Oscar’s Shadow: Wilde, Homosexuality and Modern Ireland, by Éibhear Walshe, Cork University Press, €39.00, ISBN: 978-1859184837
One of the central claims in Oscar’s Shadow is that, “after the creation of the New Ireland”, those who had championed Wilde “were somehow liminal to that Ireland”. As a result, under the new dispensation, “Wilde is never part of mainstream Irish cultural discourse – those who do cite him do so from a point of view of distance or marginality, either sexually or culturally”. The one exception allowed to this large exclusion is Daniel Corkery who, two years after the securing of independence, drew upon a passage from De Profundis in his first major critical work, The Hidden Ireland. The passage which attracted Corkery’s admiring attention, and which he used in support of his polemic against Renaissance classicism, was that in which Wilde celebrated “Christ’s own Renaissance”, exemplified in “the Cathedral at Chartres, the Arthurian cycle of legends, the Life of St. Francis of Assisi, the art of Giotto, and Dante’s Divine Comedy”. While Éibhear Walshe believes that Wilde’s appearance in The Hidden Ireland was something of an exception, there is much to suggest that he was a figure of considerable interest to intellectuals of Corkery’s generation.
Two years before the publication of The Hidden Ireland, Wilde provided the subject for a series of sympathetic reflections by Arthur Clery in the Jesuit journal Studies. Clery, a popular lecturer in University College Dublin, who also served as a judge in the Sinn Féin courts during the 1919-21 period, was, like Corkery, a major nationalist publicist and intellectual. He was a man of strong and at times unconventional intelligence; he was, for example, one of the few voices during that period to argue that the Protestant community of northeast Ulster was a separate national grouping, which could not be browbeaten or beguiled into an independent Irish state. Clery was far from endorsing Wilde – in an intriguing speculation he suggested that “an over-dose of patriotism in his Merrion Square home had something to do with the sinister frivolity” of his outlook; nonetheless he regarded him as a significant, contrarian intelligence. From his own Catholic perspective, he saw Wilde as an enemy of Victorian materialism who, by means of paradox, sought to undermine the great nineteenth century commonplaces, those misapprehensions of the nature of the world which seemed so obvious and were yet untrue. “It must,” Clery reflected, “have been a sense of this underlying falsehood in so much popular truth that led Wilde to attack platitude with the weapon of paradox, a weapon which was to gain for him before his fall the intellectual supremacy which I, for one, am old enough to remember.”
As these reflections may suggest, Clery was a man of broad human sympathies. In the same issue of Studies in which he viewed Wilde from such an unexpected angle, he discussed Hillaire Belloc’s recently published anti-Semitic work The Jews. Although otherwise an admirer of the author, he maintained that “Mr. Belloc’s The Jews is the wickedest book that has been written against the Jews for a long time” and was emphatic in rejecting Belloc’s contention that “the Jew is of necessity an alien”. Although differing from him in so many ways, in this Clery resembled Wilde, who included Jews among his closest friends and one of whose last utterances, shortly before his death, when his mind was wandering, was a strangely touching reference to them.
Éibhear Walshe describes Daniel Corkery – somewhat oddly in view of the range of European imaginings and artifacts which he evidently admired – as an opponent of “foreign or ‘un-Irish’ art”. This is an assertion which requires considerable qualification. One of the more frequently encountered aspirations in early twentieth century Ireland, shared by many of Corkery’s contemporaries, was that Ireland should reconnect intellectually with Europe, seen as a primary source of its deep identity. To implement this strategy, it was felt necessary that local perceptions of the world cease to be received via a British filter, and that Ireland bypass London, viewed as articulate, domineering and materialistic, in order to rediscover the European dimension of its intellectual life. In the view of Pádraic Ó Conaire, familiarity with Europe had the effect of making the world more various, by reminding reader and writer alike that there existed a mind other than the British mind, and a way of life other than that with which they were familiar. (“Cuirfeadh sé i gcéill dóibh beirt go bhfuil aigne nach Briotánach ann agus go bhfuil saol ann seacas an saol atá ar aithne acu cheanna.”)
It was against the background of such ideas that Clery was prepared to enlist Wilde as an ally, and if not quite willing to endorse his literary mischief was able to find much that was agreeable in his playful deconstruction of Victorian certainties. Corkery for his part, although presented by Éibhear Walshe as the partisan of a narrow and utopian cultural vision, had a distinctly European dimension to his thought, arguing that Irish writers should avoid provincialism and be willing to learn from masters such as Pushkin, Lermontov and Gogol. Both men’s use of Wilde were not casual citations, but, when probed, emerge as embedded in their thought and related to some of their central concerns.
There were other critical-cum-polemical interventions during those years, which call into question the view of Wilde as excluded from the main currents of Irish debate. One of the most astonishing of these was the article entitled “An tSaoirse – Sglábhuíocht Aigne in Éireann” (Freedom – Intellectual Slavery in Ireland), which the twenty-one-year-old Micheál Mac Liammóir contributed to the Gaelic League weekly Misneach in December 1920. In this, the newly-minted Gael, displaying an impressive command of Irish for one who had arrived in the country in 1917, argued with passion and conviction that artistic creation should be as free in Ireland as in France, and that the writer or painter should not be subject to church or state control. Although the author appropriated Parnell’s famous phrase regarding “the march of a nation”, which in an adroit twist he applied to the arts, the unavowed but presiding spirit in his article was that of Wilde. The young Mac Liammóir had evidently interiorised a Wildean view of the arts, arguing in language resonant of The Picture of Dorian Gray that, if a creative work is to be condemned, this cannot be on the grounds that it is obscure, but only because it is defective aesthetically, because poorly written, or because the use of colour and line is not as beautiful as might be. (“Ma tá sí le damnú chór ar bith caithfear a damnú ar an ábhar nach ealadhain í, ar an ábhar nach bhfuil sí sgríobhtha go maith, nó nach bhfuil a cuid dathann is línte chó hálúinn is ba cheart.”) The Misneach article appeared at the height of the Anglo-Irish war, when there was a widespread expectation that the coming of independence would result in a new flourishing of writing in Irish. It was in this context that Mac Liammóir made his only reference to Wilde: what, he asked, was the point in prattling on about a new Irish language poetry, if we raise pious eyes in horror at any mention of Whitman, Baudelaire, or Wilde?
The author of the Misneach article was a young man with an intense commitment to the life of the mind, in its European modernist dimension, and to a newly discovered Gaelic linguistic and imaginative realm, who had become aware of a potential dissonance between these commitments. His high-spirited attempt to bring the two into an amiable relationship elicited two responses, both of which were negative, one from the language revivalist Ernest Joynt and one from an unnamed Capuchin priest. The latter had no doubt as to the import of Mac Liammóir’s views. Artists, the priest maintained, were, like everyone else, obliged to obey the Ten Commandments, to which he added that, “An focal damanta úd, ‘an ealadha ar son na h-ealadhna féin’ níor choir go n-aireochfaí in Éirinn go brách é” (“That damnable term ‘art for art’s sake’ should never be heard in Ireland”). These responses suggest that Wilde’s provocations, as mediated by Mac Liammóir, retained their ability, so evident in the 1890s, to unsettle familiar ideas regarding the relationship between morality and art. Mac Liammóir responded to his critics in a second article entitled “Saoirse na hEaladhna” (Freedom of the Arts), in which his debt to Wilde became explicit. This began with a quotation from the preface to Dorian Gray: “‘No artist has ethical sympathies’, duairt Wilde uair. ‘An ethical sympathy in an artist is an unpardonable mannerism of style.’” In developing this idea Mac Liammóir showed himself an accomplished dialectician as, following some tactical concessions to his opponents, he suggested that Wilde’s dictum could stand if the term “art” were substituted for “artist”. From this starting point he went on to argue that art constituted a separate sphere, subject to its own internal laws and standards, and did not belong to the domain of piety, politics or war.
