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Promoting Irish Culture and History from Little Rock, Arkansas, USA


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Death of Oscar Wilde, Poet & Playwright

oscar-wildeOscar Fingal O’Flahertie Wills Wilde, Irish poet and playwright, dies in Paris, France on November 30, 1900. After writing in different forms throughout the 1880s, the early 1890s see him become one of the most popular playwrights in London. He is best remembered for his epigrams and plays, his novel The Picture of Dorian Gray, and the circumstances of his criminal conviction for “gross indecency,” imprisonment, and early death at age 46.

Wilde is born on October 16, 1854 at 21 Westland Row, Dublin (now home of the Oscar Wilde Centre, Trinity College), the second of three children born to Anglo-Irish Sir William Wilde and Jane Wilde, two years behind his brother William. His parents are successful Anglo-Irish intellectuals in Dublin. He learns to speak fluent French and German. At university, he reads Greats. He demonstrates himself to be an exceptional classicist, first at Trinity College Dublin, then at Magdalen College, Oxford. He becomes associated with the emerging philosophy of aestheticism, led by two of his tutors, Walter Pater and John Ruskin. After university, he moves to London into fashionable cultural and social circles.

As a spokesman for aestheticism, Wilde tries his hand at various literary activities: he publishes a book of poems, lectures in the United States and Canada on the new “English Renaissance in Art” and interior decoration, and then returns to London where he works prolifically as a journalist. Known for his biting wit, flamboyant dress and glittering conversational skill, he becomes one of the best-known personalities of his day.

At the turn of the 1890s, Wilde refines his ideas about the supremacy of art in a series of dialogues and essays, and incorporates themes of decadence, duplicity, and beauty into what would be his only novel, The Picture of Dorian Gray (1890). The opportunity to construct aesthetic details precisely, and combine them with larger social themes, draw him to write drama. He writes Salome (1891) in French while in Paris but it is refused a licence for England due to an absolute prohibition on the portrayal of Biblical subjects on the English stage. Unperturbed, he produces four society comedies in the early 1890s, which make him one of the most successful playwrights of late-Victorian London.

At the height of his fame and success, while The Importance of Being Earnest (1895) is still being performed in London, Wilde has John Douglas, 9th Marquess of Queensberry prosecuted for criminal libel. The Marquess is the father of Wilde’s lover, Lord Alfred Douglas. The libel trial unearths evidence that causes him to drop his charges and leads to his own arrest and trial for gross indecency with men. After two more trials he is convicted and sentenced to two years of hard labour, the maximum penalty, and is jailed from 1895 to 1897. During his last year in prison, he writes De Profundis, published posthumously in 1905, a long letter which discusses his spiritual journey through his trials, forming a dark counterpoint to his earlier philosophy of pleasure. On his release, he leaves immediately for France, never to return to Ireland or Britain. There he writes his last work, The Ballad of Reading Gaol (1898), a long poem commemorating the harsh rhythms of prison life.

By November 25, 1900 Wilde has developed meningitis, then called “cerebral meningitis”. On November 29, he is conditionally baptised into the Catholic Church by Fr. Cuthbert Dunne, a Passionist priest from Dublin. He dies of meningitis on November 30, 1900. Different opinions are given as to the cause of the disease. Richard Ellmann claims it is syphilitic. Merlin Holland, Wilde’s grandson, believes this to be a misconception, noting that Wilde’s meningitis followed a surgical intervention, perhaps a mastoidectomy. Wilde’s physicians, Dr. Paul Cleiss and A’Court Tucker, report that the condition stems from an old suppuration of the right ear treated for several years and makes no allusion to syphilis.

Wilde is initially buried in the Cimetière parisien de Bagneux outside Paris. In 1909 his remains are disinterred and transferred to Père Lachaise Cemetery, inside the city. In 2011, the tomb is cleaned of the many lipstick marks left there by admirers and a glass barrier is installed to prevent further marks or damage.

In 2017, Wilde is among an estimated 50,000 men who are pardoned for homosexual acts that are no longer considered offences under the Policing and Crime Act 2017. The Act is known informally as the Alan Turing law.

In 2014 Wilde is one of the inaugural honorees in the Rainbow Honor Walk, a walk of fame in San Francisco’s Castro District noting LGBTQ people who have “made significant contributions in their fields.”


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The Homosexuality Trial of Oscar Wilde

The trial of Oscar Wilde on charges of homosexuality, then considered a crime, begins at the Old Bailey on April 26, 1895.

With a warrant for Wilde’s arrest on charges of sodomy and gross indecency having been issued, Robbie Ross finds Wilde at the Cadogan Hotel, Knightsbridge, with Reginald Turner. Both men advise Wilde to go at once to Dover and try to get a boat to France. His mother advises him to stay and fight. Wilde, lapsing into inaction, can only say, “The train has gone. It’s too late.” Wilde is arrested for “gross indecency” under Section 11 of the Criminal Law Amendment Act 1885, a term meaning homosexual acts not amounting to buggery, an offence under a separate statute. At Wilde’s instruction, Ross and Wilde’s butler force their way into the bedroom and library of 16 Tite Street, packing some personal effects, manuscripts, and letters. Wilde is then imprisoned on remand at HM Prison Holloway where he receives daily visits from his partner, Lord Alfred Douglas.

