried together.
The theft of the Irish crown jewels from Dublin Castle in summer 1907, and the accompanying rumours of “nightly orgies”, and “unnatural vice” in the castle’s Office of Arms, could be seen as a replay of the 1884 scandal at the level of farce. The theft, as soon became evident, was an inside job. Although the main players, a cast of incompetent grandees and ascendancy crooks, were drawn from the stratum which traditionally opposed Irish national aspirations, the affair lacked the vitriol of the 1880s. In place of the envenomed confrontations of the Land War, mainstream nationalism had committed itself to an alliance with the Liberal Party, in the belief that changes in the parliamentary arithmetic would ultimately deliver Home Rule. The fact that John Redmond’s Liberal allies were in power in 1907 seems to have been crucial. Although when Dublin Castle misbehaved it was the business of Irish nationalism to respond, it is striking how marginal such criticisms were and how little advantage nationalist leaders were disposed to take of the discomfort of their loyalist opponents. Following a briefing from Chief Secretary Birrell, Redmond, who had initially been inclined to become involved, backed off and lost interest in the affair. Tim Healy and William O’Brien, the architects of the 1884 assault on Dublin Castle, were similarly disengaged.
Information regarding the sexual dimension of the affair came not from nationalist sources but from within Dublin Castle, following a decision that Sir Arthur Vicars, the chief genealogical officer of the Irish administration and responsible for the custody of the crown jewels, should be made the scapegoat for what had happened. This resulted in briefings against the unfortunate Vicars, with allegations regarding his “undesirable” associations being passed on to interested parties by Lord Lieutenant Aberdeen and Chief Secretary Birrell. In so doing these senior officials of the Dublin administration were acting at the behest of the British government and ultimately of King Edward VII, who took the keenest interest in the affair and wanted blood.
One aspect of the whole business to emerge from Myles Dungan’s fascinating The Stealing of the Irish Crown Jewels is that, while Dublin was awash with rumours of scandal, local press coverage of the affair was restrained because of fear of the laws on criminal libel. An additional obstacle was that, although the authorities leaked against Vicars, they were anxious that other aspects of what had happened be kept under wraps, with the result that hard information was difficult to come by. It was for these reasons that the only substantially accurate account appeared not in Ireland, but in the Irish-American newspaper The Gaelic American. The person who broke the story was the republican organiser and journalist Bulmer Hobson, at that time a politically marginal figure but with excellent sources within the Vicars camp. Hobson’s account of the affair, which seems as close to the truth as we are likely to get, was passed to the editor of The Gaelic American, the veteran Fenian John Devoy, who printed the substance while bringing his own particular slant to the presentation. When the story appeared in the issue of July 4th, 1908, it was accompanied by the following headlines:
Abominations in Dublin Castle Exposed. Mystery of the Theft of the Crown Jewels Brought to Light – Gang of Aristocratic Degenerates Carried on their Orgies in the Citadel of British Rule and the Thieves were Among Them – Sir Arthur Vicars Made a Scapegoat to Screen Lord Haddo, Son of Lord Aberdeen, and the Duke of Argyle King Edward’s Son-in-Law – John Redmond Helped to Hush up the Infamy to Oblige his Friend Birrell and the Liberal Government that has Slammed the Door on Home Rule
In presenting what he called “the rottenness and infamy of English government in Ireland” in terms of sexual vice, Devoy was drawing upon a longstanding trope, which had previously done service during the scandal of 1884. The cluster of accusations of which Devoy and William O’Brien availed can be traced back to the mid-seventeenth century at least, when they found expression in John Lynch’s Cambrensis Eversus of 1662. The latter was a sustained attack on the truthfulness and accuracy of the writings on Ireland of Norman-Welsh topographer Giraldus Cambrensis. Lynch’s attempt to refute “the calumnies of Cambrensis against my countrymen” was undertaken in exile following the victory of Cromwell’s armies in the 1650s. His polemic gained a particular edge, as he saw Cambrensis as the source of a malevolent discursive tradition to which the longstanding charge of Irish barbarism could be traced; his opponent, in Lynch’s view, was one whose fantastical accusations had not only escaped scrutiny, but had been repeated and embellished by “a herd of scribblers”. Among the charges Lynch was intent on rebutting was the claim that the Irish, plunged into “sensualism and unnatural crimes”, were given to bestiality, incest and adultery. It was in this context that the topic of sodomy came into view, as Lynch argued that these “disorders” had not hitherto existed in Ireland and had been “introduced with the foreign luxury of the conquerors”.
Given that charges regarding homosexuality were part of a larger dispute between rulers and ruled, it is striking how little purchase they gained during the crown jewels affair and in its aftermath. It is almost as if, with the exception of The Gaelic American, which went through the appropriate formalities, Irish society was prepared to let sleeping dogs lie. To judge by those who left a record, local opinion seems to have been more intrigued by the unbecoming shenanigans in Dublin Castle than horrified at the “disgusting misconduct” which had come to light. In his memoirs Tim Healy, who was well-informed regarding the affair, having been retained by Sir Arthur Vicars as his legal adviser, provided an account which made no reference to its sexual dimension. When, late in life, Bulmer Hobson wrote his autobiography, he confined himself to vague references to “the discreditable doings of a considerable number of highly placed and aristocratic people”, but did not go into details. One of the most fascinating episodes in his Ireland Yesterday and Tomorrow is the account of how in 1912 the malodorous Captain Richard Georges – almost certainly one of those responsible for the theft of the jewels – called to the office of the IRB newspaper Irish Freedom. Hobson described his visitor, a transparent agent provocateur, as “a tall military figure, with a face like Mephistopheles and the manners that a duke might envy”. Once Hobson revealed that he knew who he was dealing with, Georges confirmed the accuracy of the account of the crime contained in The Gaelic American.
Kenneth Deale’s Memorable Irish Trials of 1960 displayed a discretion comparable to Hobson’s. This work by an establishment figure – the author was an Irish High Court judge – appeared in inexpensive paperback form and was for decades the most easily accessible account of the affair. Although Deale referred in passing to “wild rumours and suspicion”, he was more interested in the mechanics of the crime and its investigation, and had almost nothing to say regarding the content of the rumours. The chapter devoted to the theft of the crown jewels in Brian Lacey’s Terrible Queer Creatures: Homosexuality in Irish History is silent, The Gaelic American apart, on the subject of nationalist aggression or contempt directed at sexual minorities. This accords with the assortment of (predominantly secondary) sources I have looked at, suggesting that Irish society displayed a comparatively nuanced response to this extraordinary crime. Unlike the Land War, the regalia of the Lord Lieutenant and the Knights of Saint Patrick were, in a sense, none of its business. Common sense suggests that there must have been some adverse comment on the sexual habits of the thieves, but if so it has left few traces. Unless significant new evidence is produced, Éibhear Walshe’s charge of “virulently homophobic … outpourings” scarcely seems justified.