Éibhear Walshe suggests that the Gaelicised Mac Liammóir persona emerged at the time of his meeting with Hilton Edwards in 1927. In fact, as is clear from the Misneach articles, it was already in place as early as 1920. His interests and allegiances during these years are suggested when in 1924 we find him writing on Pushkin, Turgenev and Chekhov in an essay entitled “Triúr Scíbhneoirí i Nualitríocht na Rúise”. There seems little doubt that the young Mac Liammóir’s ideas were congenial to the editor of Misneach, Piaras Béaslaí. The latter was a man of wide interests who, as an editor, member of the Gaelic League, political activist, and writer across a range of Irish language genres, was closely involved in Irish political and cultural affairs in the early decades of the twentieth century. Like a number of other figures who feature in the history of Wilde’s Irish reception, Béaslaí served time in English jails, having taken part in fighting in Dublin in 1916. As an editor he was strongly of the view that a revived literature in the Irish language had to embrace the contemporary and the urban and that a cleaving to the norms of the Irish-speaking districts was not sufficient. Wilde’s view of the role of the artist, in Mac Liammóir’s redaction, was evidently felt to be compatible with this vision.
In the early twentieth century Béaslaí, then working as a journalist, met the young James Joyce in the office of the Dublin Evening Telegraph, and later came to believe that traces of these encounters could be discerned in the Aeolus episode of Ulysses. It fell to another figure from those years, PS O’Hegarty, to be the first Irish commentator to proclaim the greatness of Joyce’s novel. O’Hegarty was an individual of similar profile to Béaslaí; both were deeply interested in literature, committed to the revival of Irish, and members of the Irish Republican Brotherhood who were close to Michael Collins. O’Hegarty was a person of liberal views, for whom Wilde and the other major Anglo-Irish writers acted as touchstones of the breadth of the Irish canon. During the civil war he edited the pro-Free State weekly The Separatist. In September 1922, at the height of the war – each issue carried on its cover a statement that the contents had been passed by the military censor – and when the journal was still mourning the death of Collins, O’Hegarty found time to greet the publication of Ulysses. He was in no doubt as to Joyce’s achievement, hailing the novel’s stylistic dislocation of “the old decorous, staid mould of English prose”, its “ability to make artistic material out of the commonest of vulgarities”, the accomplishment of particular episodes – Paddy Dignam’s funeral and Molly Bloom’s soliloquy were particularly admired – and its astonishing sense of place. While maintaining that Joyce “had put into Ulysses not a story merely, but an epoch, the comedy and tragedy of many lives, and the people of his own generation”, O’Hegarty conceded that this was likely to be a minority view. It was in this context that Wilde was invoked:
Ireland at present will probably not love Mr. Joyce. But Mr. Joyce has done her honour. No Englishman could have written this book, even if one of them had wit enough to conceive the plan of it. Ireland, Dublin is all over it, its idiom, its people, its streets, its ways, its atmosphere, and its intellectual daring. Wilde, Shaw, Moore, Synge, Joyce! Could a country provide five artists of this caliber, with certain common intellectual attitudes, if these did not really represent the mind of the country?
A decade later Wilde featured in a significant contribution made by O’Hegarty to the debate which followed the publication of Daniel Corkery’s Synge and Anglo-Irish Literature. In his opening chapter Corkery advanced a powerful argument for the radical inauthenticity of much Irish writing in English, suggesting that this body of work did not arise out of the circumstances of Irish life, including the normal relationship between writer and reader, but rather reflected conventions, expectations and needs that had their origin in Ireland’s colonial relationship to England. Although there can be few readers of nineteenth century Irish fiction for whom Corkery’s strictures do not from time to time sound uneasily in their ears, the circumstances which he deplored were those of Irish life under the Union, including those of Irish literary production, so that the logic of his position would have been to leave Irish readers with rather little to read. The potential influence of Corkery’s insights was undermined by their schematised and excessively logical character, lack of feeling for the ambiguities of Irish experience and of generosity towards those who did not meet his criteria, a prescriptive approach to writing, and by a failure to come to any terms, other than rejection, with the actual course of Irish history. Although there was much that he saw clearly, his reading of Irish literature had as its background a desire to reverse that which, of its nature, could not be undone.
O’Hegarty’s sense of what constituted Irish writing was of a radically different order to Corkery’s. It was in the context of his view of Irish literature as literature written by Irish people in either language, irrespective of their origin or allegiance, that Wilde once more was invoked:
I throw the net wide, then. I claim as Irish literature Molyneux, and Swift, and all those from Maria Edgeworth down to O’Casey, whom Mr. Corkery abolishes, and I claim as Irishmen of Letters Scotus Erigena, and Berkeley, and Sterne, and Hamilton, and Wilde, and a multitude of others. I deny in toto Mr. Corkery’s theories and propositions, explicit and implicit.
Corkery, Clery, Mac Liammóir and O’Hegarty were, in their different ways, highly purposeful in their approach to Wilde, with each invoking him as part of a larger argument. A more relaxed response, in which the encounter with Wilde forms part of life’s daily fabric, may be found in the writings of Austin Clarke. In his autobiography, Twice Around the Black Church, Clarke tells of his astonishment when, after a childhood passed amid the streets and laneways of early twentieth century northside Dublin, he saw for the first time “the newness of the suburban avenues and groves on the south side of the city”. So unfamiliar was this sylvan world that when he read in De Profundis of the author’s first day out of prison, “I fancied that Oscar Wilde was writing of that lasting springtime”.
We can glimpse how Wilde featured in the conversation of Irish poets in an exchange of the 1930s between Clarke and George Russell. The latter had just completed a long narrative poem entitled “The Dark Lady”, and asked the younger man whether he was interested in Shakespeare’s sonnets. Clarke replied, “Not very much though I think Wilde’s theory in ‘The Portrait of Mr. W.H.’ is probably the right one. I’ve always fancied that it was this essay that brought him under suspicion for the first time.” Some years earlier Clarke had found himself working as a journalist in London on one of TP O’Connor’s newspapers. He recalled how, together with fellow writers Con O’Leary and Caradoc Williams,
we adjourned every day during the lunch hour to a wine cellar at Ludgate Circus. The manager, a quiet, elderly little man, told us one day that, when he was a young serving lad there, Oscar Wilde used to come over from La Belle Sauvage, where he was editing Woman’s World. He sat at the counter at one of the high stools and occasionally, when he was paying for drinks, he tucked a half-crown in his trouser crease – “the side on which he dressed”, explained the manager in his staid manner. Half a crown was a large sum in 1888 and if the youth removed the coin the Irish poet told him to keep it.
This strange reminiscence suggests how stories about Wilde lingered in 1920s literary London and points to the continuing interest in him on the part of his fellow countrymen. During his London years Clarke met a number of survivors of the 1890s generation. The most melancholy of these encounters was with Anna Comtesse de Brémont, a friend of Lady Wilde and an enthusiastic, if at times somewhat self-engrossed, memorialist of Speranza and her son. Clarke tells how, at an art exhibition in Chelsea, he was introduced to “a thin elderly lady who talked to me tenderly of her old friend Oscar Wilde. As we swayed towards each other, I realized that she was as drunk as I was. Unfortunately, I forgot at once the anecdotes that she related to me. Three weeks later, she was found dead in her lodgings: according to the Coroner, her death was due to semi-starvation.”
