THE OSCHOLARS LIBRARY

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The First Gay Irishman?  Ireland and the Wilde Trials.[1]

 

Éibhear Walshe

 

[This essay first appeared as ‘The First Gay Irishman? Ireland and the Wilde Trials’ in Éire-Ireland - Volume 40:3 & 4, Fómhar/Geimhreadh / Fall/Winter 2005, pp. 38-57; and is here republished by kind permission.]

 

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 Ireland, as much as England and the United States, might claim the name of Wilde as a gay icon.                                                                   

–Alan Sinfield.[2]

 

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 within twentieth-century Ireland, a discourse that became intertwined with Irish cultural nationalism.

 

Foucault has argued that only in the nineteenth century did the homosexual become a type or a personage with a past and a case history. In Ireland, as in other societies towards the end of the nineteenth century, modern ideas of sexual identity began to take shape and draw meaning from visible mainstream cultural events. In analysing how of the idea of the homosexual was formed, Foucault studied the history of the conditions shaping institutional and discursive notions of homosexuality in Europe. I argue that the study of twentieth-century Irish homosexuality formulation must begin with an account of Wilde’s visible presence as sexual other, through the analysis of the strategies of normalization used to police his unnameable sin within Irish media and literary accounts. In any perception of homosexuality in modern Ireland, Oscar Wilde, famous for his writings and notorious for his sexuality, links Irishness and ‘queerness.’

 

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 Ireland within the island’s media coverage of the Wilde trials and in subsequent Irish accounts of his life and his sexuality. In this essay, I argue that the local media coverage of the trials drew out an ambivalent and often contradictory contestation around Wilde’s sexual sin from within Irish cultural discourse. The Irish newspapers struck a markedly differing note from that of their British counterparts, and subsequent writers from Ireland, notably G. B. Shaw, William Butler Yeats, James Joyce, Brendan Behan and others ‘nationalized’ Wilde, (a word I borrow from Margot Norris) by claiming him as a figure of affirming dissidence.[3] In this national appropriation of Wilde, these later artists could reconfigure his unsettling sexual sin by seeing it as the causal factor within an episode of anti-imperialist defiance. My argument is that Wilde came to be seen by subsequent Irish writers as a disruptive figure of anti-colonial resistance and this reconstruction, in some ways, mitigated his aberrant homosexuality for those writers and indeed for their society. Even the powerfully homophobic culture that twentieth-century Ireland was to become located strategies by which the unspeakable Oscar could be reclaimed as Wilde, the Irish rebel.

 

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 Dublin had also dealt with this forbidden topic, the so-called Dublin Castle scandal of 1884. Because public discourses around homosexuality had been so very different in this case, it is illuminating to contrast Irish media coverage of the earlier scandal with that of the Wilde trials. In May 1884 The Irish nationalist politician William O’Brien publicly alleged same-sex activities involving Dublin Castle administrators and officers of his newspaper United Ireland. O’Brien’s allegations came from what H. Montgomery Hyde describes as ‘the widespread belief that homosexual ‘vice’ was rampant in official circles in Ireland.’[4]  According to historian Leon O’Broin,

 

[u]gly reports had been in circulation for some time about the sexual perversions of some of the headquarter officers in Dublin Castle. The Nationalist members of parliament attacked Spenser and Trevelyan and imputed them with the misdeeds of their employees. Tim Healy, with typical sarcasm, alleged that Spencer’s services to the state had well entitled him to promotion and suggested that he should become the duke of Sodom and Gomorrah.[5]

 

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, Cornwall sued O’Brien for libel, and the trial opened on 2nd July 1884. Extensive evidence was brought against Cornwell and others; not only was O’Brien cleared of libel, but Cornwall and seven other men were now under police surveillance. Subsequently, they were all arrested and tried on 5th August 1884 in Green Street courthouse in Dublin on charges relating to indecency and sodomy. During this second trial, other gay men were called as witnesses against Cornwall, but as they were in danger of losing their own jobs, they were reluctant to give evidence against him. In his memoirs, the profoundly homophobic O’Brien characterizes this reluctance as ‘one of those sudden gusts of infantile fretfulness which are apt to sweep over persons of their peculiar mentality…[when]… the three essential witnesses refused to be examined.’[6] ‘Providentially,’ he further observed, ‘the cowardice of persons thus diseased is commonly as abject as their depravity.’[7]

 

