The First Gay
[This essay first
appeared as ‘The First Gay Irishman?
To be sure, sexuality is not a fixed
entity, either in an individual or in a culture. Nonetheless, a post-modern
idea of Wilde (and everything else) as endlessly elusive can obscure the real
determinants in cultural change. Twentieth-century uses of Wilde’s name,
certainly, have depended on simplifications, mistaken apprehensions and
downright falsehoods. However, the point is not Wilde’s true identity but the
identity that the trials foisted on him. It was not who he was but who we have
made him to be. I want to suggest that there is unfinished business here; that
Like Sinfield, my interest is with some ‘unfinished
business’ in Irish cultural studies, an examination of how Oscar Wilde’s name
and his crime provoked public discourse around homosexuality in modern Irish
culture. If perceptions of sexual identity evolve partly through public events,
how did Irish media and literary sources configure Wilde’s homosexuality during
the 1895 trials and after? As Sinfield
suggests, the question is not simply about who Wilde actually was, either
sexually or racially, but of what we make him stand for. In this essay I chart
the revealing ways in which Wilde’s homosexuality became a contested discourse
Foucault has argued that only in the nineteenth
century did the homosexual become a type or a personage with a past and a case
Much has been written on British media treatments of
the Wilde trials, but little or nothing on the Irish sources. We can, however,
observe the formulation of the notion of homosexuality in modern
Ambiguities abound in Wilde’s life and work, not least around his own representations of himself as a sexual being. Nevertheless the useful and incontestable fact remains that in May 1895, an Irishman named himself publicly as a lover of other men, although qualifying this declaration of homosexual identity by claiming that his love for other men had never been expressed sexually. At a critical moment in his trial, Wilde defined the love that dare not speak its name by citing a proud genealogy of same-sex lovers. The significance of Wilde’s speech, in this context, is that for the first time we have a public affirmation of homosexual love from an Irishman.
More than ten years earlier, a court case in
[u]gly reports had been in circulation for
some time about the sexual perversions of some of the headquarter officers in
This rumour and indirect reporting came to a head
when, in a series of events that would be uncannily repeated during the Wilde
trials, O’Brien used his newspaper to make allegations, particularly about
Gustavus Cornwall, the secretary of the General Post Office. As if anticipating
Wilde’s action against Queensberry,
By the end of 1884, the trials finally concluded,
with a number of the men found guilty and sentenced to hard labour and penal
servitude. The central protagonist,
In the light of Irish media accounts of the
Linked to this circumspection in the Irish media at
the time was a tendency within later Irish sources to interpret Wilde’s
behaviour in the courtroom of the Old Bailey as heroic and politicised. In
other words, Wilde’s defence against the charge of homosexuality and gross
indecency was later claimed for the tradition of Irish Republican defiance in
the face of British injustice. In particular, when, during the trial, Wilde was
asked to define the exact nature of ‘the love that dare not speak its name’, a
coded poem about homosexuality by Lord Alfred Douglas, his response would be
seen as one of the great Irish anti-imperialist speeches from the dock. Seamus
Heaney, for example, asserted a full century after Wilde’s ordeal that ‘during
his trials in 1895, Wilde had been magnificent in the dock and conducted
himself with as much dramatic style as any Irish patriot ever did’. In
truth, Wilde wasn’t exactly being truthful and certainly not being patriotic
when he denied the sexual element in the love that dare not speak its name, but
his declaration broke the wall of public silence around homosexuality when he
dared to bring it to a point of public utterance. His homosexual love did have to speak its
name when the law demanded an answer, however partial his answer. The simple
fact that he made such a profession of ennobling same sex love is in itself
precisely the factor that provoked public disturbance and debate. The vital
importance here is the implication of Wilde’s articulation of the homoerotic
for Irish public discourse. Martyrs and figures of political rebellion are
often constructed retrospectively and this was the case with Wilde in
THE WILDE TRIALS
The three trials of Oscar Wilde in 1895 and the
consequent newspaper coverage provide us with a moment of crucial engagement
with the question of homosexuality in
[i]t is hardly surprising that the newspaper reporting of Wilde’s prosecution conjoined the spectacular and the characterological in order to figure ‘Oscar Wilde’ as embodying a new type of sexual offender. As soon as Wilde himself became the subject of legal scrutiny, it was very clear that it was his body that was at stake in the production of public meaning engendered by the case.