Far from being excluded from Irish cultural discourse, Wilde had a place in a number of significant debates during a crucial period in the shaping of the new state. Those who invoked him ranged across the spectrum of ideas and sentiments found in Ireland at that time. Clery and Corkery were not only republicans, but both contributed to DP Moran’s The Leader and would have shared some concerns with that grim nativist. Béaslaí and O’Hegarty were prominent supporters of the Free State, who as members of the Irish Republican Brotherhood had been exposed to the anti-clericalist current within that body, and could broadly be placed at the liberal end of Irish opinion. Austin Clarke was a man of strongly liberal disposition, who had been a republican sympathiser during the civil war. As a Dubliner he was beguiled by the imaginative richness of the rediscovered Gaelic literary corpus and, as one of the most exciting poets of the post-Yeats generation, aspired to bring something of the verbal music of Irish into English. Mac Liammóir, for his part, was a wonderful exotic, who brought extraordinary gifts to his adopted country.
The place of publication of the various interventions in which Wilde figured does not support a view of him as a marginal figure. Studies, in which Arthur Clery’s essay appeared in December 1922, was a journal which could, with only slight licence, be described as the house organ of the National University of Ireland intelligentsia. The Hidden Ireland, in which Corkery sought to enlist Wilde as an ally, was a work of huge influence, which was read by almost everyone interested in Irish language and literature during the period from the 1920s to the 1950s. Misneach was the organ of the Gaelic League at a time when it was still a significant, if declining, force within Irish life. One of the negative consequences of the marginalising of the Irish language at an institutional level within Irish society, and its lack of public weight, was its failure to develop vocabularies capable of handling wide areas of modern thought. Micheál Mac Liammóir’s contributions to Misneach had as their background the attempt by the editor, Piaras Béaslaí, to coax from the resources of the language a terminology which would make literary criticism in Irish possible. Mac Liammóir’s bringing to bear of Wilde’s ideas on Irish circumstances was part of an ambitious undertaking which, had Irish proved as fortunate as (say) Slovak or Finnish, would have been an significant chapter in our intellectual history rather than a half-forgotten enterprise. PS O’Hegarty, for his part, was a person of some consequence. As secretary of the Department of Posts and Telegraphs from 1923 until 1945 he had an important influence on the creation of Irish radio and thus upon the cultural policy of the new state. The historian of Irish broadcasting credits him with giving “a lively and literate character” to Radio Éireann.
There are indications that the enthusiasm for Wilde shared by Michael Collins and his contemporaries carried forward to the next generation of young people intent on discovering the pleasures of literature. Eiléan Ní Chuilleanáin records that her first introduction to the writer was when she came across a notebook from the schooldays of her mother, the novelist Eilís Dillon, in which, some time in the 1930s, she had copied out the whole of “The Ballad of Reading Gaol”. Eiléan Ní Chuilleanáin was not surprised that her mother should have done so and linked her responsiveness to the poem to the aesthetic tastes of her generation and the political history of her own family. Eilís Dillon’s grandfather, George Noble Count Plunkett, was a leading member of the First Dáil, her uncle, Joseph Plunkett, was a signatory of the 1916 proclamation who was executed following the Rising, while her father and two uncles spent time in British jails during the 1916-21 period. The themes of the Wilde poem had obvious resonances within the Plunkett-Dillon family, an affinity which can only have been reinforced by George Plunkett’s friendship with Oscar Wilde when both were students at Trinity.
An attitude of friendly curiosity towards Wilde seems to have persisted among cultural nationalists of Eilís Dillon’s generation. In July 1948 the novelist, autobiographer and journalist Tarlach Ó hÚid published an article in the Irish language magazine An tUltach which recapitulated a number of themes from earlier responses to Wilde, suggesting that these may have been representative. Like Tim Healy and DJ O’Donoghue, he viewed Wilde against the background of the life and achievements of his mother. The approach adopted was almost genealogical; he had recently seen a photograph of Wilde and remarked that he had the long oval face of the O’Flaherties (“agus anois, ó smointím air, bhí aghaidh fhada ubhchrotach Clann Fhlaitbheartaigh air”). Like others we have encountered, Ó hÚid had served time in jail – as a member of the IRA he had spent the war years in prison in Northern Ireland – which may explain why the first work of Wilde’s to draw his attention should have been “The Ballad of Reading Gaol”. Like the elderly cabdriver in Merrion Square, Ó hÚid speculated that if Wilde had stayed in Ireland he would have escaped jail and that, rather than his name becoming “a byword among the English rabble”, he might have contributed to the Literary Revival and the foundation of the Gaelic League. Ó hÚid went on to endorse a significant strand in Micheál Mac Liammóir’s polemic of 1920, proposing that there should be no privileging of the native because of local origin and that aesthetic criteria were independent of ethnicity. Wilde, he argued, had loved beauty, and would never have endorsed something of low quality merely because it was Gaelic, or rejected something wonderful because it was foreign. He concluded, echoing Joyce’s enthusiasm, by singling out for praise the beauty and terror of The Picture of Dorian Grey. In his view anyone unfamiliar with this work did not know Wilde.
In common with other Irish commentators, Wilde’s homosexuality was not a subject which greatly interested Ó hÚid. In adverting briefly to it, he adopted a tactic shared by a number of Wilde’s earliest apologists, and indeed Wilde himself in extremis, of seeking to circumvent condemnation by suggesting that his behaviour arose from mental or spiritual illness. Although as a tactic this has obvious limitations, it was plainly well-intentioned in its attempt to deflect criticism on the part of the hostile or moralistic by placing a cordon sanitaire around one aspect of Wilde’s life.
Three years after Ó hÚid’s generous response another Ulster writer assessed Wilde in far less kindly terms. St John Ervine’s biography of 1951 is notable for its lack of sympathy with Irish society, with Wilde’s parents, and with Wilde himself. The latter, Ervine announced, in an outburst of bleak Calvinism, “was damned on the day that he was born and would have done better to have died in childhood as his sister Isola did”. The author of these strange sentiments, a robust defender of local arrangements in Northern Ireland and uncritical biographer of Sir James Craig, was one whose political and personal journey – he had an unhappy period as manager of the Abbey Theatre, was appalled at the 1916 Rising and, having abandoned previously held pro-Home Rule views, enlisted in the British army and lost a leg in the First World War, as a result of which he was left in permanent pain – led him in later life to entertain feelings approaching hatred for the independent Irish state. Wilde, he opined, was “a tainted wether of the flock”, a man of little talent who, having taken such gifts as God had given him, dropped them in the mire and earned the wages of sin. Ervine’s biography is unique in accounts of Wilde in its malice and destructiveness.
Translation of a writer’s work, like its representation on stage, is an interpretive act which has a potential to be an act of love. Over three issues in February-March 1950 the Irish Press carried an Irish language adaptation of “The Selfish Giant” by C.D. The most likely candidate as translator is Cearbhall Ó Dálaigh, a Fianna Fáil supporter of literary and scholarly interests, who for many years was Irish language editor of the Press, as well as being an enthusiastic amateur actor. Ó Dálaigh was later a notably liberal chief justice, before becoming president of Ireland. Wilde’s appearance in the main nationalist newspaper of that time – the other leading daily, the Irish Independent, combined respectability with clericalism and was less likely to have found room for Wilde in its pages – was an act of immense friendliness which, although obviously different in scope, was arguably of the same kind as his inclusion decades earlier in Justin McCarthy’s Irish Literature.
Two further actions of a friendly kind took place in 1954 when, to mark the hundredth anniversary of Wilde’s birth, plaques were erected at his birthplace in Westland Row and at his London home in Tite Street. The Dublin plaque was a private initiative by admirers, which was paid for by subscription by members of the public, including a future minister of education, Donogh O’Malley. It was unveiled by the dramatist and long-serving Abbey Theatre manager Lennox Robinson, who in his speech stated that he wished to “emphatically claim Wilde as a great Irish writer”. Although not officially sponsored, the plaque, as can still be seen, commemorates Wilde in both English and Irish. By 1954, although the realisation that Irish was not going to be revived must have dawned, there remained a widespread desire that the language be given an honoured place in the public sphere. The memorialising of Wilde in a language which he did not speak, and in which he displayed no interest, could be seen as a well-meaning, if perhaps inept, signal that he formed part of the national community as understood at that time. The London unveiling was marked by a similarly unambiguous signal, being attended by the Irish ambassador.