In chronological terms the scandal of 1884 and the crown jewels affair framed Wilde’s misfortunes. If the analysis suggested in this essay is correct, attitudes on display in 1907 provide a point of vantage which allows us to interpret retrospectively those of the 1880s. Arguably, both were articulations of a single set of values finding expression in very different circumstances, raising the possibility that these values also governed Irish responses to the downfall of Oscar Wilde. In trying to understand these, Wilde’s family history provides an obvious starting point. His sense of his inheritance is registered at that point in De Profundis when, speaking of the desolation caused by the death of his mother while he was in prison, Wilde added: “She and my father had bequeathed to me a name they had made noble and honoured, not merely in literature, art, archaeology, and science, but in the public history of my own country, in its evolution as a nation.” Sir William Wilde, Oscar’s father, was not only a distinguished doctor and antiquarian, but, as his writings as a folklorist testify, was painfully conscious of the human losses, and unravelling of the fabric of Gaelic popular culture, caused by the Great Famine. It was, however, his mother, the famous Speranza, who caught the Irish popular imagination, following her brief but intense intervention on the public stage during the years 1846-48. She did so as a contributor of verse and prose to the Young Ireland newspaper The Nation, in which a fearless urge to action combined with an intense sense of the distresses the Irish poor were undergoing during those years.
In reflecting on Wilde’s family inheritance, Éibhear Walshe refers on several occasions to “the republican legacy of his mother”. This, while not inaccurate, is not quite the full story. It is true that, following the birth of her first son, Willie, in 1852, Lady Wilde referred to him as a future president of an Irish Republic, but this seems more likely to have been a wonderful piece of extravagance, reflecting the joy of new life, than a sober expectation. In her more politically purposeful statements she used a somewhat different language. This can be seen in one of her most famous utterances, the article entitled “The Hour of Destiny”, which was published in The Nation of July 22nd, 1848. In this she enjoined the men of Ireland: “Rise as a nation. England has dissevered the bond of allegiance. Rise not now to demand justice from a foreign kingdom, but to make Ireland an independent kingdom for ever.”
While it is true that Lady Wilde used the older language of the Kingdom of Ireland, as she clearly envisaged an Irish sovereignty asserted by force of arms, the implications of her exhortation were republican. It was a position from which she quickly retreated when some weeks later the insurrection which she had urged upon her associates petered out at Ballingarry in the Tipperary rain. Speranza had been seized by the sense of possibility which swept Europe in the year of revolutions but, faced with the defeat of an undertaking she believed would have succeeded in Belgium or Sicily, she drew the conclusion that the Irish failure was due not to the leaders but to lack of popular support. In a letter to William Carleton, in the wake of the failure, she wrote, “ … that Ballingarry killed us all. I have never laughed joyously since.”
In the decades that followed, Speranza chose to remain largely silent on political topics. Although the revolutionary sentiments of her early youth were never disavowed, and could on occasion be restated, in so far as she remained engaged her politics were non-revolutionary and gradualist. If she had to be placed on the political spectrum, she might be described as belonging to the non-Fenian wing of the inheritors of the Young Ireland movement. She was thus associated with the current of opinion articulated by AM Sullivan, who assumed the editorship of The Nation in 1856 following Charles Gavan Duffy’s departure for Australia. Like many of his contemporaries, Sullivan was impressed by the overwhelming power of the British state and by its willingness to use violence to maintain the union – a perspective which can only have been reinforced by the British response to the Indian Mutiny of 1857 – and he practised the kind of politics constrained by such a recognition. Speranza’s occasional post-1848 interventions were framed within these limitations, and she was not regarded by any politically well-informed contemporaries as being a republican.
In his account of the political situation in 1870, AM Sullivan included Sir William Wilde among representatives of Protestant conservative opinion who were prepared to contemplate the possibility of home government of a limited kind. One would guess that, on most days of the week, Lady Wilde’s views cannot have been too different from those of her husband. Both of Sir William’s sons would also appear to have shared his politics. Although Ireland and its cause did not loom anything like as large for Oscar as it did for his parents, occasional indications leave no doubt as to the nature of his sympathies. These can be discerned in his amusingly dismissive reviews of works by literary unionists such as Froude and Mahaffy, in his comments on Irish affairs during his American tour, and in his presence, together with his wife, at social events of a pro-Home Rule character. These sympathies were shared by Oscar’s gifted but erratic brother Willie. Following the departure of the Wilde family from Dublin to London, Willie worked for some years as a journalist. His coverage of the Parnell Commission, the high point of his career, which was admired for its professionalism, was also notable for its sympathetic attitude towards the Irish leader. Oscar attended sittings of the Commission – where he was sketched by Sydney Prior Hall – thus subliminally associating himself with the tenor of his brother’s coverage.
It was the Speranza of 1848, not the more cautious Lady Wilde of later years, who figured in popular memory, so that at a time when the actual politics of the Wilde family were limited to Home Rule, one of its members enjoyed a reputation for considerably more advanced views. It is as if everything that followed had been filtered out, and what was recalled was the young woman who, during the dreadful Famine years, had chosen to stand with the victims. How she was viewed is suggested by her appearance in a dream to Michael Cusack, the founder of the Gaelic Athletic Association, sometime around 1884. In the dream Speranza was located in radical company, being accompanied by the shades of Wolfe Tone, Napper Tandy, Thomas Davis, Thomas Francis Meagher, Charles Kickham and the figure of Famine. When Meagher “fiercely asked what had become of Irish hurling” Cusack, ashamed of the reply he would have to give, swore to Mother Erin, “I’ll take hold of the first caman that comes my way, call the boys together, make a beginning and ask the avid people to join us.” Cusack, the son of Irish-speaking parents from Co Clare, who had been born in the Famine year of 1847, came from a culture which took its dreaming seriously. The appearance of Speranza and her associates in the dreamer’s mind thus formed part of the chain of causation which led – at least when viewed retrospectively – to the foundation of the GAA in Miss Hayes’s hotel in Thurles on November 1st, 1884.
The memory of the radical Speranza was reinforced by the regular republication of her poetry throughout the second half of the century, in anthologies such as TD Sullivan’s Irish Penny Readings. In 1894, on the eve of her son’s downfall, she featured in a wide-ranging collection of nationalist verse The New Spirit of the Nation, with lines which recalled her stance of the 1840s.
Before us die our brothers of starvation:
Around are cries of famine and despair:
Where is hope for us, or comfort, or salvation?
Where, oh, where.
The woman who had written these lines had earned an immense sense of gratitude from her fellow countrymen. She was a popular figure in Dublin, “and as she drove through the city she was loudly cheered by large crowds, who remembered her warm sympathy with the national movement”. This popularity extended to the emigrant Irish in the great cities of the United States, as Oscar discovered during his famous North American tour of 1882, when he was regularly identified as “Speranza’s son” and, speaking before Irish audiences, was quick to advertise the connection. In the view of Tim Healy, “Ireland venerated” Lady Wilde.
For a wide swathe of opinion, the charges brought against Oscar Wilde in 1895 were viewed as the disgrace of the child of one who Ireland loved. There was at the time widespread sympathy for Lady Wilde and a desire that nothing be said that might add to her pain. It was against this background, following the inconclusive outcome of the first trial, that Tim Healy intervened in an attempt to save Wilde. As he later recorded, he “begged” Frank Lockwood, the solicitor general in Lord Rosebury’s Liberal administration, not to proceed with charges against Wilde for a second time, “because I wished the mother should be spared further agony”. The man who made this request had considerable claim to being listened to. Not only was Healy a leading figure on the nationalist benches but he possessed one of the keenest legal intelligences in the House of Commons, and had shown impressive skills as a parliamentary draftsman. By 1895, while retaining links with colleagues, he was heading towards his role as a permanently semi-detached figure within the parliamentary nationalist grouping. We do not know what consultations may have taken place among Irish MPs before Healy made his intervention. What is certain is that there was a first-hand knowledge among Irish parliamentarians of the destructiveness of the British penal system that was not to be found elsewhere in the House of Commons of 1895.