the Irish media, these same is
Until 1895, his Irishness empowered Oscar Wilde as a
writer of comedies of manners. Declan Kiberd notes that the ‘ease with which
Wilde effected the transition from stage Ireland to stage England was his
ultimate comment on the shallowness of such categories…To his mortification and
intermittent delight, Wilde found that his English mask was not, by any means a
perfect fit.’ However, from the outset of the first
trial, Wilde’s celebrity was transformed into notoriety by Queensberry’s
accusation that he was posing as a ‘somdomite.’ Wilde himself had written in The Soul of Man under Socialism of ‘that monstrous and ignorant thing that
is called Public opinion.’ Now, this monstrous and ignorant thing
moved against Wilde to demonize him as a corruptor of youth and a destroyer of
innocence. Foldy shows that ‘the Wilde Trials were unusual in that they
provided a single forum and a single frame of reference for all of these
otherwise disparate concepts: ‘decadence,’ ‘degeneracy,’ ‘and same sex
passion.’’ Xenophobia as well as homophobia prompted
attacks on Wilde’s decadent foreignness, but his ‘French’ decadence rather than
his Irish unruliness fuelled media attacks in
represented a frightening constellation of threats which conflated all these disparate elements and associations: he represented foreign vice, foreign art and indirectly, the legacy of foreign rulers … thus when the newspapers attacked Wilde and condemned his foreign vice, they were also expressing their xenophobic fear of foreigners and foreign influences, their hatred of a useless and parasitic aristocracy, and their intolerance for useless artists and for anyone who would actively try to subvert the status quo.
Wilde’s own foreignness as an Irishman was evidently little used by the British media as a weapon to attack his sexual otherness. And only at a late stage of the trials, when conviction seemed imminent, was his Irishness directly referred to in court.  At the end of the third trial, Sir Edward Clarke, the defence lawyer, urged the jury to acquit Wilde using the following mitigating plea of his racial otherness. (Clarke apparently felt that he had no other extenuating plea to offer.)
If upon an examination of the evidence you therefore feel it your duty to say that the charges against the prisoner have not been proved, then I am sure that you will be glad that the brilliant promise which has been clouded by these accusations, and the bright reputation which was so early clouded in the torrent of prejudice which a few weeks ago was sweeping through the press, have been saved by your verdict from absolute ruin: and thus it leaves him, a distinguished man of letters and a brilliant Irishman, to live among us a life of honour and repute and to give in the maturity of his genius gifts to our literature of which he has given only the promise of his early youth. 
Noreen Doody comments that Clarke perhaps appealed ‘to the generally accepted nineteenth-century view of the Irish as less responsible than their English ‘betters.’ This late reference to the defendant’s racial identity, however, proved futile, and Clarke failed to develop it further. But, as will become apparent in the last section of this study, subsequent Irish accounts of the trials and of convicted man’s decision to face arrest afterwards seized upon Wilde’s national pride and sense of honour as motivating his behaviour. Irish sources came to lionize Wilde for his racial difference, his Anglo-Irish pride, and old-fashioned chivalry.
