The impressive Independent House on Middle Abbey Street still carries the names of the Evening Herald and Irish Independent upon it, though today they are mere ‘ghost signs’, as the Independent Media group have relocated in recent years to Talbot Street. Easier to miss than the names of these contemporary newspapers is a small plaque marking the fact that the site was once home to the offices of The Nation, an influential nationalist newspaper that began life in the 1840s.
Instigated by the Young Ireland movement, and spearheaded by radical nationalists like Thomas Davis, William Smith O’Brien and John Mitchel, The Nation provided a platform not only to nationalist political ideas but to cultural output too. It was within its pages that ‘A Nation Once Again’ first appeared, the work of Thomas Davis. Women could contribute to the newspaper, and one such contributor was Jane Wilde. Writing under the pen-name ‘Speranza’, Lady Wilde’s poetry was often seditious in nature, calling for armed revolt against British rule in Ireland.In particular, she attacked the British political establishment for creating the conditions that allowed famine to ravage rural Ireland, and called the peasantry to revolt:
Fainting forms, hunger-striken,
what see you in the offing?
Stately ships to bear our food away,
amid the stranger’s scoffing.
From ‘The Famine Year’
As Christine Kinealy has written in her study Repeal and Revolution: 1848 in Ireland, Jane Wilde would come to be an inspiration to later generations of female nationalists, including Countess Markievicz and Alice Milligan, one of the leading-lights of the Irish Cultural Revival. At the time of Jane Wilde’s passing in 1896, Milligan wrote of her “matchless spirit which in a time of doubt, danger and despair, she brought to the service of Ireland.”
The Young Irelanders would ultimately attempt insurrection in 1848, in a year synonymous with revolution and revolt on the European continent. In a country ravaged by starvation and disease, any such rebellion was doomed. John Mitchel, one of the leaders of the movement, would later declare that “the Almighty, indeed, sent the potato blight, but the English created the Famine.”
Oscar Fingal O’Flahertie Wills Wilde was born in 1854 into a peculiar household, with a mother who was an unrepentant nationalist poet, and a father who had been knighted in the 1860s for pioneering work in his own field. Oscar would maintain that the best of his education came from his association with his parents and their remarkable friends, and their Merrion Square home was a hive of discussion and cultural activity.
As a graduate of Trinity College Dublin and Oxford, Oscar Wilde first burst into public consciousness as a poet (“The poet is Wilde, but his poetry’s tame” wrote Punch) and a hugely entertaining and engaging public speaker, a recognised figurehead of the aesthetic and decadent movements of the late 1870s and early 1880s. In 1882, Wilde departed for the United States on his first speaking tour there, quickly discovering that in many circles Speranza was a more recognisable public name than Oscar Wilde. Promoters began including mention of her on advertisements for Wilde’s lectures, and the Arizona Weekly Citizen condemned Oscar as being “so low that he does not scruple to advertise himself for a dollar a ticket as the son of Lady Wilde (Speranza)”.
It was clear to Wilde that some in the US perhaps wished to hear of things other than the aesthetic movement. In San Francisco, he delivered a lecture in which he praised the ‘men of forty-eight’, and the Young Ireland movement in which his mother had played her own unique part:
As regards those men of forty-eight, I look on their work with peculiar reverence and love, for I was indeed trained by my mother to love and reverence them, as a catholic child is the saints of the cathedral. The earliest hero of my childhood was Smith O’Brien, whom I remember well – tall and stately with a dignity of one who had fought for a noble idea and the sadness of one who had failed … John Mitchel, too, on his return to Ireland I saw, at my father’s table with his eagle eye and impassioned manner.
He praised The Nation ,though he avoided reading the poetry of his mother on the basis that “of the quality of Speranza’s poems I, perhaps, should not speak, for criticism is disarmed before love”.
The greatest of them all, and one of the best poets of this century in Europe was, I need not say, Thomas Davis. Born in the year 1814 at Mallow in County Cork, before he was thirty years of age, he and the other young men of The Nation newspaper had, to use Father Burke’s eloquent words, created ‘by sheer power of the Irish intellect, by sheer strength of Irish genius, a national poetry and a national literature which no other nation can equal.’
Oscar Wilde would rarely return to the subject of his mother and the Young Irelanders, indeed, it was perhaps an attempt by a new and emerging public figure (albeit one around which there was enormous fascination, which the Arizona Weekly Citizen termed “Wilde Mania”) to win audiences by speaking of a subject he knew held emotional pull among Irish America. As editor of The Woman’s World magazine in the late 1880s however, he would provide a space to those sympathetic to the cause of Ireland, indicating that his sense of nationalism remained. In January 1889, he reprinted an address by the political activist Margaret Sandhurst, in which she asked:
Have we, from first to last, ever made a persistent effort to govern Ireland for her good? Have we given up anything for her?….Can it be right to tyrannise over any nation committed to our charge?
When Speranza’s first collection of poetry was published, she dedicated it to Oscar and his brother Willie, boasting that “I made them indeed, speak plain the word COUNTRY. I thought them, no doubt, that a country’s a thing men should die for at need!” Oscar would honour his parents in ‘De Profundis’, writing that “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.”
As Matthew Skwiat has noted, “many would argue that Wilde is more English than Irish, that none of his plays were set in Ireland, and that his success derived from his time spent in England.” Yet the strength of his mother, and her convictions, played no small part in molding Oscar Wilde long before he emerged as a household name on the neighbouring island and beyond. Today, Oscar Wilde’s Merrion Square home boasts a plaque in his honour and another dedicated to the memory of his father, Sir William Wilde. It is perhaps time Speranza was remembered there too.