In a chilling moment, Major JO Nelson, the humane but realistic governor of Reading prison, remarked to one of Wilde’s visitors: “He looks well. But like all men unused to manual labour who receive a sentence of this kind, he will be dead within two years.” Major Nelson’s prediction proved close to accurate as, three years after his release from Reading, Wilde died as a result of an injury he received to his ear while in prison. This was a pattern of punishment and consequences which had recent and emphatic resonances within the ranks of the Irish political leadership. In William O’Brien’s view, in the second half of the 1880s Chief Secretary Balfour had committed to a policy of using the penal system as a means of impairing the health of his Irish opponents, “the calculation being that the chief among them being men of delicate physique, they would speedily wilt under his stings and thumbscrews, and make his political victory secure”. O’Brien believed that the harsh regime to which he was subject in Tullamore prison in 1887 was calculated to bring about his death. This belief seems to have been well-founded, as his fellow prisoner John Manderville, who arrived in Tullamore as a well-built countryman in robust good health, but who did not enjoy the level of protection that O’Brien’s prominence gave him, died as a result of the treatment he received. Healy himself had earlier served a four-month prison sentence as a result of his involvement in an agrarian case.
Against this background of shared knowledge, when Healy addressed his plea to Lockwood, he can have been in no doubt as to the horrors from which he was trying to save his fellow countryman. In response to his pleadings, the solicitor general sighed and said: “I would not but for the abominable rumours against – ” This was a reference to rumours of homosexuality surrounding the prime minister, Rosebery, which, in Lockwood’s view, made it impossible for him not to proceed against Wilde. Thus Ireland’s wishes, as articulated by Healy, were set aside in favour of an English political imperative.
Éibhear Walshe makes no reference to Healy’s attempt to save Wilde. He suggests, however, that following his conviction there were attempts to mitigate his disgrace by commandeering him into “the acceptable mode of the Irish rebel”, as “a disruptive figure of anti-colonial resistance”. In this view, he was claimed for “the tradition of Irish Republican defiance in the face of British injustice”, and his courtroom speech on the love that dare not speak its name was linked indirectly “with the many impassioned speeches made by Irish activists in English courtrooms during the nineteenth century”.
While evidence on how Wilde was regarded in Ireland in the decades following his conviction is thin, we can hope to get a sense of what was possible by combining an examination of such information as we possess with a tentative use of hypothesis. In any setting Wilde’s combination of brilliance and misfortune would have provoked sympathy among those whose interest in literature, or simple fellow-feeling, was greater than their desire to punish; in France during those years he was viewed with considerable sympathy, being widely regarded as a victim of English hypocrisy and cruelty. Young Irish people who, during the same period, were discovering Wilde, would have brought their values and life histories to bear on their reading of his life and works. For this group, who came of age in the years after Wilde’s death, the experience of prison, either for themselves or those whom they esteemed, was part of their generational landscape. This sense of the closeness of prison to quotidian Irish actuality can only have been reinforced by stories told by parents and grandparents of 1848 and of the days of the Fenians and Land League, or by printed works such as O’Donovan Rossa’s account of the humiliations inflicted on him in Chatham prison, which were intended to break his spirit, and which included being kept in darkness and having both hands and feet manacled for over thirty days. Such readers would have brought a measure of interest, and perhaps fellow-feeling, to their reception of “The Ballad of Reading Goal”, De Profundis, and the letters Wilde wrote to the Daily Chronicle denouncing the horrors of the late Victorian prison system. To extrapolate, however, from such sentiments to the enrolling of Wilde within one of the central Irish historico-rhetorical traditions seems several steps too far and defies one’s sense of what was possible in Irish society at that time.
If there had been an identification of the kind suggested by Éibhear Walshe, we might expect it to have been registered in printed evidence from the time of the trials, or at least within the lifetime of those who witnessed those events. Such evidence seems to be so tenuous as to approach non-existence. By Walshe’s own account Irish newspaper reporting of Wilde’s trials made no connection between his misfortunes and the long tradition of eloquent courage displayed by Irish patriots at the bar of English justice. The first commentator I am aware of to argue explicitly in this sense was Seamus Heaney in 1993. In 1895 Irish society remembered the many trials of earlier decades as painfully recent events. In particular the memory of Allen, Larkin and O’Brien – the “heroes” of TD Sullivan’s immensely popular song – who in 1867, when sentenced to death, made the courtroom resound with their cries of “God save Ireland”, was still cherished and commemorated. Wilde’s Irish contemporaries had been schooled in the serious business of Speeches from the Dock: or, Protests of Irish Patriotism and it seems whimsical to believe that they would have construed Oscar Wilde’s misfortunes within this tradition.
If the analysis proposed in Oscar’s Shadow lacks persuasiveness, it may be that some other explanation for the comparatively mild Irish response to Wilde’s downfall is called for. Some time before 1906 Wilde’s friend and biographer, Robert Sherard, visited Dublin. His overall impression was that “in Ireland one finds little of that horror against the mention of Oscar Wilde’s name which still lingers in England”. One conversation which Sherard had during his visit seems particularly instructive. In Merrion Square, while viewing the former home of Sir William Wilde, he fell into conversation with an elderly cab driver. The old man remembered “Sir Oscar Wilde” and had “nothing but good things to say of the young man who was so kind and genial, and who paid so handsomely for each set down”. While making no reference to Wilde’s misfortunes, he spoke of the Wilde family with respect and regret, commenting, “It was a sad day when they went across the water.” It seems clear that, in a conversation that was dominated by memories of Oscar, the day of departure was a sad day because of the latter’s misfortunes. The cabman’s statement amounts to a displacement of responsibility for Wilde’s downfall to the English and contains, unavowed but surely discernible, a suggestion that behaviour which resulted in his imprisonment “across the water” would not have had this outcome in his native land.
Ireland was not the only country to differ from England in its discreetly relaxed attitude to Wilde’s transgressions. Wilde was a well-known figure in Paris, where in happier days he had paid a number of dazzlingly successful visits and had a wide circle of friends among the city’s men of letters. French comment following his imprisonment is dominated by astonishment at how harshly he had been treated, together with a sense that such matters were viewed differently in France. Much is encapsulated in Edward Dowson’s letter to Constance Wilde of February 1896, in which he told her of the enthusiasm with which the first production of her imprisoned husband’s Salomé had been greeted by French audiences, adding, “It is astonishing how different the feeling is about him in Paris to what it is in London.” In both Dublin and Paris Wilde seems to have been assessed in terms of a set of values that was notably more charitable than that prevailing in England.
Although their religious histories diverged in the nineteenth century, Ireland and France were both ancient Catholic nations, whose churches had been closely linked before 1789. In characterising attitudes towards sin in pre-Reformation Europe, John Bossy has noted “the primacy of charity and the relative benignity of the sins of concupiscence”. It is tempting to trace the non-punitive attitude towards Wilde, shared by the Irish and French, to the survival at popular level of a moral order in which charity, in its social dimension, was what mattered and lechery was seen as the least significant of the seven deadly sins. In responding to Wilde in such terms, his Catholic contemporaries – or in the case of some of the French, secular individuals whose moral sentiments had been shaped within a Catholic culture – may have been repeating patterns of behaviour more widely established within their societies. What was involved was not an endorsement of the transgressor, but rather an appreciation of the advantage of euphemism over explicitness, and a desire to avoid public scandal and the infliction of pain.