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, Cornwall, was acquitted and, due to retire anyway, he resigned his post in Dublin Castle. According to O’Broin, however, ‘Cornwall lost his post office job for having, as a Dublin wag put it, tampered with Her Majesty’s males.’[8] In relation to the Wilde trials, most noteworthy is that the publicity around the Dublin Castle trials provoked widespread Irish media condemnation of homosexuality. All Irish papers distanced themselves from what they chose to see as a foreign vice, using this condemnation for purpose of nationalist rhetoric. In the United Ireland in 7th June 1884, O’Brien wrote of the defendants’ homosexuality as ‘the system of depravity unsurpassed in the history of human crime’ and compared it with ‘the comparatively venial crimes (as far as human society is concerned) of the Moonlighters and Invincibles.’[9] Other accounts stressed the un-Irishness of those accused: The Evening Telegraph’s attacked Cornwall for ‘contaminating the running stream of Irish moral purity by stirring up the sink of pollution implanted by foreign hands in its very edges,’[10] while the Dundalk Democrat’s noted sodomy as ‘a crime that was unmentionable and happily is unknown and was previously unheard of by ninety-nine out of every hundred of the people in this country.’[11]  

 

In the light of Irish media accounts of the Dublin Castle scandal, the response to Wilde’s arrest and trial is striking in some Irish newspapers. Irish newspapers, again obliged to confront the dangerous topic of homosexuality, elided the issue by concentrating on Irish nationalist outrage at British legal injustice. Now that an Irishman was at the centre of the scandal and not a collection of hated Dublin Castle administrators, the discourse around homosexuality became much less direct, more circumspect than that appearing in the British press.

 

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’.[12]  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.[13] 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 Ireland. Wilde’s downfall would be read by Shaw, Yeats and others in the light of the literary and political career of his mother, Speranza, a view aligning him with the rhetorical traditions of Irish Republicanism and, indirectly, with the many impassioned speeches made by Irish activists in English courtrooms during the nineteenth century.  As I will suggest, these later reading of Wilde the Irish rebel served to mitigate the severity of Irish commentators on his sexuality and thus are linked to the Irish media discretion when reporting directly on his trials.

 

THE WILDE TRIALS AND IRELAND

 

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 Ireland. Linda Dowling argues that ‘Wilde’s statement in the trial created a new language of moral legitimacy pointing forward to Anglo-American decriminalisation and, ultimately, a fully developed assertion of homosexual rights.’[14] But did it enable the same language of moral legitimacy for homosexual rights in Ireland?  Certainly his disgrace radicalized Wilde’s own sense of his sexuality after his release and subsequent exile in Europe. He wrote to Robert Ross in February 1898, making an implicit link between patriotism and uranian love: ‘A patriot put in prison for loving his country loves his country, and a poet in prison for loving boys loves boys. To have altered my life would have been to have admitted that Uranian love is ignoble. I hold it to be noble – nobler than other forms.’ [15] From the trials onwards, Wilde’s name and his fate elicited very particular perceptions and notions of homosexuality. In Britain, as Ed Cohen and Michael Foldy have shown, the Wilde trials had the effect of drawing out homophobia from the British media.[16]  Because of the unmentionable nature of his sexual sin, Wilde’s body became the site for displaced unease. For Cohen

 

[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.[17]

 

 In the Irish media, these same issues of unease and sexual phobia are evident, as Wilde’s body also becomes a site for contested meaning. But in Ireland this unease becomes ambivalent and is, to some degree, contested and undermined by resentment of British  imperialism.

 

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.’[18] 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.’[19] 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.’’[20] 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 Britain. Foldy points out that Wilde

 

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.[21] 

 

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. [22] 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. [23] 

 

Noreen Doody comments that Clarke perhaps appealed ‘to the generally accepted nineteenth-century view of the Irish as less responsible than their English ‘betters.’[24] 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 Monday, 27th May 1895. But in its coverage, the paper tended to pay much more attention to the parallel story of the public fistfight between the Marquis of Queensbury and his son, Lord Douglas of Hawick, a fracas that took place in the course of the trial. On Wednesday 22nd May, the paper made its first reference to the trial by discussing the ‘specific charges’ concerning Wilde’s co-accused, Alfred Taylor: but these charges are unnamed, as is Wilde. More is made of fight between Queensbury and his son, presumably a safer topic in the reporting on Friday 24th May and on Saturday 25th May; however, the paper does finally mention Wilde as ‘betraying tokens of the keenest anxiety’ on the Saturday. Only on Monday 27th May, when Wilde had been sentenced did The Cork Examiner refer directly to ‘immoral practices,’ but with a great deal of sympathy for the ‘ill and anxious’ defendant.