Wilde was sent to jail for behaviour which, while it might be tolerated in an inexplicit and unacknowledged way, was formally disapproved of at levels extending from the conventionally inclined majority to a minority whose feelings were of a more intense kind. It would be misleading to pretend that such disapproval did not find voice. Éibhear Walshe reports that in 1923, when Alla Nazimova’s version of Salomé was shown in Dublin, Dublin Corporation plastered over Wilde’s name on posters advertising the film. In 1930 Robert Donovan, former chairman of the Committee on Evil Literature and a spectacularly unproductive Professor of English at University College Dublin, vetoed a proposed production of The Importance of Being Ernest on the grounds that it would not be appropriate “to have the students go all out under the banner of Oscar Wilde”. (Then and subsequently the banning of events and guest speakers – including Micheál Mac Liammóir and Brendan Behan during the presidency of Michael Tierney – was part of the mode of governance in UCD.) The unveiling of the plaque in Westland Row in 1954 is reported by Mac Liammóir’s biographer to have provoked letters of protest to the editor of the Dublin Evening Mail. Such responses must be set against evidence pointing to a lively and benevolent interest in Wilde across wide sections of Irish society over a long period, extending from former republican internees to members of the state’s diplomatic corps. Salomé, after all, was screened and the plaque unveiled, while it may be more significant that UCD students wanted to produce Wilde, than that their professor would not allow them to do so. There is much to suggest that the claim Wilde was silenced and excluded from Irish society and its discourse is the product, not of observation of that society, but of a pre-existing hypothesis regarding its character.
It may be worth adding, if only as a footnote, that a very different spirit was in evidence at the Dublin and London ceremonies. Irish observers at Tite Street were struck at the solemnity which prevailed at a commemoration of such an amusing figure as Wilde. As an Irish Times reporter noted, the only humour on the occasion was at the dinner which followed the unveiling, when Wilde’s birth in Ireland provided those present with an occasion for telling Irish jokes. The English taste for such merriment had been noted by an earlier reader of Wilde. As Michael Collins, attempting to make sense of English attitudes, told Dáil Éireann on January 10th, 1922:
I know very well that the people of England had very little regard for the people of Ireland, and that when you lived among them you had to be defending yourself constantly from insults … Every man that has lived among them knows that they are always making jokes about Paddy and the pig, and that sort of thing.
It is to be hoped that the Irish ambassador was not a guest at the 1954 dinner.
Europe during the first half of the twentieth century was a highly ideological place. The impulse to view the world in ideological terms was not confined to countries which took the totalitarian route, but can also be encountered in states which retained parliamentary forms of government. Ireland too felt this impulse even though, in comparison with hatreds between Catholics and laïcs, and later between right and left, which marked Third Republic France, or the wave of mass emotion with which English opinion greeted the outbreak of the First World War and the frenzy for revenge which marked its conclusion, Irish enthusiasms during this period seem comparatively mild. Although the desire to make the world anew, experienced over several decades in early twentieth century Ireland, was largely articulated in democratic terms, Ireland too experienced its own moments of overstatement and confusion, so characteristic of this era of excessive aspirations and unrealisable dreams.
In contemplating the European scene it is tempting to claim that, like unhappy families, each country was confused in its own way. In the case of Irish public culture, one area of particular confusion was the status of literature written in the English and Irish languages and the relationship of each with Irish society. Among those who combined coercive instincts with a simplified reading of the Irish script, these concerns gave rise to an overprivileging of the Irish language, mean-spirited attitudes towards Irish literature in English, particularly when produced under Anglo-Irish auspices, and, through the activities of the state Censorship Board, a destructive assault on Irish fiction. As is clear in retrospect, the cultural nationalist vision, although experienced by many as enabling and a source of creativity, had a dimension which was abstract and authoritarian and which, as the decades passed, found itself increasingly out of touch with sections of Irish life.
Like other societies during that period, Ireland possessed its ideologues and enforcers. These included figures such as DP Moran, the villain of Conor Cruise O’Brien’s Ancestral Voices, and Father Timothy Corcoran SJ, who occupies a comparable role in chapter two of Terence Brown’s Ireland: A Social and Cultural History 1922-2002. Both Moran and Corcoran were hostile to Anglo-Irish literature, which they professed to find esoteric and decadent, and which they found particularly unbearable when encountered via Yeatsian transformations of the Irish mythos. It is curious that, although he might have been invoked to support their case, Wilde did not feature in the denunciatory language of either individual. The only occasion, to the best of my knowledge, in which Wilde made an appearance within the discursive tradition represented by Moran and Corcoran was during the debate in the Irish Senate in November/December 1942 on the workings of the Censorship Board. On this occasion the voice of authoritarian Ireland was represented by the Chairman of the Board, Professor William Magennis. The debate, which attained a certain notoriety, was provoked by the banning of Kate O’Brien’s novel The Land of Spices and Eric Cross’s lively, and intermittently bawdy – the term Rabelaisian was widely used – folklore collection The Tailor and Ansty. In defending the record of the Censorship Board, Magennis brought a mixture of coercive piety and populist enthusiasm to his assault on the “low, vulgar, obscene, blasphemous” Tailor and Ansty and “the sodomy book” (The Land of Spices). His interventions were so littered with the noun “sodomy” as to lead his chief opponent, Sir John Keane, to comment, in one of the debate’s rare moments of gentleness, “I hate the word.” It was against this background that Magennis remarked ominously: “Some of us are old enough to remember the awful tragedy of Oscar Wilde who suffered penal servitude from the judgment of a British court.”
Magennis’s phrasing echoed that of Arthur Clery two decades earlier, but its import was significantly different and indeed, as he was explicit in supporting “prosecution for homosexuality”, the logic of his position was approval of Wilde’s prison sentence. Although he was Professor of Metaphysics in University College Dublin, his Senate interventions suggest a man of disorganised and unsubtle mind, and he strikes one as a considerably less intelligent figure than Clery. His naive understanding of literature and coercive majoritarianism nonetheless commanded overwhelming support among his Senate colleagues – extending from Patrick Pearse’s sister Margaret to Desmond FitzGerald, who had been in the General Post Office with Pearse – thus underscoring the limited vision of some of the founders of the Irish state. Michael Tierney, the future president of UCD, who was rumoured to have been a rakish youth and who had encountered stories of the kind found in The Tailor and Ansty at the firesides of his native Co Galway, absented himself from the vote.
The view of the relationship between literature and society set out by Professor Magennis in such emphatic terms was the opposite of that proposed by Micheál Mac Liammóir in his article of 1920. It is not perhaps surprising that many of those we have encountered in this essay were unhappy with the strain in Irish life which Magennis represented. Hostility to literary censorship was registered in the pages of the Dublin Magazine, with which PS O’Hegarty was closely associated. In 1936 Piaras Béaslaí wrote in his diary that it had been easier to fight the British than to tackle the problem of clericalism in “this priest-ridden country”. In his opinion, “The one big evil in Ireland today which is ruining, rotting the heart out of the country, is sacerdotalism. To free the nation from the yoke of pseudo-theocratic domination … that indeed would be a great and heroic service.” In middle age Austin Clarke abandoned the Gaelic romanesque of his earlier poetry for the contemporary scene, transforming himself into a satirist whose themes were the power of the church, the timorousness of the state, and the follies and small cruelties of both. The dissent of figures such as O’Hegarty, Béaslaí, Clarke and (by implication) Mac Liammóir suggests that the history of Wilde’s reception may contain a clue to the character of the age. Because they were so strident, there is no difficulty in locating voices in Ireland from the 1920s to the 50s which favoured uniformity but, to judge by what we have seen of responses to Wilde, the society on which they urged these views was far from being characterised by monoglossia.