The nature of, and constraints upon, social charity are suggested by a detail from the final years of Wilde’s life. These were passed in Paris where, demoralised and drinking heavily, his behaviour became overt to a point where it embarrassed even the broad-minded French. The Irish-American writer Vincent O’Sullivan, who knew him during this period, later recalled how the Wilde’s French friends were constantly urging the need “to make him realise that he was ruining what sympathy was left to him among the Parisians by shewing himself drunk on the Boulevards in such places as the The Calasaya Bar with sodomist outcasts”. None of those involved – O’Sullivan and the writers Marcel Schwob and Stuart Merrill – were in any doubt as to the nature of Wilde’s tastes, but saw in his lack of discretion a failure to respect appearances. It is as if they implicitly acknowledged that a certain amount of tact was necessary for the maintenance of the social fabric.
The pattern evident in Dublin and Paris was repeated elsewhere. When, following his release from prison, Wilde reunited with Alfred Douglas in Naples, it was not the authorities of that Catholic city but outraged England, operating through solicitors and the British embassy in Rome, that brought the arrangement to a halt. One of the actors in separating Wilde and Douglas was the family of his estranged wife, Constance Wilde née Lloyd. The Lloyd family also impinged, in a manner at once purposeful and deeply misguided, on the lives of Wilde’s sons, Vyvyan and Cyril. Their father’s imprisonment, an experience that would in any circumstances have been distressful, was made infinitely more painful for them by the actions of the Lloyds. The little boys were deliberately told nothing about what was happening, separated from the familiar world – including, of great importance for children, their toys – in which they had grown up, cut off from all contact with their father’s friends, and sent to school in Europe, where they were equipped with new names (Wilde became Holland) and told that everything in their past must be forgotten.
Vyvyan Holland’s Son of Oscar Wilde, itself a small masterpiece of the literature of childhood, recalls the impact of this harsh strategy on the sensibility of a bewildered but intelligent child. Vyvyan’s story is of a childhood marked by confusion and multiple separations – including from both his parents and his brother Cyril – in which “the natural self confidence of youth … was slowly drained out of us”. Vyvyan’s life only gained some sense of coherence when he passed into the care of the Jesuit fathers in Monaco. As he records: “Those Italian Jesuits were the gentlest, kindest and most sympathetic body of men that I ever met so far in my short life, outside my family circle.” Looking back on a youth which had been shaped by the determination of his guardians to efface the memory of his father, Vyvyan was in no doubt as to what he had learned from being the son of Oscar Wilde. “Catholics,” he wrote, “are, in general, much more broad minded than Anglicans.”
As Philip Hoare has demonstrated in his fascinating study Oscar Wilde’s Last Stand, Wilde’s downfall had a prolonged aftermath within British culture. This culminated towards the end of the First World War, at a time when Allied forces on the Western Front were under extreme pressure and the outcome of the war was uncertain, in the campaign by the right-wing MP Noel Pemberton Billing to expose what he saw as the forces of moral weakness and corruption represented by the cult of Wilde. Pemberton Billing was particularly exercised by the dancer Maud Allan’s performance of the heroine’s role in a production of Salomé. In a wide-ranging series of accusations, embracing moral breakdown and treason, he presented Allan’s dance routine as a flaunting forth of “the cult of the clitoris” and as representing a dangerous susceptibility within the elites of British society to foreign degeneracy and unnatural vice. When Pemberton Billing published these claims in his magazine The Vigilante, the obsessions and fears which swirled around Wilde’s name came to a head in a notorious libel action. Although Billing’s accusations regarding homosexual cabals and widespread treason were fantastical, as a worried Robert Ross noted at the time, “The populace were entirely on the side of Billing … Kicking the corpse of Wilde has been a pleasure to the English people even if they disapprove of Billing’s methods.”
Although early twentieth century Ireland had its own concerns about intrusive modernity, it experienced nothing equivalent to the Pemberton Billing/Maud Allan affair. It is true that at the time of the libel action Ireland had other preoccupations – chiefly resisting the introduction of conscription and the dispatch of its young men to the slaughterhouse on the Western Front – but it is difficult to believe that in any circumstances a figure like Pemberton Billing could have gained a significant local following. There was no Irish equivalent of the combination of cultural paranoia, middle class moralism and fascination with upper-class vice which underlay Pemberton Billing’s assault on Maud Allan, Salomé and the memory of Wilde. In contrast to the medicalised, neo-scientific language inside which Wilde had been trapped, Ireland was a country with a different understanding of human nature. It had its own perception of human frailty, seen not in terms of degeneracy, contamination and disease but rather based on older ideas of sin and the potential for forgiveness. These were regarded as states to which all men and women were liable and by which all might be embraced.
If Irish attitudes to Oscar Wilde’s downfall have different origins from those proposed in Oscar’s Shadow, it may be that some of the consequences of that downfall also deserve re-examining. A useful place to begin is Wilde’s own Church of Ireland community. In Éibhear Walshe’s reading, the response of the Portora and Trinity College authorities to the disgrace of their former student is taken as an emblem of rejection. The matter may, however, be less clear-cut than he suggests. While it is true that, following a resolution by the Fermanagh Protestant Board of Education, Wilde’s name was removed from Portora’s board of honour (it was restored in the 1930s), it is at least arguable that to have retained it in late Victorian times, in a school full impressionable adolescents, would have required an unusual degree of liberality. The case against Trinity largely turns on the reaction of the professor of ancient history and future provost, Rev JP Mahaffy, who declined to sign a petition to the home secretary for Wilde’s early release and, although privately admitting that he rather liked Wilde, made clear that he never wished to hear him spoken of again. Mahaffy may have felt exposed, as the young man had been his protégé before his departure for Oxford. He had, moreover, no reason to entertain friendly feelings towards Wilde who, following his departure for England, had published several disobliging reviews of his former teacher’s works. To Mahaffy’s name may be added that that of the timorous professor of English at Trinity, Edward Dowden – himself perhaps homosexual, if we are to credit Buck Mulligan’s hints in the “Scylla and Charybdis” episode of Ulysses – who, according to Yeats in his Autobiographies, was 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. Yeats regarded Dowden’s grounds for refusal, that he did not care for Wilde’s writings, as spurious.
Unlike Portora, Trinity did not choose to remove Wilde’s name from its lists of distinguished former students. Wilde was an accomplished classicist, who was awarded two of Trinity’s highest honours, a Foundation Scholarship and the Berkeley gold medal. As his first biographer, Robert Sherard, recorded, “no official cognizance was taken by Trinity College, Dublin of his public disgrace; his name was not deleted from any of the honourable records on which his capacity, excellence, and industry had subscribed it”. Moreover, a number of Trinity men proved themselves more to be generous spirits than Mahaffy and Dowden. Trinity’s professor of Latin, Robert Yelverton Tyrrell, signed the petition to the home secretary and, following Wilde’s death, not only reviewed De Profundis sympathetically but was willing to share his sharp, but interesting, assessments of Sir William and Lady Wilde with Frank Harris, one of their son’s earliest biographers. Far from encountering silence, Sherard and Harris seem to have found no difficulty in obtaining reminiscences from Wilde’s Portora and Trinity contemporaries. These are notable for their desire to be fair-minded and for the absence of malice. The account given to Harris by Edward Sullivan, the son of a former Irish lord chancellor, who was with Wilde at both school and university, is particularly valuable in providing information which would otherwise be unavailable regarding Wilde’s early engagement with the classics. Both its detail and the quality of its information suggest that Sullivan had given considerable thought to the character of his famous fellow student.
