St. Patrick’s Day is just a mere 2 days away and we though we’d take this opportunity to let you in on a few little known facts about one of Ireland’s most famous writers—Oscar Wilde. You thought he was British? Well, that just goes to show you’ve got lots to learn about this son of Ireland! Happy St. Patty’s Day!
1. ‘Oscar’ is the best-known ‘Wilde’
True, but unfairly so. His father, Sir William, was a remarkable Dublin doctor whose medical work on the 1851 and 1861 censuses earned him his knighthood, and is still referred to today as essential source material for 19th century Irish history. Sir William also published important contributions to the study of Celtic antiquities and Irish folklore. Oscar’s mother, Jane, was a prominent Irish Nationalist and poet who was nearly imprisoned for her inflammatory anti-English writing in 1848. As Oscar would write from prison in 1897: “She and my father had bequeathed 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.”
2. He coasted through university, with a reputation for langorousness and a love of lilies
Oscar was certainly influenced by the aesthetic theories of John Ruskin and Walter Pater while at Oxford, and he adopted the pose of an effete young man, but he went up as a scholar to Magdalen and came down with a double first in classics and the Newdigate prize for poetry. This took considerable application as his contemporaries later testified and his surviving Oxford notebooks demonstrate.
3. Being Irish was just an accident of birth, he was an English author, surely?
In the sense that The Importance of Being Earnest and Lady Winderemere’s Fan are archetypically ‘English’ plays – perhaps; but there is a profound Irishness underlying much of what Oscar wrote and thought, especially in his correspondence. He may have remarked that the first thing he forgot at Oxford was his Irish accent, but when his play Salomé was banned he openly accused the English of being narrow-minded saying, “I am not English; I’m Irish which is quite another thing.”
4. ‘Earnest’ was a code-word for ‘gay’ and wearing a green carnation was a ‘secret’ sign of homosexuality
Both explanations seem to have been conveniently invented years later with little or no foundation in fact. ‘Earnest’ was supposedly a corruption of ‘Uraniste’ or one who practices Uranian or homosexual love, and the green carnation was said to be the badge of Parisian pederasts. If either had been true, Edward Carson, the Marquess of Queensberry’s defense lawyer in the libel trial, would certainly have pinpointed them, as he did the overtly gay passages in the magazine publication of The Picture of Dorian Gray (which were later suppressed in the book.)
5. Oscar Wilde’s arrest was delayed by several hours to allow him to catch the last boat-train and escape to the continent
When Oscar’s libel action against Queensberry collapsed, Queensberry’s lawyers sent all their papers to the director of public prosecutions, who consulted the solicitor-general and the home secretary and then immediately applied to the magistrates for a warrant. Oscar was arrested at 6.20pm, though there were still four more trains to Paris that night. He was then twice prosecuted by the crown. The jury failed to agree on the first occasion, and the crown, though not obliged to do so, tried him again – hardly the action of a government anxious to see him escape.
6. Once Oscar Wilde was arrested, tried and imprisoned, Lord Alfred Douglas, who essentially got him into the mess, abandoned him
‘Bosie’ Douglas, in a devoted but often muddle-headed way, was remarkably supportive when the crash came. He visited Oscar on remand in Holloway every day and only went to France before the first trial at the insistence of his brother and Oscar’s lawyers. After Oscar’s conviction he wrote a defense of their love for a French journal, which would have done more harm than good, and was never published. He also helped Oscar financially after his release from prison.
7. Oscar Wilde died of syphilis
This is an old canard which has been doing the rounds for nearly a century, and was lately championed on the flimsiest of evidence by his best modern biographer, Richard Ellmann. Killing Oscar off with the classic ‘disease of the decadents’ has always seemed a suitably sensational way of rounding off a sensational life, but modern medical opinion agrees almost universally that it was an ear infection and meningitis which did for him in the end.