GM Young described his approach to Victorian England as “to go on reading until I can hear the people talking”. At the time he made this remark, Young was closer to the era of Victoria than we are to that of de Valera. His approach has an obvious local relevance, as the Ireland of the first half of the twentieth century recedes and the generation which knew that world and retained an ability to enter into its concerns leaves the stage. To judge by the cartoon-like terms in which pre-1960s Ireland is increasingly presented, it is the loudest and most unattractive voices from that period that are increasingly attracting attention. The history of Wilde’s reception, which was predominantly thoughtful and sympathetic, provides a miniature case history in which we can discern something of the values and priorities of a cluster of representative Irish figures over several decades. This suggests that zealots with megaphones like Moran, Corcoran and Magennis did not exhaust the possibilities of that society and that we need to listen more attentively, and to a wider range of voices, if we are to gain some sense of inwardness with a world that is so close and yet becoming so unfamiliar.
For a young woman like Eilís Dillon growing up in the 1930s, who came from a family deeply involved in Irish language theatre, familiarity with Wilde’s writings would have been reinforced by seeing his works on stage. Encountering Wilde in live performance would not have been too difficult, as there were regular productions of his works – including The Importance of Being Earnest in the Abbey in 1926 and in the Gate in 1933 and an Edwards and Mac Liammóir Salomé in 1928 – during a period when he is supposed to have been shunted to the edge of the Irish consciousness. Theatre productions are of their nature ephemeral and difficult to document, but the evidence seems to point to regular productions of Wilde on the Irish professional and amateur stage from the early twentieth century, when his comedies were a favourite with Dublin University Players, onwards. A few items come to mind. Among the plays presented at the first Dublin Theatre Festival in 1957 was The Importance of Being Earnest, with Margaret Rutherford in the role of Lady Bracknell. A friend, then a schoolboy, recalls taking part in a production of Salomé in the Lyric Theatre, Belfast, in the early 1960s (during which he had to try very hard not to laugh during Salomé’s dance). At around the same period I remember listening to a (to adolescent ears) exquisitely sophisticated Importance of Being Earnest on a Sunday evening on Radio Éireann. Others who were interested in the theatre at that time could no doubt add to the list.
It seems reasonable to speculate that, in bringing The Importance of Being Oscar to the Irish stage, Micheál Mac Liammóir was building upon an existing tradition of Wilde production, and the familiarity which resulted, rather than conducting a revolution. Before transfer to Dublin, The Importance of Being Oscar opened in September 1960 in the Curragh Barracks to an audience of army officers and their families. This was a locale as close to the heart of the Irish establishment of that time as one can imagine, suggesting that where Wilde was concerned there may not have been too much reclaiming to be done. Among my recollections of the Mac Liammóir one-man-show, which I saw sometime in the mid-1960s, was of the ease with which he beguiled and flattered Dublin theatre-goers into a sense of complicit pleasure. On that occasion there was no sense of resistance, as the old master brought his audience with him on a journey on which they were more than willing to embark. In achieving his triumph, there is much to suggest that Mac Liammóir tapped into elements of sophistication already existing in Irish society. The Importance of Being Oscar was not explicit, but everyone knew what the story was about.
The country which greeted Micheál Mac Liammóir’s one-man show combined aspects which were coarse, narrow and sanctimonious with others which were imaginative and generous. We can glimpse something of the side of Irish life which took pleasure in the delicate and the ironic, and was fascinated by the encounter of local forms with styles with influences from further afield, in – to choose almost at random, for other examples would be possible – the translations of Pádraig de Brún and Liam Ó Briain, the prints of Elizabeth Rivers and paintings of Gerald Dillon, the songs and chamber music of Joan Trimble, the verse plays of Padraic Fallon and Austin Clarke, and, less directly perhaps, in the concerns which animate Francis MacManus’s study of Boccaccio. This strain of sophistication may also be discerned in the wider theatrical context in which Wilde productions took place. The Importance of Being Earnest formed part of an unusually rich programme for the 1957 Dublin Theatre Festival. Highlights from that year included Jean Vilar’s Théâtre Nationale Populaire productions of Balzac’s Le Faiseur and Molière’s Le Malade Imaginaire, an Edwards and Mac Liammóir production of Denis Johnston’s The Old Lady Says No, The Playboy of the Western World and Juno and the Paycock in the Abbey, seven Yeats plays in the Gas Company Theatre, the controversial Pike Theatre production of Tennessee Williams’s The Rose Tattoo, and the Royal Ballet with Margot Fonteyn.
A festival is, of its nature, an exceptional event which aspires to present the very best a particular theatrical tradition has to offer. An insight into what was acceptable to a substantial Irish audience, on a routine basis, can be glimpsed in the choice of Sunday evening plays which were a regular feature of Irish radio in the decades preceding the launching of Irish television. During a comparatively short period in the early 1960s, in addition to The Importance of Being Earnest, I recall listening to the Radio Éireann players in productions of Eugene O’Neill’s The Emperor Jones, Ibsen’s An Enemy of the People, King Lear (with Anew McMaster raving splendidly on the heath), Shaw’s A Village Wooing and Saint Joan, most of Synge, including The Playboy of the Western World with accompanying music by Seán Ó Riada, Paul Vincent Carroll’s probing of clerical power in Shadow and Substance, TC Murray’s study of sexual and emotional tension in Autumn Fire and Micheál Ó hAodha’s wonderful dramatisation of The Weaver’s Grave. To all of this should be added an unforgettable evening when, performing in sequence, McMaster provided high voltage Shakespearean recitations, Mac Liammóir presented an extended extract from The Importance of Being Oscar playing the roles of both Jack Worthing and Lady Bracknell, and Peter Ustinov did immensely knowing imitations of the soundtracks of British, French and Italian films. There were, almost certainly, other Sunday evening plays from that time from within the international and Irish repertoire that have long since drifted out of my memory.
The Dublin Theatre Festival and Radio Éireann’s productions of The Importance of Being Earnest took place in a context which suggests the existence of a local audience which was not lacking in sophistication or in a sense of adventure. Against that background, Éibhear Walshe’s claim that The Importance of Being Oscar “made Wilde acceptable in Ireland again” seems open to question. Those who could take pleasure in the rich theatrical culture of pre-television Ireland are likely to have also taken Oscar Wilde in their stride. That culture was widely diffused throughout the society, not only through a radio station that from its inception was marked by a strong sense of the cultural responsibilities of public service broadcasting, but also by means of the hugely popular amateur drama movement.
Éibhear Walshe’s views The Importance of Being Oscar not as an item in Dublin’s theatrical history, but as a major transformative event, ramifying throughout Irish social and sexual self-understanding. It stands at the head of a sequence which has led, alongside other developments, to “contemporary lesbian and gay theorists reclaim[ing] Wilde as powerfully disruptive figure, a sexual rebel and social transgressor”. As this may suggest, Oscar’s Shadow is a work written under the influence of gay theory and related currents of ideas. Its story is of how Wilde was reclaimed and constructed – two verbs that are asked to bear an inordinate weight in Walshe’s prose – in terms consistent with the understanding of the relationship between sexuality and society current among the theorists. Much of the rhetoric of Oscar’s Shadow, its animating impulse as it were, seems implicit in the book’s opening. The first sentence refers to Wilde as Ireland’s “most famous gay son”, thus qualifying him by means of an adjective which he never applied to himself and with which, in all probability, he was not familiar. The second sentence invokes Alan Sinfield, who “has argued persuasively that the name, fate and public persona of Wilde formed the central twentieth century cultural concept of the ‘homosexual’ in Britain”.