In 1906 Tyrrell joined forces with Sullivan as joint editors of the anthology Echoes from Kottabos. This was made up of poems by Trinity College staff and former students, which had appeared over the years in the magazine Kottabos. The latter had been founded by Tyrrell as a young academic in 1868, as, in his own words, “a College miscellany of Greek and Latin verse (mainly translations), and of English pieces, verse and prose, (mainly original), which were for the most part of a playful character”. Generations of students, including the undergraduate Wilde, animated by a “common interest in the literary reputation of Trinity College, Dublin”, had contributed to the magazine. The editors chose eleven poems by Wilde for inclusion in Echoes from Kottabos, ranging from a translation of Aeschylus to the deeply personal “Requiescat”, which he wrote on the death of his sister Isola. The presence of such a generous selection of Wilde’s verse, six years after his death, in the semi-institutional setting of the Kottabos anthology, amounted to a gesture of unmistakable import.
Other signs that Wilde’s own community were at ease with his memory were not lacking. In 1938 the Gaelic scholar and Trinity College graduate Douglas Hyde was elected president of Ireland. Following his election Hyde, with old-fashioned courtesy, replied personally to the many letters of congratulation he received. In one of these, in which he touched on family and local history, he stated that Wilde’s great-grandfather was a Connaught hedge schoolmaster. It is a claim so wonderfully improbable that one would incline to dismiss it out of hand were it not that Hyde, a clergyman’s son who had grown up in the same corner of Co Roscommon as Sir William Wilde, was well placed to know the truth regarding the connections of local Church of Ireland families. On balance, whether viewed at college and personal level, Trinity’s record with regard to Wilde seems more than creditable.
Éibhear Walshe sees what he regards as Irish society’s marginalising of Wilde’s name as paralleled by his exclusion from the world of Irish literature. In his account it was only in the 1990s that scholars began to rediscover Wilde the Irishman “in the face of an earlier tendency to write Wilde out of the canon of Irish literature”. If such a tendency existed, it was one to which there were exceptions of the largest kind. In 1912 DJ O’Donoghue, the librarian of University College Dublin, included both Wilde and his mother in his biographical/bibliographical dictionary The Poets of Ireland. Having listed the son’s writings in poetry and prose, he commented that all “bear evidence of remarkable genius”. O’Donoghue was a well-connected but deeply conventional man of letters, so his evaluation almost certainly reflected a wider current of opinion in literary Ireland at that time.
Eight years earlier, in 1904, John D Morris of Philadelphia published a handsome ten-volume anthology entitled Irish Literature, under the editorship of Justin McCarthy MP. The anthology, which is striking in its range, including one volume devoted to literature in the Irish language, evidently aspired to provide the broadest possible overview of writing of Irish and Anglo-Irish provenance. Almost certainly it was intended for an Irish-American readership, proud of their country’s achievements and sufficiently comfortable to be able to afford what must have been an expensive purchase for a predominantly working class and lower middle class readership.( My own copy was formerly the property of Rev Jeremiah T Foley, an Irish-American priest born in 1860, who served in the parish of Saint Cronan’s, St. Louis, and in the early twentieth century had connections with Saint Mary’s Seminary, Perryville, Missouri.) The prestige of the undertaking, and the desire to impress potential readers, is suggested by the make-up of the editorial board. The editor in chief, Justin McCarthy, had served for a period as chairman of the Irish Parliamentary Party in the 1890s, following the deposing of Parnell. Other members of the board included John Redmond MP, at that time not only the leader of the reunited Irish Parliamentary Party but also the effective leader of Irish nationalism, senior figures from the world of American academia and journalism, and an impressive range of Irish writers, including Douglas Hyde, Lady Gregory, George Russell, Standish O’Grady and DJ O’Donoghue. Yeats, while not on the editorial board, contributed a specially commissioned article on “Modern Irish Poetry”. The anthology was sufficiently successful to go into four editions within a year.
One of the more conventional aspects of Irish Literature was its organisation on an alphabetical basis. It is thus that in volume nine, immediately following his mother and within hailing distance of Cardinal Wiseman, nineteen pages were devoted to Wilde’s writings. The selection included “The Selfish Giant”, a generous extract from “The Decay of Lying”, and six poems. Given the auspices under which the anthology appeared, it is difficult to think of a clearer institutional endorsement, amounting to a statement that, alongside his mother, Wilde remained a member of the Irish family. He had known his future editor, the nationalist MP and man of letters Justin McCarthy, before his imprisonment and was on “Dear Justin” terms with him in correspondence. The first decade of the twentieth century was the period in which Robert Ross set about rescuing Wilde’s reputation from obloquy, by a strategy of annulling his bankruptcy and getting his works back into print. This culminated in the appearance of the fourteen-volume Collected Works in 1908. McCarthy’s inclusion of Wilde in Irish Literature could be seen as a small supplementary contribution, of unmistakable intent, to Ross’s heroic efforts.
The biographical note which accompanied McCarthy’s selection was wholly laudatory, with the section dealing with Wilde’s imprisonment suggesting a certain emotional distance from British law and its purposes. Wilde, McCarthy wrote, “became involved in the meshes of the law, and was condemned to a term of imprisonment”. To judge by the comments of two Irish political leaders, Michael Collins and Constance Markiewicz, who, a little more than a decade later, found themselves in the meshes of the law, kindly attitudes towards Wilde survived the transition from Parliamentary Party dominance to that of Sinn Féin. Collins’s comments are particularly interesting. As a young man he took pride in his ability to declaim passages from Wilde – as well as from Yeats and Synge – which he had learned by heart. Writing to his sister Hannie from Stafford Detention Barracks, where he found himself following the suppression of the 1916 Rising, he quoted “The Ballad of Reading Gaol” to illustrate the monotony of prison life. In his letter, Collins assumes that the poem is already known to his sister, suggesting that Wilde featured on the reading lists of the group of London Irish to which as a young man, employed as a clerk in the post office, he had belonged.
It is scarcely surprising that Irish people in London, the great metropolitan stage which provided the setting for Wilde’s fame and later notoriety, should have been interested in his career. Following the introduction of competitive exams for the British civil service, young Irish were to be found in increasing numbers working at administrative levels in the city. Although the figures involved were smaller, the Irish presence in journalism, and Irish success in that trade, was also widely commented on. In entering that world, in Oscar’s case as editor of The Woman’s World between 1887 and 1889, the Wilde brothers were joining a milieu in which there was no shortage of Irish talent.
The most prominent Irish journalist in London in late Victorian times was probably TP O’Connor. O’Connor was unusual in combining the role of journalist and man of letters with that of politician. In addition to being an unusually innovative editor, who pioneered new forms of journalism, for many years he sat in the House of Commons as nationalist MP for a strongly Irish Liverpool constituency. O’Connor was a cultivated man of liberal disposition, who read widely in French and German and who, decades later when Ulysses first appeared took it in his stride with apparent ease. It is therefore surprising that he seems to have felt something like antipathy towards Wilde and the decadent current within late nineteenth century literature with which he associated him. In the years preceding the Wilde trials, O’Connor’s newspaper the Weekly Sun, tracked Wilde’s career with a combination of curiosity and lack of sympathy. Its literary pages were heavy with insinuation whenever Wilde featured, while the paper could scarcely contain its glee when it believed (incorrectly as it turned out ) that it had caught him out in a piece of plagiarism.