Since Wilde’s third trial in May 1895 dealt most
directly with his homosexuality, the coverage of that trial in a range of Irish
newspapers, both in the north and south. is illuminating. Major Irish
newspapers like The Irish Times carried daily accounts, but most of these reports
were discreet, business-like, and impersonal. (Exceptions were accounts in The Irish News and
Belfast Morning News on Monday 27th May informing readers that ‘Oscar
Wilde, who lived on an extraordinary reputation, has thus disappeared and let
us hope the last has been heard of him.’) Irish newspapers were reticent in
reporting court proceedings and reluctant to name the defendant’s crime. As
Cohen and Foldy have demonstrated, the British media also avoided direct
mention of same-sex activities by displacing that unnameable sin onto Wilde’s
body. The Irish press, however, maintained a more discreet distance from
Wilde’s sin and from his body: on Friday 24th May, The Evening Herald
even ran its coverage of the trials under the heading ‘Wilde’s Defence: Accused
extremely unwell and talked with concern about his anxiety.’ The Cork Examiner
carried short daily notices concerning the trial from Wednesday 22nd May until
Such circumspection differs from British coverage. The Belfast
Newsletter used the words
‘gross indecency’ about
Why were the Irish media so discreet in the coverage
of the Wilde trials? Several factors may
have accounted for such discretion, one being the republican legacy of his
mother, Speranza. More crucially, the political climate in
In contrast to the reticence of other Irish
newspapers, however, The Freeman’s Journal of
As to the horrid character of Wilde’s crime, it is quite superfluous to add anything to what Judge Wills, who held the scales of justice with scrupulous fairness, said in passing sentence. The remarkable thing is to discover now that Oscar Wilde was a centre of festering corruption seems to have been known in the artistic and theatrical circles in which he moved. But it is satisfactory anyway to feel that even the most brazen effrontery in the pursuit of such abominations does not bring immunity from punishment…It is even said that the police could lay their hands on fifty men well known in society who are equally guilty with him and whose connection with this odious scandal has been notorious for years.
The correspondent’s view of a queer community hidden within artistic and theatrical circles — of a covert secret society with Wilde at the centre — shifts the perception of homosexuality from individual acts of sexual activity towards the notion, albeit hostile, of a community created around sexual preference. The analysis then moves from a general denunciation of the defendant’s culpability and incorporates two accounts of his public appearances in 1895, one just before the trials— on stage at the first night of An Ideal Husband —and the other at the end of the trials in the dock of the Old Bailey. Here, descriptions of Wilde’s body, his dress, and his demeanour are encoded, through the interpolation of terms such as ‘condescending’ and insolence,’ within the rhetoric of sexual decadence and arrogance; such writing provides the evidence that the defendant was indeed ‘a centre of festering corruption’ and focuses public attention on his body. As Cohen notes, ‘the press corps anticipated the legal attachment of Wilde’s body by confining/ defining him within their interpretative gaze.’
Some months ago I saw Oscar Wilde at the first night of ‘An Ideal Husband ‘. He was then in the zenith of his fame… Wilde himself was in a stage box, being flattered and lionized by a party of most distinguished persons – men and women- whose praise he condescendingly accepted. He was dressed in a last note of fashion, faultlessly groomed and assuming airs of semi-royal graciousness to an admiring audience…He strutted in from the wings with an air of contemptuous indifference, one hand in his trouser pocket, and opera hat in his other… The object of this ovation responded with a shrug of the shoulders suggesting a feeling of deprecatory boredom. When silence had been restored, he drawled out a few words of studied insolence and retired. 
Then Wilde’s body is reconstructed as in ‘an outing,’ a public exposure of his hidden sexuality. With puritanical glee the writer contrasts Wilde’s bodily frailty and obvious physical strain with his earlier physical arrogance.
I saw Oscar Wilde on Friday last in the dock of the Old Bailey and a more shocking contrast could not possibly be conceived. The aspect of sleek, well fed luxuriousness had vanished, the cheeks were lined and flabby, and wore a most unearthly colour. His eyes were bloodshot and expressive of the last stage of acute terror. – The eyes of a man who might at any time get a fatal seizure from overstrain. His hair was all in disorder and he crouched into a corner of the dock with his face turned towards the jury and the witness box, his head resting on his hand so that it was almost hid from the public…The general impression he conveyed was of a man filled with a vague hopeless terror, not of one filled with shame at the dreadful ignominy of his position. 