The conjoining of the authority of the theorists with an appropriation of Wilde to contemporary concerns stands at the centre of Oscar’s Shadow and is, in a sense, what the book is about. The opening invocation of Alan Sinfield is a presager of things to come, as citations from a limited range of authorities – predominantly, but not exclusively, linked to issues of theory, sexual politics and adversarial accounts of twentieth century Irish experience – are woven into Walshe’s argument with the abundance of snuff at a wake. Glancing through the opening chapters the reader encounters a range of invocatory formulae including, “Maria Liddy argues that”, “as Sinfield suggests”, “Michael Foucault has argued that”, “Jeffrey Weeks writes”, “Matt Holbrook … suggests that”, “as Matt Cooke has written”, “Linda Dowling argues that”, “as Ed Cohen and Michael Foldy have shown”, “Foldy shows that”, “for Cohen”, “Foldy points out that”, “Noreen Doody comments”, “in Cohen’s words”, “as Cohen notes”, “Cohen argues that”, “R. F. Foster writes that”, “Alan Sinfield notes”, “Sinfield observes”, “Lucy McDiarmid usefully disagrees”, “McDiarmid interprets”, “McDiarmid argues that”, “McDiarmid also suggests”, “in short, McDiarmid suggests”, “McDiarmid concludes”, “Margot Backus considers”, “Backus argues that”, “Backus’s view … is supported by”, “as Elaine Sisson comments”, “Harris makes the point that”, “Harris argues that”, “Susan C. Harris … by suggesting that”, “Joseph Valente writes”, “Joseph Bristow points out” , “Peter Hart makes the point that”, “Maria Luddy notes”, “R. F. Foster argues that”, “Tom Inglis writes”, “Cherl Herr comments”, “as Kieran Rose has shown” and “as Owen Dudley Edwards recounts”. By this stage, in a text that has scarcely passed page thirty, the reader may feel some sense of disproportion, and, while wondering whether Walshe has embraced Walter Benjamin’s ambition of producing a book made up wholly of quotations, is likely to look forward to a further ninety pages in a similar vein with mixed feelings.
Given the frequency with which he quotes from academia, the author has left himself little room to query, or enter into dialogue with, those upon whose works he draws. The only point at which he engages with his sources in any sustained way is when they stray into the territory of nationalism, or when he queries accounts offered of the aetiology of homosexuality. With these exceptions Éibhear Walshe relates to those whose writings he incorporates as authorities, who are used to ballast his argument, and who do not so much illuminate his subject as provide the medium through which it is perceived. That perception focuses on the social consequences of Wilde’s sexuality, viewed against a background in which “queer studies has become a vital part of Irish literary and cultural studies” and “gay theorists and cultural commentators have been reclaiming Wilde as a queer radical and to good effect”. What results is a presentation of Wilde in terms of contemporary categories and vocabularies, so that he is perceived not primarily for what he was, in as far as that may be available to us through a combination of attentive reading and sympathetic insight, but – in the use of a term he would almost certainly have repudiated, if only on stylistic grounds – as “a proto-queer”. In “The Function of Criticism at the Present Time” Matthew Arnold famously proposed that the aim of critical enquiry was “to see the object as in itself it really is”. This is not an aspiration shared by Walshe and his theorists, as Wilde becomes the object of a remorseless language of appropriation, reconfiguring and construction. The prevailing spirit in this “contemporary reclaiming of Wilde the gay Irishman” is reductive and instrumental, as the specificities of Wilde and his oeuvre are subordinated to the sexual politics entertained by his readers.
For those who encounter Wilde, or indeed any writer, a reading of necessity has to be contemporary – for where else can it take place if not now, at this particular time and place? In earlier models of literacy an encounter with a work of literary art, in as far as it aspired to be subtle, ample and humane, was likely to be informed by a counter-balancing sense of the historicity of the text, and to remember that, in Lionel Trilling’s phrase, “the literary work is ineluctably a historical fact, and, what is more important, that its historicity is a fact in our aesthetic experience”. Such a realisation places limits on the degree to which the reader can bend the literary work to the imperatives of the present. For readers of Arnold’s generation, as indeed for Corkery, Béaslaí, and O’Hegarty, to read a poem, play, or novel was an act of discovery, in which we encounter something other than ourselves, which judges us as much as we judge it, which is not merely the object of our will, and whose meanings may be elicited, but which we as readers are not free to impose.
Although within the group of authorities cited in Oscar’s Shadow there are impressive scholars and rigorous critics, the prevailing style is drab and the prevailing tone modish, vague and hortatory. Those lacking in sympathy may feel that we are in the presence of a new clerisy who, if not all saying the same thing, are saying the same kinds of things, and in related ways. What results can amount to an amiable shuttling around of terminology, in an exercise whose information content is low and whose effect on the reader is rather like watching a game of linguistic handball. Reflecting on “marginal discourses” in Irish writing, Linden Peach suggests that “previously marginalized groups, albeit not entirely free of their marginalized social, physical and cultural status, bring about a revisioning of the nation’s map in terms of margins and centres”. Other authorities cited may strike those who do not inhabit this particular verbal microspace as verging on the impenetrable. Thus Annamarie Jagose’s “most useful” definition of “queer”, proposes this as describing “gestures or analytical models which dramatize incoherencies in the allegedly stable relationship between chromosomal sex, gender and sexual desire. Resisting that model of stability – which claims heterosexuality as its origin when it is more properly its effect – queer focuses on the mismatches between sex, gender and desire.”
Among those who accompany Éibhear Walshe on his journey into the land of theory, Kathryn Conrad makes a memorable appearance. She is quoted as arguing for feminist/queer resistance to narratives “sanctioned by the patriarchal state”, which deal in the public sphere with “war” or “government” and “in the private sphere, heterosexual romance and personal enlightenment”. What stories will be left to tell, following such rectification, is unclear. Where Ireland is concerned, one reflects that oral storytelling took place over very long periods in circumstances remote from state sanction or control and that, in as far as we can judge, fireside narratives are more likely than not to have been disapproved of by those who exercised power in the pre-modern Irish countryside. We can glimpse that long tradition of storytelling via narrators such as Peig Sayers, Seán Ó Conaill, Bab Feiritéar and Amhlaoibh Ó Luínse, whose repertoires were collected in the twentieth century. The tale bodies of these Munster storytellers contained historical legends rooted in their community’s experience in earlier periods extending back to the time of Cromwell at least, which could be seen as reflecting on “war” and “government”, broadly understood. They also found room for a dazzling array of fairytales, which were hugely popular with men and women of all ages, and whose almost invariable terminus was marriage between the hero and heroine. As the medium of these tales was the spoken word, and they had no written form, they depended for their survival on the intrinsic interest of their narrative and on the approbation of the audience by whom they were received. Oscar Wilde’s sense of narrative was nothing if not ecumenical. As his father was one of nineteenth century Ireland’s leading folklorists, and his mother played an indispensable role as editor of stories collected by her husband, it seems unlikely he would have warmed to the exclusions proposed by Kathryn Conrad.
In his conversation and essays Wilde could make ideas dance, while in The Importance of Being Earnest he produced a play of self-enclosed, near impossible perfection. In relating to this body of work, it is surprising how little of the language of pleasure finds its way into Oscar’s Shadow. Instead it is dominated by a vocabulary of possession, leading to the reflection that we appropriate that which we need and can put to use. Wilde’s use in Oscar’s Shadow is as “a signifier for modernization”, whose name has been “refashioned to suggest or even invent a more inclusive sense of Irishness”. This institutionalising of Wilde, his transformation into a trope that would not be out of place in a newspaper editorial, is unaccompanied by anything like a close reading of, or attempt to make discriminations within, a fascinating, but uneven, body of work. Thus, although Patrick Kavanagh’s assessment of Wilde’s verse as being of poor quality is noted, the implications of this judgment remain unexamined. As poetry was the area of Wilde’s oeuvre in which homoerotic feeling was made most explicit, this is a striking omission in a book which otherwise displays such a keen interest in its subject’s sexuality.