O’Connor’s attitude towards Wilde was clearly marked in the Weekly Sun’s assessment of Salomé. This piece, of which he was almost certainly the author, was nothing if not emphatic, claiming that “Anything more loathsome and revolting than the atmosphere Mr. Wilde has created in this drama it would be difficult to imagine.” O’Connor was particularly unimpressed by the style of the play, claiming that its felicities came from a stock of exotic goods pioneered by Huysmans. In his view, any reader familiar with Wilde’s source would be able to construct its catalogues of exotica with his eyes shut:
the chrysolites, the beryls, the chrysoprases, the rubies, the fans made of parrot-feathers from the King of the Indies, the rolls of ostrich plumes from the King of Numidia, the crystals which women are not allowed to see, and into which even young men may not look until after they have been whipped with rods, and the other remarkable things which no decadent hero’s wardrobe is complete without. In the roomier pages of Dorian Gray such a list may have a certain descriptive effect, but compressed into the dialogue of Herod it gives the impression of a Jew trader reciting the contents of his stall.
Salomé was evidently not O’Connor’s cup of tea. While it is true that many readers have found the play to be overwritten and excessively decorative, in O’Connor’s case this was not a purely literary judgment but had as its context an ongoing campaign of journalistic mockery directed against Wilde. The latter was aware that he had an enemy, commenting “for some years past all kinds of scurrilous personal attacks have been made upon me in Mr. O’Connor’s newspapers”. The strength of Wilde’s feeling is suggested by his instruction to his publishers that no further review copies of his works were to be sent to papers with which O’Connor was connected.
It is difficult to avoid the suspicion that, as was the case with Henry James and Edmund Gosse, O’Connor’s recoil from Wilde contained some element of recognition. O’Connor was a man who contracted a late and unsuccessful marriage and, as his biography reveals, was powerfully drawn to doomed and dissolute young men, whose memories he guarded and of whom he wrote with fascinated tenderness long after they had disappeared from his life. It seems likely that his dislike of Wilde’s persona was related to elements in his own personality with which he was ill at ease and which he wished to conceal. It therefore seems astonishing that, following his release from jail, Wilde considered publishing “The Ballad of Reading Gaol” in the Weekly Sun. It may be that this apparent reversal was occasioned by some sign of sympathy on O’Connor’s part, of which we now know nothing. Alternatively, it may simply amount to a recognition on Wilde’s part that O’Connor was a man of progressive instincts, who favoured prison reform. He may also have had a sense that, in spite of their quarrel, in time of crisis one fell back on family and that the Irish parliamentary party was part of his family.
A little more than a decade later Pádraic Ó Conaire had a very different response to Salomé. The young Galway writer, who was then working in London as a civil servant, experienced Wilde’s writings a source of excitement which stirred his own imagination. During the early years of the century Ó Conaire, then an apprentice writer, was soaking up contemporary European literature. Like other writers he sought to relate his reading to his creative impulses, but had also particular concerns relating to his position as a writer in Irish and to a Gaelic literary tradition whose resources he was anxious to extend. We can gain some sense of the intensity of this engagement from his essay of 1908, “Seanlitríocht na nGael agus Nualitríocht na hEorpa”, in which, having compared elements of the older Irish imaginative corpus with contemporary European writing, he suggested it was the turn towards subjectivity which distinguished the modern. Ó Conaire emerges in his essay as deeply concerned with the relationship between the writer and his age, and as viewing the role of the writer as that of heroic truth-teller. The essay suggests, with considerable panache, that the way forward for writing in Irish is by embracing literary modernity. In arguing his case Ó Conaire gave evidence of wide reading, and was particularly responsive to the literature of nineteenth century Russia, which he discussed with sympathy and insight. He was also aware of the significance of developments in Scandinavia – Ibsen and Knut Hamsun were mentioned – and was evidently familiar with a range of contemporary writers in England, Germany and Finland. While casting his net wide, in what may be an example of the anxiety of influence, or a desire to hide his traces, no mention was made of Wilde.
Ó Conaire’s engagement with Wilde, unavowed in the essay of 1908, was quickly spotted by students of his work. In her pioneering study of 1947, Áine Ní Chaimhín discerned stylistic traces of The Picture of Dorian Gray in his novel Deoraíocht (Exile); Cathal Ó Háinle has argued that the story “Teatrarc na Gaililí” (The Tetrarch of Galilee) draws upon Salomé in theme and style, while Pádraigín Riggs has added a number of items to the list of Wildean echoes. While these links are interesting and substantial, they do not exhaust the connections between the two writers; the relationship was more extensive than Ó Conaire scholars have suggested, and it scarcely seems an exaggeration to claim that An Chéad Chloch (The First Stone) of 1914 was written under the sign of Wilde. A number of the stories in this his third collection bear Wilde’s imprint and develop themes and situations which he had evidently encountered in his work. These stories are far from being imitations, as Ó Conaire drew upon and reconfigured Wilde in surprising and original ways. He emerges in the collection as a writer of fantastical imagination, who in certain moods seems to have more in common with Jorge Luis Borges than with the rural naturalism of much early twentieth century Irish language fiction.
Ó Conaire was particularly drawn to that side of Wilde in which he retold episodes from the Gospels in ways that cast them in a new light, or suggested alternative readings, or gently called into question elements from the traditional understanding of the life of Christ. Four of the eight stories which make up An Chéad Chloch fall into this category. Wilde told stories of this kind incessantly, at dinner parties and social gatherings, but as these were only gradually written down in the years after his death Ó Conaire’s opportunity of knowing of them would seem limited. The only occasion during his life on which Wilde wrote down a selection of his own oral stories was in the collection entitled Poems in Prose of 1894. Ó Conaire’s attention seems to have been caught by the bleakest of these, the story entitled “The Doer of Good”. This tells of a series of disappointing encounters between Jesus and individuals whom he had previously cured or otherwise helped. The story culminates when Jesus comes upon a young man by the side of the road weeping. “And He went towards him and touched the long locks of his hair and said to him, ‘Why are you weeping?’ And the young man looked up and recognised Him and made answer, ‘But I was dead once, and you raised me from the dead. What else should I do but weep?’”
As Ó Conaire perceived, at the heart of “The Doer of Good” was the insight that death cannot be annulled. In the light of this knowledge, what is given to those who are raised from the dead is not restored life, but rather a state that is neither living nor death. In the story entitled “An Coimhthíoch a raibh aghaidh an Bháis air” (The Stranger who had the face of Death), he followed Wilde in taking as his starting point the plight of a beautiful young man whom Jesus has raised from the dead. When he arrives in a village, although the village women are drawn to the young man, they discern his origin in his face. When one of them wishes to kiss him she notices the smell of death. (“Fuair mé boladh an bháis uaidh gach uile uair a cheap mé póg a thabairt dó.”) The story, which is set in early Christian times, concludes with Saint Luke, who has come down from Jerusalem, identifying the previously unknown stranger as Lazarus. The young man, who finds the fame Jesus’s miracle has brought to him unbearably painful, flees.
The three times repeated constructional formula at the heart of “The Doer of Good” is that such is the intransigence of the world and the brokenness of human nature that Jesus’s benevolent interventions come to naught. Ó Conaire responded to this bleak wisdom in his title story “An Chéad Chloch”, with a retelling of the gospel narrative of the woman taken in adultery. This was a story with multiple Wildean echoes. The second episode in “The Doer of Good” tells of a man whose eyes “were bright with lust”, who follows after a woman “whose face and raiment were painted and whose feet were shod with pearls”. Jesus approaches the woman “and touched the painted raiment of the woman and said to her, ‘Is there no other way in which to walk save the way of sin?’ And the woman turned round and recognized Him, and laughed and said, ‘But you forgave me my sins, and the way is a pleasant way.’”