In this shifting representation of Wilde’s physicality that
renders him bestial and inhuman, the body becomes the site for displaced horror
at an unnamed sexual sin. No longer the arrogant playwright strutting onto the
stage, the terrorized defendant now attempts to hide his body from the public
gaze, even as he lacks the appropriate shame and penitence before his sexual
aberrance. Until this passage, The
Freeman’s Journal account follows patterns of representation and
condemnation appearing in English versions of the trials. However, as he
discusses the judicial proceedings, ‘our own [Irish] correspondent’ raises is
all know what trial by jury is – in
Cohen argues that Wilde’s identification as a homosexual was produced in reaction to its opposite, the heterosexual: for an identity to take shape, it needed its binary opposite. But in the terms of Irish cultural discourse, Wilde as sexual ‘other’ was made safe within another discourse of oppositional types, Celtic versus British. The sexual ‘type’ of homosexuality invoking Wilde’s guilt and ‘festering corruption,’ is collapsed into an anti-imperialist discourse; thus as the writer moves into a lengthy diatribe against British justice, we lose sight of Wilde’s contaminated body. This contemporary Irish account in The Freeman’s Journal is probably the first to subsume sexuality into the national question. Wilde’s downfall, now building on the appeal of national martyrdom, was to be re-imagined by later Irish writers in the light of their own aesthetic and political purposes
NATIONALISING WILDE: JOYCE, YEATS, SHAW
This process of ‘nationalizing’ Wilde, claiming him as a
figure of transgressive empowerment, continued in the following decades with
James Joyce’s March 1909 publication of an article, ‘Oscar Wilde: The Poet of
Salome,’ in a Trieste newspaper. Since James Joyce was only thirteen when the
trials occurred and eighteen when Wilde died, his view of the earlier writer
was constructed at a distance, both temporally and spatially. In the course of
his brief essay, written to mark a
However, Joyce more pointedly argues that Wilde
destabilized the widespread homosocial structures underpinning Victorian
British culture, identifying the homophobic panic that his outing unleashed in
the male social structures of his time: ’Anyone who follows closely the life
and language of men, whether in soldiers’ barracks or in the great commercial
houses, will hesitate to believe that all those who threw stones at Wilde were
themselves spotless.’ For Joyce, the consequent rage against
Mediated by his compatriot Wilde, Oxford Hellenism afforded Joyce a script to be performed or mimicked in his youth and a narrative code to be implemented and manipulated in his fictive representations of that youth. It lent the lived and the written story a shared ideological basis, a discourse of individual self-development that could address and resist in concerted fashion, the main intellectual, sexual and aesthetic constraints of Irish catholic life and the political inequalities of British colonial life. 
Two later biographical accounts, both much coloured by the
subject’s relationship with the writers in question, further develop the view
of Wilde as the Irish subversive. In his 1914 autobiography, W.B. Yeats writes
warmly of his relationship with the older writer and acknowledges Wilde’s
aesthetic influence and helpful patronage upon his own arrival in
I have never doubted for an instant that he made the right decision, and that he owes to that decision half of his renown…Tragedy awoke another self, the rage and contempt that filled the crowds in the street, and all men and women who had an over-abundant normal sexual instinct. 
Yeats thus problematized the very heterosexuality that
constructed Wilde as sexual other. The poet is also the only source for the
belief that Lady Wilde urged her son to stay and face prison rather than leave
Another Anglo-Irish Protestant writer, George Bernard Shaw,
left a very different version of the same events. In 1916 Shaw provided a
letter of commentary for his friend Frank Harris’ biography of Wilde, a letter
subsequently published as part of Harris’ study. Shaw grew up in
I don’t quite know why, for my toleration of his perversity and recognition of the fact that it does not imply any general depravity or coarseness of character is an acquirement through observation and reflection. I have all the normal repugnance to homosexuality- if it is really normal which nowadays one is sometimes provoked into doubting.