Other lacunae, or brief, conventional judgments at points when some probing would seem in order, are equally striking. For many readers Walshe’s view that “Yeats’s later dramatic writings owe much to Wilde, particularly Salomé” is likely to raise questions about how such a slow-moving and overwritten work might relate to Yeats’s very different model of stagecraft. Although the hold which the Salomé legend – mediated via Wilde – had on Yeats’s imagination can be seen in A Full Moon in March, his assessment of the play itself was astringent. In May 1906 Yeats wrote to T Sturge Moore, who was planning to produce Salomé, that the work was “thoroughly bad. The general construction is all right, is even powerful, but the dialogue is empty, sluggish and pretentious. It has nothing of drama of any kind, never working to any climax but always ending as it began … Wilde was not a poet but a wit and critic and could not endure his limitations.”
Although Oscar’s Shadow is primarily concerned with Wilde’s reputation in twentieth century Ireland, there are indications of lack of curiosity regarding the specificities of that society, and of a poor ear for its internal debates and discussions. Daniel Corkery, the Professor of English in University College Cork from 1931 to 1947, has been a recurrent figure in this narrative. It is unfortunate that Éibhear Walshe, a lecturer in Corkery’s own department, misdates The Hidden Ireland to 1941, whereas it was published in 1924. Anyone can make a mistake regarding dates, and it is silly to make too much fuss about these things, but some mistakes are more consequential than others. The 1924 date matters because of the huge impact of Corkery’s book from the 1920s onwards. Walshe characterises The Hidden Ireland as “a key text in the construction of Ireland’s colonial history from the perspective of cultural nationalism”. That is a way of putting things; my sense of the matter is that The Hidden Ireland was read with huge excitement by several generations of Irish people, who derived from it a sense that in the not too distant past their country had contained a wealth of poetic utterance, which was at once magical, different from anything they previously knew, and yet strangely familiar. Its presence can be felt in the Corkery-de Brún controversy of 1930-31 on the place of classicism in a revived Irish literature, in the polemical opening chapter of Sean O’Faoilean’s King of the Beggars of 1938, and in Francis MacManus’s trilogy of novels of the 1930s Stand and Give Challenge, Candle for the Proud, and Men Withering.
In his discussion of Terry Eagleton’s Saint Oscar, Éibhear Walshe dissents (quite sensibly in my view) from Eagleton’s account of the relationship between the young Wilde and his mother, and the link he seeks to establish between that relationship and Wilde’s homosexuality. The discussion of Eagleton’s play is also the point at which the author’s muffled dispute with Irish nationalism comes closest to explicitness. In Walshe’s reading, Irish nationalism is intrinsically anti-sexual or, at best, a late and slow learner. By his account, “The disjunction between [Eagleton’s] representation of [Wilde’s] sexuality and his politics is, in fact, an inevitable consequence of the tradition in which he is writing, a nationalist discourse in which the erotic is always subaltern, always suspect.” This disjunction is particularly acute in the case of the homoerotic; because of its indeterminacy and tendency to subvert, “queerness resists models and discourses of stability like that of Irish nationalism”. So complete is this opposition that, at the time Eagleton wrote Saint Oscar, there was “no place for a progressive, queer Wilde within an Irish nationalist tradition, or at least not at this point”. Within this logic, if inevitability is to be overcome, this can only occur late in the day, as a result of changes which have taken place outside nationalism and have belatedly impacted on its discourse.
This is an assessment which may raise eyebrows among readers familiar with Todd Andrews’s autobiographical account of the popularity of drag shows, featuring “some extraordinarily good female impersonators”, among young republican prisoners, deprived of female company, during the civil war period. (Andrews is careful – perhaps excessively so – to add that, although there was bad language, homosexuality was unknown among his comrades.) Republican prisoners apart, Éibhear Walshe’s argument invites the riposte that many purposeful ideologies have sought to discipline the erotic and subordinate it to their own purposes, and there would seem no reason why this tendency should be more marked in the case of Irish nationalism than (let us say) British imperialism. Certainly it is difficult to think of anything in the Irish canon equivalent to the invigilation of intimate relations between rulers and ruled in EM Foster’s “The Other Boat”, or Kim’s discovery of his vocation as a servant of empire and simultaneous renunciation of sexual dealings with local women at the conclusion of Kipling’s novel. But this is argument conducted at far too general a level and it may be more useful to turn to the specificities of local cultural history.
The claims advanced in Oscar’s Shadow are particularly inapposite in the case of Ireland, a country whose response to the experience of military defeat and the overthrow of the familiar Gaelic world was articulated by means the aisling, a poetic form whose language and content possessed a powerful erotic dimension. Following the catastrophes of the seventeenth century, Irish society reached deep within its imaginative resources to create a body of generically shaped, communally shared and culturally transmitted utterances, in which the restoration of the old Gaelic order and the return of the rightful king were prophesied. This knitting together of that which has been disrupted was announced when, on the uncertain borderland between sleep and waking, the poet encounters a fairy woman of radiant, virginal loveliness. The young woman, who declares that she awaits the return of her lover, the Stuart Pretender, also enjoys a privileged relationship with the poet, a figure of huge consequence as bearer of the Gaelic poetic corpus, whom she invites to accompany her into the enchanting world of the sidhe. Although, in terms of the Gaelic mythos, the spéir bhean (sky woman) represented Ireland, she was anything but an abstract personification and was rendered with beguiling particularity as again and again the poets delighted in describing her shapely limbs, long tresses, delicate skin, and breasts untouched by any man. There were indeed, alongside political aislings, and written by the same poets, purely sexual aislings, which could go to any and all lengths of explicitness.
The aisling was many things, including a form of pedagogy in the traditional history of Ireland and an assurance that that history would not be rendered meaningless by the Cromwellian and Williamite victories. Although deeply attentive to the fortunes of the Stuarts, and although its language overlapped with that of love poetry, it was neither exclusively political nor erotic, but embraced both as aspects of a single impulse. In its sung form, the aisling was hugely popular in eighteenth and nineteenth century Munster, being heard alike “in the dwelling of rich and poor”. Father Pádraig Dinneen, who as a young man encountered the genre in late nineteenth century Kerry, commented that “Munster was spell-bound for generations; she forgot her troubles; her very bitterness was sweetened as she listened to the voice of the syren”. In his view, “no adequate idea can be formed of their power over the Irish mind”. Although rooted in the Jacobite politics of the Gaelic eighteenth century, the resonance of the aisling carried over into the era of nationalism, as its themes and vocabulary lingered in English language broadside ballads of the first half of the nineteenth century. The aisling, with its eroticising of the political, is thus a complicating factor, which calls into question the simple narrative of a suspect and subordinated sexuality proposed in Oscar’s Shadow. Viewed from outside, and operating on a priori grounds, it must seem that the world of Irish nationalism was emotionally narrow, monochrome and desexualised. As the aisling was close to the heart of an older Irish imaginative world, this cannot be the case and a different story is needed. By the early twentieth century, although there were fewer figures like Pádraig Dinneen, who experienced the aisling in all its magical intensity, as Yeats’s play Cathleen Ni Houlihan of 1902 suggests the cluster of images at its heart still retained its power to incite and console. Irish people who came to terms with Wilde in the decades following his death had a more complex cultural heritage than envisaged in Oscar’s Shadow.