Although her lover is not mentioned in the Gospels, the woman with the painted face is plainly the woman taken in adultery, whose sins Jesus forgave but who has not obeyed his injunction to sin no more. In retelling the story Ó Conaire’s primary source was probably “The Doer of Good”. He may also have recalled the figure of Jokanan in Salomé, who demands that the adulterous Herodias be put to death; “Let there come against her a multitude of men. Let the people take stones and stone her.” Equally he may have remembered Wilde’s retelling of the story in De Profundis, which had been published in abbreviated form (but containing this episode) in editions of 1905 and 1908. The Gospel narrative might seem to have an obvious attraction for one such as Wilde, who found himself in prison following conviction for a sexual crime. In fact it is not used in De Profundis as a piece of self-justification but rather forms part of an argument for viewing Jesus as a predecessor of romanticism. In “An Chéad Chloch” Ó Conaire reverted to a harsher perspective. As in the Gospels, the adulterous woman is forgiven by Jesus. Following this moment of gentleness, the story concludes when the woman’s jealous husband comes upon her sleeping lover and smashes his skull in with a stone.
The author of An Chéad Chloch was a master of the short story, attentive to character, psychology and mood and capable of using detail in telling and suggestive ways. These qualities were particularly marked in “Baintreach an Fhíona agus a Mac” (The Tavern Widow and her Son – the translation is not literal). This was set in the period immediately following the death of Christ, when those who identified themselves as Christians were subject to persecution by their former co-religionists. In this setting we encounter a curiously relaxed Saul who, although involved in the business of persecution, comes across as a philosophical relativist who dreams of travelling to Damascus and publishing a book on philosophy and is almost cynical on issues of religion. Saul’s companion, an aristocratic young Roman, listens half-attentively to his friend’s conversation, as he dreams of the erotic delights which await him in the capital amid the beautiful daughters of Jerusalem. The languor of the pair contrasts with the intensity of those whose lives have been touched by Christ, and call themselves Christians, and with the fury of the orthodox, whose wish is to extirpate this new heresy.
Among the stories with which Wilde entertained his dinner table companions and fellow drinkers in Parisian bars, one told of how, having survived the crucifixion, a disillusioned Jesus abandoned his mission and retreated to an obscure village, where he resumed his former trade as a carpenter. His fellow workers noticed how he always kept his hands and feet covered. When after some years Paul came to the village to announce the good news of Christ’s resurrection, although all his companions went to hear the preacher Jesus remained in his carpenter’s shop. Both the Wilde and Ó Conaire stories take place after Calvary and both involve Paul, but otherwise differ in detail. They are linked, however, in the startling and unsettling perspectives they afford on the death of Jesus and the preaching of Paul. As the Wilde story was orally narrated rather than printed, it would have been difficult for Ó Conaire to have encountered it, but who can tell whether it somehow entered the echo chamber of Irish London? Yeats and his circle knew Wilde’s late evening stories, and it seems not impossible that Ó Conaire might also have done so. Even if there was no direct connection, Ó Conaire’s Paul and his young companion are figures of Wildean temperament and the story is one whose animating impulse Wilde would surely have recognised.
Of the Ó Conaire stories, “Teatrarc na Gaililí” is in its subject matter the most obviously influenced by Wilde. It is not surprising that a young London-based writer, attentive to developments in the arts in Europe, should have been aware of the play as, following the huge success of the Strauss opera in the years after 1905, Salomé became by far the best known of Wilde’s works. The relationship between the story and the play is suggested by the presence in Ó Conaire of elements which occur in Wilde but which are not found in the narrative in Saint Mark’s Gospel. These include Herod’s obsession with Salomé, the dramatic use of the voice of John the Baptist, and the bargaining between Herod and Salomé about her reward. In spite of Ó Conaire’s relationship with Wilde, he has made the Salomé story his own, transforming it radically in the process. In place of Wilde’s static, verbally elaborate drama, he has substituted a briskly moving dramatic monologue (the influence of Robert Browning may be somewhere in the background), in which Herod ruminates on the course of action which has led to John’s beheading and his own ruin.
The male body, that of John the Baptist (called Jokanaan by Wilde) as perceived by Salomé, is at the heart of the play. It is her rapturous response to that body, to the whiteness of its skin and the blackness of its hair, and her desire to possess it, that made the play so disturbing to sections of Wilde’s early readership. As Ó Conaire was not responsive to this homoerotic music, in “Teatrarc na Gaililí” Salomé’s obsession with Jokanaan is displaced by Herod’s obsession with Salomé and her mother, Herodias. Although Ó Conaire’s Herod is intensely aware of the beauty of Salomé, his obsession is of a different kind to that of Salomé. Wilde’s play is dominated by bodily desire, culminating in an orgasmic act of copulation, lightly coded as a dance and beheading; Salomé’s intense focus upon Jokanaan’s body and indifference to him as a person is encapsulated in her climactic act of kissing his inarticulate, because decapitated, head. The relationship between the characters in “Teatrarc na Gaililí” is of a different order as, in place of Wilde’s intensely physical vision, Ó Conaire substituted a concern with the psychological dimension of the interaction of men and women. Ó Conaire’s Herod reflects wryly on his relationship with mother and daughter, on its compulsive character, the indignities in which it involves him, and on his endeavours to free himself from it. It seems possible to recognize in these musings a variant of the early twentieth century topos of the battle of the sexes, while the story’s concluding vision of Herodias as a clinging, destructive presence is an image with a long genealogy in the nineteenth century literary imagination. Thus, although “Teatrarc na Gaililí” had its origin in Wilde’s play, Ó Conaire explored the possibilities of the Salomé story in ways radically dissimilar to Wilde.
The difference between the two writers can also be seen at a stylistic level. Ó Conaire was evidently attracted by Wilde’s exoticism, by his cascade of verbal gorgeousness, and array of beguilingly unfamiliar orientalist props. At times the language of his story seems to belong to a sensibility stirred by Wilde’s dramatic prose and would not seem out of place if encountered in Salomé. In such moods Ó Conaire’s Herod evokes wine from the mountains of Moab, which deadens the world’s pains except the pain of love, compares the beauty of a dancer’s movement to moonlight on the Sea of Galilee, and her eyes to the black marble of Mount Eroim gleaming in the sunlight after rain. At times it seems possible to hear more specific echoes; thus Wilde’s “There is nothing in the world so red as thy mouth” resonates as “Ní deirge caora an tsóláis ná a dhá béal”, while Salomé’s evocation of Jokanaan’s eyes (“like black holes burned by torches in a Tyrian tapestry”) is echoed in the village woman’s perception of the eyes of the young stranger (“Ba chosúil le dhá pholl a thollfai in adhmadh le hiarann te iad”).
Salomé was a rich stylistic brew, which for a writer of less confidence than Pádraic Ó Conaire might have proved overwhelming. In fact, although Ó Conaire availed of Wilde’s exoticism, he did so in a comparatively restrained manner. This can have only been because of his commitment to storytelling and his belief that narrative was the basic building block of literary art. (“Is é an scéal is bunchloch don uile ealain liteartha.”). From such a perspective, Wilde’s decorative and static verbalism could, if incorporated in any quantity, have only been an obstacle to the business of moving forward the story. While it might be imitated, it could never replace the primary business of narrative.