 

Such circumspection differs from British coverage.  The Belfast Newsletter used the words ‘gross indecency’ about Taylor straight off in Wednesday 22nd May and gave details of the rent boy evidence on Thursday 23rd.  But when finally, on Monday May 27th, the newspaper devoted a full length article to the case, it confined itself to talking about ‘certain misdemeanours’ and ‘improper motives.’ This reticence appeared when the English newspapers were far harder on Wilde. For example on 6th April, The Daily Telegraph, the newspaper with the largest circulation in London, reported that ‘[w]e have had enough and more than enough of Mr OSCAR WILDE, who has been the means of inflicting upon public patience during the recent episode as much moral damage of the most offensive and repulsive kind as any individual could well cause.’

 

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 Dublin—with the growing pressure in southern Ireland for political autonomy—may well have muted any condemnation of an Irishman at odds with the British legal and political establishment. In the earlier Dublin Castle Scandal of 1884, the investigation reflected not just homophobic unease with same-sex activities, but the antipathy Irish nationalist politicians felt towards colonial administrators. Although Wilde’s nationality failed to protect him during his trials in London, it may have provided him with some mitigating cover within Irish society in a period of rising nationalism.

 

In contrast to the reticence of other Irish newspapers, however,  The Freeman’s Journal of Monday May 27th 1895 carried an unusually lengthy discussion of Wilde’s conviction; but even at this very early stage, the Irish commentators clearly found himself in a tricky, often contradictory position. The anonymous journalist, ‘Our Own Correspondent,’ devotes a substantial portion of his general report on London affairs to condemning Wilde. His discussion of the case and the sentencing follows the usual pattern of condemnation: direct mention of Wilde’s homosexuality is avoided and instead the defendant’s body becomes the site upon which the trial’s sexual significance can be inscribed. In Cohen’s words, Oscar Wilde’s body is now ‘a descriptive trope that personalises the criminal proceedings.’[25] The Freeman’s Journal correspondent employs terms familiar in the London press— such as  ‘horrid,’ ‘festering corruption,’ and ‘abominations’— to justify the sentence:

 

 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.[26]

 

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.’[27]

 

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.  [28]

 

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. [29]

 

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 issues absent from British coverage. Reminding his readers that the jury in the second trial was dismissed because of its failure to reach a unanimous verdict of guilty for Wilde, he recalls that the abrupt ending of that trial led to press speculation that the jury might themselves have been ‘corrupt’ or biased in Wilde’s favour, thus sexually suspect. ‘Our own correspondent’ then reveals his national identity and his nationalist fervor:

 

 We all know what trial by jury is – in England. It is the palladium of English justice and all the rest of it. It is a peculiarly English institution which the ‘Celtic Fringe’ is quite incapable of appreciating or utilising at its proper value…Mere Irish juries had been accused freely in agrarian or political cases in refusing to place absolute trust in the evidence of policemen or informers but here was a London jury without the suspicion of an Irishman about it accused of being actuated by what among the ‘Celtic Fringe’ would be regarded as an immeasurably baser motive in refusing to find the prisoners guilty. …It is impossible to escape the conclusion that an Old Bailey jury must be very amenable to influences of this kind and that the high-flown eulogies we have been accustomed to from English orators in the House of Commons on the immaculate character of the English juries as compared with Irish are mere pharisaical humbug. [30]

 

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 AND BEHAN.

 

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 Trieste performance of Richard Strauss’s opera Salome, Joyce addresses Wilde’s homosexuality directly, with characteristic forthrightness. He opens with a familiar discourse of pseudo-genetic rationalization for Wilde’s sexuality, suggesting an epileptic personality as a causal factor—without supplying any corroborating biographical evidence. Furthermore he cites as ‘a determining factor for [Wilde’s] evolving sexuality,’  or unhappy mania,’  again without evidence, the belief that Speranza wished for a daughter while pregnant with Oscar and then dressed her younger son in skirts (‘dragging’ him to his ruin)’ : ‘There are circumstances regarding the pregnancy of Lady Wilde and the infancy of her son which, in the eyes of some, explain in part the unhappy mania (if it may be called that) that later dragged him to his ruin.’[31] 

 

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.’[32] For Joyce, the consequent rage against Wilde in Britain represented the fury of a society engaged in self recognition: ‘What Dorian Gray’s sin was no one says and no one knows? Anyone who has recognised it has committed it.’[33] Because Wilde challenges the hegemony of the British Empire, Joyce begets him, as it were, as a precursor for his own aesthetic of exile, disgrace, and defiance. ‘Here we touch the pulse of Wilde’s art— sin. He deceived himself into believing that he was the bearer of good news of neo-paganism to an enslaved people.’[34] Joyce, therefore, saw Wilde as an exemplar; by refashioning him as a subversive and a rebel, the later self-exiled writer afforded Wilde a counter-tradition of Irish dissent. Joseph Valente argues that the two authors, in Joyce’s view, developed related means of expressing resistance to the constraints of their lives.