Unlike Yeats, Shaw distanced himself from Wilde’s homosexuality, although like others, he blamed Speranza for her son’s ‘perversity.’
Expounding the startling theory (with no medical evidence) that Wilde’s mother, suffered from gigantism and that her son had inherited her physical abnormality and was thus sexually monstrous, Shaw turned to biological explanations for Wilde’s aberrant sexuality. However such unsubstantiated theorizing— a biological determination viewing the mother as the perverting influence on normative heterosexuality—suggests Shaw’s need to explain away the sexuality that led Wilde to prison. Eventually, however, Shaw falls back on a discourse of Anglo-Irish feudal honour: ‘ I still believe that his fierce Irish pride had something to do with his refusal to run away from the trial.’ One of Shaw’s most stubborn, if whimsically expressed, beliefs was in the moral strength and tenacity of the Irish Protestant as compared to his English or American counterparts. With his vindication of his own class, the Irish Protestant Shaw concludes his account of Wilde.
Given these biographical re-constructions of Wilde the rebel
and tenaciously honourable Irishman, later writers, particularly those
representing the homoerotic in fiction, would deploy a discourse of colonial
resistance. Wilde’s influence on Brendan Behan, for example, can be directly
ascertained. Although Behan’s working-class republican background background
seems at a great remove from the Wildes of Merrion Square, in De Profundis and ‘The Ballad of Reading
Gaol’ Behan found a heady mixture: of the homoerotic, of defiance of British
justice, of letters written from English jails, and of powerful courtroom
speeches. While Behan was confined in an English Borstal as a member of the
IRA, he first became aware of the emblematic and decadent fellow Irishman. In
the Borstal library, he met a young man of about nineteen, wearing a rose
coloured silk tie, smoking through a cigarette holder, and reading Frank
Harris’ Oscar Wilde. Although the fey young man’s
revelation of why Wilde had been jailed was intended to shock, Behan responded
sharply that ‘every tinker has his own way of dancing’.
His biographer, Michael O’Sullivan, also reports that ‘when among friends, he
often used to boast drunkenly of his Herod complex, or preference for young
Behan’s 1954 prison play, The Quare Fellow, pays such direct homage to the influence of Wilde, that O’Sullivan
remarks on the inevitability that ‘reviewers in Ireland would make a comparison
with Wilde’s The Ballad of Reading Gaol,’
noting even that in The Evening Press,
‘Gabriel Fallon found it more profoundly moving and deeply religious than
Wilde’s great prison letter’.
Wilde became a talisman for Behan, especially in
The young prince of sin
A withered churl
The gold jewel of lust
Left far behind him,
No Pernod to brace him.
Only holy water,
The young king of Beauty
A ravished Narcissus
As the star of the pure Virgin
Glows on the water.
Delightful the path of sin
But a holy death’s a habit.
Good man yourself there, Oscar,
Every way you had it. 
Such nationalizing continues in contemporary Irish
writing and the process of claiming Wilde directly as a gay icon, a figure of
empowering queer presence in contemporary Irish writing appears in Colm 2002 Love in a Dark Time: Gay Lives from Wilde to Almodovar. In this collection, a contemporary Irish
novelist connects his recognition of himself as a gay man with the reclamation
of Wilde: ‘The personal became political because an Irishman in
From the moment Henry had first seen him,
even when he had met him in
To conclude, I would contend that over the
past hundred years since the Wilde Trials, Wilde’s homosexuality was subsumed
into broader debates and discourses around Irish cultural nationalism. This
meant that the unmentionable Wilde became Oscar the Irish rebel and thus, even
in such a homophobic culture as 20th
Dr Eibhear Walshe is a senior lecturer in the Department of Modern
English at University College Cork. His research interests include modern Irish
This essay was researched
thanks to a grant from the Arts Faculty Research Fund, University College Cork.