One of Wilde’s consolations in prison was reading the Gospels. The influence of this reading pervades the second half of De Profundis. As he recorded at the time: “Of late I have been studying the four prose-poems about Christ with some diligence. At Christmas I managed to get hold of a Greek Testament, and every morning, after I have cleaned my cell and polished my tins, I read a little of the Gospels.” While no reader of De Profundis can doubt the intensity of Wilde’s response to the Gospels, this response was personal to himself and, as his conversations with the more conventionally religious suggest, can not readily be accommodated within a traditional Christian framework. In exalting the sacred texts he simultaneously undermined their authority, for if the four Gospels are reduced to the status of prose poems there would seem no reason why a fifth or a sixth should not also be composed. While Wilde was evidently fascinated by Jesus, whom he saw as a figure of astonishing beauty of personality and unparalleled moral authority, and while revering the traditions and sacramental life of the church, there is much to suggest that he did not believe in the divinity of Christ. We should not be surprised that he regularly composed and narrated alternative Gospel narratives which sit uneasily alongside the affirmations contained in the Creed.
It may be that Ó Conaire was drawn to Wilde’s rewriting of the Gospels because he too found himself at a distance from orthodoxy. Like other young Irish living in England, the experience of exile seems to have led him to a more quizzical relationship with the theological framework of Irish Catholicism. Liam Ó Rinn described Ó Conaire as being “reticent about questions of religion etc. but candid on social conditions”, while Austin Clarke recalled that he was regarded by friends as a complete sceptic. Arguably the form of An Chéad Chloch was implicitly sceptical. The collection consists of eight stories, four based on ancient Chinese histories and four upon the Gospels. If Wilde’s juxtaposing of Holy Scripture with the Greek and Latin classics was indirectly destabilising of the former, Ó Conaire’s conjoining of the Gospels with plainly fantastical Chinese sources suggests that one was a body of stories of much the same standing as the other. Although Ó Conaire’s Gospel stories are gently probing rather than polemical, there may have been a harder edge to his religious sensibility than that of Wilde. This is most clearly marked in the portrayal of the high priest in one of the Chinese stories, “Cleamhnas san Oirthear” (A Marriage in the East). This absurd yet ominous figure is mocked throughout as an embodiment of power, repression and vacuous formalism, suggesting an anti-clerical dimension to Ó Conaire’s feelings which had no equivalent in Wilde. Once again differences between the two writers emerge as being as important as their affinities.
Pádraic Ó Conaire was deeply loved by several generations of readers and was widely seen as the finest Irish language fiction writer before the emergence of Máirtín Ó Cadhain. An Chéad Chloch is a remarkable collection, marked by imaginative daring and by the sheer strangeness of its perspectives. His Gospel stories are unique in Irish writing and amount to a probing and sustained engagement with Wilde’s legacy. As Oscar’s Shadow is concerned with the history of Wilde’s Irish reception, their absence amounts to a large lacuna at the heart of the book. More broadly, Éibhear Walshe’s failure to take account of Ó Conaire raises the question of how usefully, across a significant range of areas, Irish cultural history can be written, for any period until well into the 20th century, while ignoring Irish language sources.
A Note on Sources
For Yeats and Joyce on Wilde see R. Ellmann ed. Selected Letters of James Joyce, (London, 1975), 96; R. Ellmann, James Joyce, (Oxford University Press, 1959), 438, 106-7; J. Kelly ed. The Collected Letters of W. B. Yeats, (Oxford, 1986), Vol. 1, 465-6; K. Beckham, The Oscar Wilde Encyclopedia, (New York, 1998), 424.
For the scandals of 1884 and 1907 see T. P. O’Connor, Memoirs of an Old Parliamentarian, (London, 1929), Vol.1, p.142; T. M. Healy, Letters and Leaders of My Day, (London, 1928), Vol. 1, 195, 320; W. O’Brien, Recollections, (London, 1905), p.497, 504; W. O’Brien, Evening Memories, Being a Continuation of Recollections, (Dublin and London, 1920), 19; F. Callanan, T. M. Healy, (Cork University Press, 1996), 88-95; Healy, (192), Vol.2, 499; B. Hobson, Ireland Yesterday and Tomorrow, (Tralee,1968), 85-9 ; J. Lynch, Cambrensis Eversus, translated and edited M. Kelly, (Dublin, 1848-51), Vol.1, p.96, 103: Vol .2, p. 147-9; G. de Saix ed., Le Chant de Cygne Contes parlés d’Oscar Wilde, (Paris, 1942), 30; Mrs. William O’Brien (Sophie Raffalovich), “Friends for Eternity”, The Irish Monthly, (November 1934), 699-705.
For Lady Wilde’s reputation and its impact on attitudes towards her son see T. F. O’Sullivan, The Young Irelanders, (Tralee, 1944), 107-14; William Carleton, Correspondence, National Library of Ireland; A. M. Sullivan, New Ireland, ( Glasgow, ND), 339-342; W. F. Mandle, “The IRB and the beginnings of the Gaelic Athletics Association”, Irish Historical Studies, Vol. 20, No. 80, September 1977, 418; M. MacDermott, ed., The New Spirit of the Nation, (London, Dublin and New York, 1894), 117; T. de Vere White, The Parents of Oscar Wilde, (London, 1967), 263-4; Healy, (1928), Vol.2, 416-7; R. Ellmann, Oscar Wilde, (Penguin Books, 1988), 490; O’Brien, (1920), 296.
For the Trinity College connection see W. B. Stanford and R. B. McDowell, Mahaffy: A Biography of an Anglo-Irishman, (London, 1971), 87; R. Y. Tyrrell and E. Sullivan ed., Echoes from Kottabos, (London, 1906), v-vii; “An Irishman’s Diary”, Irish Times, 4 June 1938, 6.
For Wilde’s French reputation see E. H. Mikhail’s Oscar Wilde: Interviews and Recollections, (two volumes, Macmillan, London, 1979) and Guillot de Saix’s Le Chant de Cygne Contes parlés d’Oscar Wilde. In discussing charitable attitudes to Wilde I have drawn on P. Hoare, Oscar Wilde’s Last Dance, (New York, 1998), 137; R. H. Sherard, The Life of Oscar Wilde, (London, 1906), 263, 88-9; J. Bossy, Christianity in the West 1400-1700, (Oxford, 1985) 38-9; K. Beckson, The Oscar Wilde Encyclopedia, (New York, 1998), 81, 251 ;V. Holland, Son of Oscar Wilde, (Penguin Books, 1957),103, 144, 147.
For Wilde and the London Irish see T. P. Coogan, Michael Collins, (Arrow Books, London, 1991), 17-18, 47; The Weekly Sun, 5 March 1893, 21 September 1894; Á. Ní Chnaimhín, Pádraic Ó Conaire, (Dublin, 1947), 116, 278, 45; C.Ó Háinle, Promadh Pinn, (Maynooth, 1978), 165-172; P. Riggs, Pádraic Ó Conaire Deoraí, (Dublin, 1994), 70-72, 232, 234, 59, 71; P. Ó Conaire, An Chéad Chloch, (Dublin and Cork, 1981), 33, 34, 20.
Brian Earls’s essay “The mother in hoors and robbers”: Bram Stoker as Urban Folklorist was published in the 2012 issue of Béaloideas: The Journal of the Folklore of Ireland Society.