Events move quickly and his prosecution opens on April 26, 1895. Wilde pleads not guilty. He has already begged Douglas to leave London for Paris, but Douglas complains bitterly, even wanting to give evidence. He is pressed to go and soon flees to the Hotel du Monde. Fearing persecution, Ross and many others also leave the United Kingdom during this time.

Under cross examination by Charles Gill, Wilde is at first hesitant, but then eloquently responds to Gill’s question about the meaning of “the love that dare not speak its name.” Wilde replies, “‘The love that dare not speak its name” in this century is such a great affection of an elder for a younger man as there was between David and Jonathan, such as Plato made the very basis of his philosophy, and such as you find in the sonnets of Michelangelo and Shakespeare. It is that deep spiritual affection that is as pure as it is perfect. It dictates and pervades great works of art, like those of Shakespeare and Michelangelo, and those two letters of mine, such as they are. It is in this century misunderstood, so much misunderstood that it may be described as ‘the love that dare not speak its name,’ and on that account of it I am placed where I am now. It is beautiful, it is fine, it is the noblest form of affection. There is nothing unnatural about it. It is intellectual, and it repeatedly exists between an older and a younger man, when the older man has intellect, and the younger man has all the joy, hope and glamour of life before him. That it should be so, the world does not understand. The world mocks at it, and sometimes puts one in the pillory for it.”

Wilde’s response is counter-productive in a legal sense as it only serves to reinforce the charges of homosexual behaviour. The trial ends with the jury unable to reach a verdict. Wilde’s counsel, Sir Edward Clarke, is finally able to get a magistrate to allow Wilde and his friends to post bail. The Reverend Stewart Headlam puts up most of the £5,000 surety required by the court, having disagreed with Wilde’s treatment by the press and the courts. Wilde is freed from Holloway and, shunning attention, goes into hiding at the house of Ernest and Ada Leverson, two of his firm friends. Edward Carson approaches Frank Lockwood QC, the Solicitor General and asks, “Can we not let up on the fellow now?” Lockwood answers that he would like to do so, but fears that the case has become too politicised to be dropped.

The final trial is presided over by Alfred Wills. On May 25, 1895 Wilde and Alfred Taylor are convicted of gross indecency and sentenced to two years’ hard labour. The judge describes the sentence, the maximum allowed, as “totally inadequate for a case such as this,” and that the case is “the worst case I have ever tried.” Wilde responds, “And I? May I say nothing, my Lord?” but it is drowned out by cries of “Shame” in the courtroom.

Oscar Wilde enters prison on May 25, 1895 and is released on May 18, 1897.

(Pictured: Oscar Wilde and Lord Alfred Douglas)


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Birth of Oscar Wilde

oscar-wildeOscar Fingal O’Flahertie Wills Wilde, playwright, novelist, essayist, and poet, is born on October 16, 1854, at 21 Westland Row, Dublin, now home of the Oscar Wilde Centre, Trinity College. After writing in different forms throughout the 1880s, he becomes one of London‘s most popular playwrights in the early 1890s. He is remembered for his epigrams, his novel The Picture of Dorian Gray, his plays, as well as the circumstances of his imprisonment and early death.

Wilde’s parents are successful Anglo-Irish Dublin intellectuals. Their son becomes fluent in French and German early in life. At university, Wilde read Greats and proves himself to be an outstanding classicist, first at Dublin, then at Magdalen College, Oxford. He becomes known for his involvement in the rising philosophy of aestheticism, led by two of his tutors, Walter Pater and John Ruskin. After university, Wilde moves to London into fashionable cultural and social circles.

As a spokesman for aestheticism, Wilde tries his hand at various literary activities. He publishes a book of poems, lectures in the United States and Canada on the new “English Renaissance in Art,” and then returns to London where he works prolifically as a journalist. Known for his biting wit, flamboyant dress and glittering conversation, Wilde becomes one of the best-known personalities of his day.

At the turn of the 1890s, he refines his ideas about the supremacy of art in a series of dialogues and essays, and incorporates themes of decadence, duplicity, and beauty into his only novel, The Picture of Dorian Gray (1890). The opportunity to construct aesthetic details precisely, and combine them with larger social themes, draws Wilde to write drama. He writes Salome (1891) in French in Paris but it is refused a licence for England due to the absolute prohibition of Biblical subjects on the English stage. Unperturbed, Wilde produces four society comedies in the early 1890s, which make him one of the most successful playwrights of late Victorian London.

At the height of his fame and success, while his masterpiece, The Importance of Being Earnest (1895), is still on stage in London, Wilde has the John Douglas, 9th Marquess of Queensberry prosecuted for libel. The Marquess is the father of Wilde’s lover, Lord Alfred Douglas. The charge carries a penalty of up to two years in prison. The trial unearths evidence that causes Wilde to drop his charges and leads to his own arrest and trial for gross indecency with men. After two more trials he is convicted and imprisoned for two years’ penal labour.

In 1897, in prison, he writes De Profundis, which is published in 1905, a long letter which discusses his spiritual journey through his trials, forming a dark counterpoint to his earlier philosophy of pleasure. Upon his release he leaves immediately for France, never to return to Ireland or Britain. There he writes his last work, The Ballad of Reading Gaol (1898), a long poem commemorating the harsh rhythms of prison life.

Wilde dies destitute of cerebral meningitis in Paris on November 30, 1900. at the age of 46. He is initially buried in the Cimetière parisien de Bagneux outside Paris. In 1909 his remains are disinterred and transferred to Père Lachaise Cemetery, inside the city.