 

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. [35]

 

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 London in the late 1880’s. In particular, Yeats describes his visit to Wilde’s house in May 1895, during the third trial, when the young poet was anxious to assist the defendant with letters of support from other Irish writers. Yeats reacted to his fellow Irishman’s disgrace with empathy and support. Although hoping that Wilde was innocent of the charges of sexual immorality, he ‘considered him, essentially, a man of action…and I was certain that, guilty or not guilty, he would prove himself a man.’[36]  Because many of his closest friends and associates in London were either homosexual or bisexual, public exposure of Wilde’s same-sex activities failed to alienate Yeats. The poet was concerned, rather, with constructing his friend as the archetype of the Irish tragic artist, the lone figure standing against the commonplace and suffering as a result at the hands of over-sexualized heterosexuals:

 

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. [37] 

 

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 for France. This otherwise unattested story has become part of the Wilde legend: the rebel mother urging her son to live up to the code of Irish republican honour. Yeats writes, ‘I heard later, from whom I forget now, that Lady Wilde had said,’ If you stay, even if you go to prison, you will always be my son, it will make no difference to my affection but if you go, I will never speak to you again… .’[38] Repeatedly, in these Irish accounts of Wilde, Speranza is figured as pivotal in the determinant of Wilde’s sexuality and also as a driving force in his journey towards public disgrace and consequent aesthetic martyrdom, her republicanism compensating for her overwhelming and damaging maternal influence.

 

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 Dublin as a contemporary of Wilde’s, and perhaps the two men were rather too close for comfort as Irish writers in London. In any case, Shaw was characteristically sceptical about his co-patriot’s aesthetics and sexuality, although he viewed Wilde’s comedies of manners as part of the tradition of Anglo-Irish dramatic writing in London.[39] As Joseph Bristow points out, Shaw was the first critic to note the connection between Wilde’s Irishness and the subversive subtext of his comedies.[40] When Wilde became the subject of widespread public opprobrium in London, Shaw, like Yeats, supported him and tried to dissuade him from the libel case against Queensbury. But in writing about Wilde’s homosexuality, Shaw displayed ambivalence:  a conjunction of supportive broadmindedness, distance, and self-doubt. ‘My impulse to rally to him in this misfortune and my disgust at ‘the Man Wilde’ scurrilities of the newspapers was irresistible.’[41]

 

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.[42]

 

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.’[43] 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’.[44] 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 boys’.[45] 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’.[46] Wilde became a talisman for Behan, especially in Paris in the late 1940’s, when he was writing homoerotic prose and poetry. A 1949 poem, originally written in Irish, celebrates Wilde on his deathbed in Paris.

 

                    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.

 

Envoi.

 

  Delightful the path of sin

  But a holy death’s a habit.

  Good man yourself there, Oscar,

  Every way you had it. [47]

 

 

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 Tóibín's 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 London pushed his luck.[48] Moreover, Tóibín's 2004 novel about Henry James, The Master, the protagonist James—like Wilde an outsider in London, but unlike him, overwhelming careful to conceal his own homosexuality— muses with fascinated distaste on Wilde’s disgrace and imprisonment. Yet again, the discourse of Wilde the Irish rebel is sounded.

 

From the moment Henry had first seen him, even when he had met him in Washington in the house of Clover Adams, suggested deep levels and layers of hiddenness… He remembered something vague being told to him about Wilde’s parents, his mother’s madness or her revolutionary spirit, or both, and his father’s philandering or perhaps indeed his revolutionary spirit. Ireland, he supposed, was too small for someone like Wilde, yet he had always carried a threat of Ireland with him.[49]

 

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 Ireland, strategies were located for homosexuality to be rendered comprehensible and even marginally acceptable.