I would also like to thank Ciaran Wallace of the National Lesbian and Gay
Federation and Tonie Walsh of the Irish Queer Archive,
Alan Sinfield, ‘I see it is my name that terrified, Wilde in the
Twentieth-Century,’ in Eiléan Ní Chuilleanáin, ed., The Wilde Legacy (
 Margot Norris, ‘A Walk on the Wild (e) side,’ in Joseph Valente, ed., Quare Joyce. (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1998).19-33.
 H.Montgomery Hyde. The Other Love. (London: Heinemann, 1970), 133. I would like to thank Dr James .H.Murphy, De Paul University, for generously sharing his forthcoming research on the Dublin Castle Scandal with me.
 Leon Ó Broin. The Prime Informer. (London: Sidgwick and Jackson, 1971), 26.
 William O’Brien, Evening Memories (London: Maunsell, 1920), 31
 O’Brien, 21.
 Ó Broin. 28.
See T.C.Breen ‘Loathsome,
Impure and Revolting Crimes: The
 See Breen. 6.
 See Breen, 8.
 Seamus Heaney, ‘Speranza in Reading Gaol’,’ The Redress of Poetry (Faber and Faber, London, 1995), 95.
For an excellent and convincing argument against the idea of Wilde as Irish
patriot in the Old Bailey, see
Lucy McDiarmid’s ‘Wilde’s Speech from the Dock’ in Eiléan Ní
Chuilleanáin, ed., The Wilde Legacy (
Linda Dowling, Hellenism and
Homosexuality in Victorian
Oscar Wilde, The Collected Letters,
ed. Rupert Hart-Davis and Merlin
 See Ed Cohen, Talk on the Wilde Side (London: Routledge, 1993). Michael Foldy. The Wilde Trials. (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1997).
 Cohen, 181.
Declan Kiberd, Inventing
 Oscar Wilde. The Soul of Man under Socialism. (Oxford: OUP, 1990), 23.
 Foldy, 70.
 Foldy, 150.
See Noreen Doody, ‘An influential involvement: Wilde, Yeats and the French
Symbolists,’ eds. Aaron Kelly/Alan.A Gillis, Critical Ireland. (
 H. Montgomery Hyde. The Wilde Trials. 255.
Noreen Doody. ‘Oscar Wilde: Nation and Empire,’ ed. Frederick Roden, Palgrave
Advances in Oscar Wilde Studies (
 Cohen. 190.
 The Freeman’s Journal,
 Cohen 185
The Freeman’s Journal,
The Freeman’s Journal,
The Freeman’s Journal,
 James Joyce, ‘Oscar Wilde: The Poet of Salome,’’ eds. Ellsworth Mason/Richard Ellmann, The Critical Writings of James Joyce (London: Faber and Faber, 1959), 202.
 Joyce, 204.
 Joyce, 204
 Joyce, 204..
 Joseph Valente, Joyce’s (sexual ) choices; A Historical Overview. From Quare Joyce op.cit 11.
 W.B. Yeats, Autobiographies (London: MacMillan, 1955), 285.
 Yeats, 287.
 Yeats 291
 See Eibhear Walshe, ‘Wilde’s Irish Biographers’’ in The Wildean, volume 21. July 2002. 15-27.
Joseph Bristow, Effeminate
 Quoted in Weintraub, 33.
 Quoted in Weintraub, 37.
 Michael O’Sullivan, Brendan Behan: A Life (Dublin: Blackwater, 1997), 63.
 O’Sullivan , 139.
 O’Sullivan, 181
 O’Sullivan 150-151. Originally published Comhar 1949, trans Valentine Iremonger.
Love in a Dark Time, (
The Master (