 

·        Dr Eibhear Walshe is a senior lecturer in the Department of Modern English at University College Cork. His research interests include modern Irish fiction, Munster writing, Irish drama and Irish Lesbian and Gay writing.  His biography Kate O’Brien A Writing Life was published by Irish Academic Press in 2006 and he is working on a study of Oscar Wilde and Ireland.   His other publications include the edited collections, Ordinary People Dancing: Essays on Kate O’Brien (Cork University Press 1993), Sex, Nation and Dissent, (Cork University Press: 1997) Elizabeth Bowen Remembered (Four Courts Press: 1999) and The Plays of Teresa Deevy (Mellen Press: 2003.)  He was the Burns Visiting Professor in Boston College in summer 2006.

 

 

 



[1] 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, Dublin for great help with my research.

[2] Alan Sinfield, ‘I see it is my name that terrified, Wilde in the Twentieth-Century,’ in Eiléan Ní Chuilleanáin, ed., The Wilde Legacy  (Dublin: Four Courts, 2003), 145.

[3] Margot Norris, ‘A Walk on the Wild (e) side,’ in Joseph Valente, ed., Quare Joyce. (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1998).19-33.

[4] 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.

[5] Leon Ó Broin. The Prime Informer. (London: Sidgwick and Jackson, 1971), 26.

[6] William O’Brien, Evening Memories (London: Maunsell, 1920), 31

[7] O’Brien, 21.

[8] Ó Broin. 28.

[9] See T.C.Breen ‘Loathsome, Impure and Revolting Crimes: The Dublin Scandals of 1884’, Identity. Issue 2: 1982.  4-9.

[10] See Breen. 6.

[11] See Breen, 8.

[12] Seamus Heaney, ‘Speranza in Reading Gaol’,’ The Redress of Poetry (Faber and Faber, London, 1995), 95.

[13] 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 (Dublin: Four Courts, 2003).

[14] Linda Dowling, Hellenism and Homosexuality in Victorian Oxford (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1994), 2.

[15] Oscar Wilde, The Collected Letters, ed. Rupert Hart-Davis and Merlin Holland (London: Fourth Estate, 2000.)   1019.

[16] See Ed Cohen, Talk on the Wilde Side (London: Routledge, 1993). Michael Foldy. The Wilde Trials. (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1997).

[17]  Cohen, 181.

[18] Declan Kiberd, Inventing Ireland (London; Jonathan Cape, 1995). 35-36.

[19] Oscar Wilde. The Soul of Man under Socialism. (Oxford: OUP, 1990), 23.

[20] Foldy, 70.

[21] Foldy, 150.

[22] See Noreen Doody, ‘An influential involvement: Wilde, Yeats and the French Symbolists,’ eds. Aaron Kelly/Alan.A Gillis, Critical Ireland. (Dublin: Four Courts, 2001) , 48-55.

[23] H. Montgomery Hyde.  The Wilde Trials.   255.

[24] Noreen Doody. ‘Oscar Wilde: Nation and Empire,’ ed. Frederick Roden,  Palgrave Advances in Oscar Wilde Studies (London: Palgrave, 2004)  257.

[25] Cohen. 190.

[26] The Freeman’s Journal, Monday 27th May 1895.

[27] Cohen  185

[28] The Freeman’s Journal, Monday 27th May 1895.

[29] The Freeman’s Journal, Monday 27th May 1895.

[30] The Freeman’s Journal, Monday 27th May 1895.

[31] 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. 

[32] Joyce, 204.

[33] Joyce, 204

[34] Joyce, 204..

[35] Joseph Valente, Joyce’s (sexual ) choices; A Historical Overview. From Quare Joyce op.cit 11.

[36] W.B. Yeats, Autobiographies (London: MacMillan, 1955), 285.

[37]  Yeats, 287.

[38]  Yeats 291

[39] See Eibhear Walshe, ‘Wilde’s Irish Biographers’’ in The Wildean, volume 21. July 2002. 15-27.

[40] Joseph Bristow, Effeminate England. (New York: Colombia, 1995), 26

[41] Quoted in Stanley Weintraub, The Playwright and the Pirate (Gerrards Cross: Colin Smythe, 1982), 33

[42] Quoted in Weintraub,  33.

[43]  Quoted in Weintraub, 37.

[44] Michael O’Sullivan, Brendan Behan: A Life (Dublin: Blackwater, 1997), 63.

[45] O’Sullivan , 139.

[46] O’Sullivan, 181

[47] O’Sullivan 150-151. Originally published Comhar 1949, trans Valentine Iremonger.

[48] Colm Tóibín, Love in a Dark Time, (London: Picador, 2002), 45, 86.

[49] Colm Tóibín, The Master (London, Picador, 2004), 71.

 

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