For a work which celebrates the emergence of gay self-consciousness and the decriminalisation of homosexual acts as liberating and transformative, Oscar’s Shadow displays a notable lack of curiosity regarding homosexual lives in the long decades before these changes. The past before the opening of the Hirschfeld Centre, and all that this brought in its wake, is assumed to be a bleak place but, apart from citing statistics on criminal convictions, it is not a subject which attracts Éibhear Walshe’s attention. This silence may in part be because, even more than is the case with members of other non-elite groups, it is difficult to penetrate homosexual lives in earlier periods, or get a sense of their particularity. Because of the informal quality of relationships between men, when compared to the institutional weight of marriage, with its embodiment in family and property, these tend to leave fewer traces on the written record and are more difficult to document and reconstruct. If a particular section of society is articulate and reflective, we may hope to glimpse something of its inner life by means of diaries, letters and reminiscences, although in the nature of things an immense amount must be lost. The present continuous of any grouping or milieu, whether national teachers or Garda sergeants, farmers’ wives or parish priests, vanishes very quickly and in the winking of an eye that which everybody once knew is well on the way to being forgotten. Although the lives of homosexual men in Ireland before the 1960s seem particularly elusive, it would be a pity to accept that all we can know about them is through criminal court records and theatrical history.
In what is only an apparent paradox, it is possible to discern the Irish homoerotic more clearly in the byways of cities like London, New York and Washington than on native grounds. This is scarcely surprising, in view of the huge Irish emigration from the mid-nineteenth century onwards and the strong Irish presence in the working class of the first two cities. In 1950s London we can glimpse feckless, amiable, lower-class Irish males, viewed unsympathetically as they impinge on the lives, including the sexual lives, of middle-class English characters, in the novels of Angus Wilson. Matt Houlbrook’s history Queer London identifies young Irishmen of a similar profile, but viewed without Wilson’s animus, as a stratum in the city’s population in the first half of the twentieth century. Like Wilson’s characters, they too are sexually available to those they encounter in a metropolitan setting but, as members of a “tough bachelor culture”, only on their own terms. George Chauncey’s Gay New York uncovers a comparable non-gay model of the homoerotic, among the omnipresent, unattached young men in the sexually segregated, ethnic neighbourhoods of late nineteenth and early twentieth century New York. These young New Yorkers, predominantly of Italian origin, but with Afro-Americans, Germans and Irish also part of the mix, had, Chauncey believes, brought with them to the new world values and patterns of behaviour learned in their countries of origin. In a far-reaching argument, he suggests that, as a result of social and ideological changes as the twentieth century progressed, this now forgotten paradigm was replaced by the familiar heterosexual-homosexual division and, in due course, with the emergence of the term gay as a descriptive category. It was at an early point in this process, in New York of the prohibition era, that it was said of the “ultra-ultra” speakeasy on Charles Street, it “isn’t Ireland even if the fairies may be seen there”. This world of opportunistic urban bachelors and their partners was a long time ago; it is a place whose memory has been obscured by changes which undermined its raison d’être, as it was replaced by other languages and perhaps other kinds of experience. It lingered long enough, however, to be spotted, and misunderstood, by Alfred Kinsey in his famous report.
Peter Doyle’s account of his friendship with Walt Whitman provides one of the few occasions on which we can hear the voice of one of these young Irish-Americans speaking reflectively and at any length. Doyle, who had been born in Limerick in the mid-1840s and had fought in the Confederate Army during the Civil War, met the forty-five-year-old Whitman when working as a tram conductor in Washington. The account given by the young bisexual of his first meeting with the poet suggests a personality in which friendliness combined with curiosity and openness to the world:
You ask where I first met him? It is a curious story. We felt to each other at once. I was a conductor. The night was very stormy … Walt had his blanket – it was thrown round his shoulders – he seemed like an old sea-captain. He was the only passenger, it was a lonely night, so I thought I would go in and talk with him. Something in me made me do it and something in him drew me that way. He used to say there was something in me had the same effect on him. Anyway, I went into the car. We were familiar at once – I put my hand on his knee – we understood. He did not get out at the end of the trip – in fact went all the way back with me. I think the year of this was 1866. From that time on we were the biggest sort of friends.
Although Doyle and Whitman were strongly drawn to each other, neither defined their relationship in terms of sexual identity. One of the more dispiriting aspect of the waves of globalisation which have been our lot in recent decades has been the undermining – or so it seems – from China to Peru of local forms of the homoerotic, as a commercially driven Anglo-American gay model has made its way into corners of the world in which it was previously unknown. What has resulted has been the sweeping away of ambiguities of self-definition in favour of a monolithic gay identity and the displacement of culturally nuanced conventions and vocabularies, which were shaped to local circumstances, and by means of which same-sex desire could be accommodated within societies which had the marriage and the family at their heart. As the reports of historians and anthropologists suggest, over time and geography such conventions and vocabularies could assume an unexpected variety of forms. In its Christian inflection accommodations could include – alongside much else of a very different character – the choice of chastity and sublimation of desires, frequently combined with a way of life devoted to the service of others.
Histories of sexuality can, at times, make heavy reading. One of the pleasures of the opening sections of George Chauncey’s book, before theory kicks in, is its use of personal testimonies, which take us back to an unfamiliar urban setting in the early and middle decades of the twentieth century. These voices, which speak with first-hand knowledge out of a vanished world, give to Gay New York an unusual degree of specificity and historical density. One suspects that in their approach to life, and the encounters and opportunities which it brings, these young men cannot have been too different from Peter Doyle. The personal histories they recount, which are at the heart of Chauncey’s portrait of an older urban sexuality, were based on seventy-five interviews the author conducted with homosexual men born between 1895 and 1935. As the book was published in 1994, this research was presumably undertaken in the decades preceding publication. The richness of Gay New York, and the unexpected perspectives it opens up, suggest something of the value of oral history and of what can be achieved by a diligent researcher, who knows where to look and the questions to ask. It also points to a huge gap at the heart of Irish sexual history, as we do not have personal narratives to match those of Chauncey’s urban wanderers and versatile adventurers. In place of the New York stories, so unexpected and yet so evidently authentic, on the Irish side there is mostly silence.
In order to penetrate that lost Irish milieu, we would need life stories which take us back beyond the Norris case and the founding of the Hirschfeld Centre, significant as these events were, to the experiences of young men who came of age in the 1940s and 50s and earlier and which would tell us something of the very different world they inhabited. It is a pity, one reflects, that amid the army of theorists there was no Irish equivalent of George Chauncey, and that no one was curious enough to want to know what such men had to say for themselves before they vanished from life’s stage. In works such as Oscar’s Shadow their absence makes possible the presentation of the homosexual past in overwhelmingly negative terms and allows the articulate gay present to insist on its own perceptions, without the counterweight of other narratives and experiences.
Even in the absence of such stories, it may be possible to discern something of what life was once like in an earlier, less familiar Ireland by looking through the cracks and crevices in twentieth century writing. If that task were undertaken it would, I believe, allow a number of voices to be heard, whose response to their own desires ranged from cheerful sensuality to austere renunciation. It would also inevitably reveal the sense of unease experienced by those who were stigmatised for an innate characteristic for which they bore no responsibility. In as far as such individuals were stung into articulacy or reflectiveness by the nature of their desires, what they had to say amounts to a qualification of the claim made in Oscar’s Shadow that in post-independence Ireland “the homoerotic was censored and expunged from all official literary and cultural discourse”. The import of the adjective “official” in this sentence is unclear, and it may be more useful to look at Irish writing as a totality. While it is true that Irish writing during this period contains no figures of the order of Constantine Cavafy, Mikhail Kuzmin, Henry de Montherlant, Stefan George or Thomas Mann, if we are attentive intermittent strains of the homoerotic may be discerned. That, however, is the subject for a different essay.
In so far as Éibhear Walshe’s study encompasses the homosexual past, this is seen through the medium of the criminal court records, as available in Diarmaid Ferriter’s Occasions of Sin: Sex and Society in Modern Ireland. Ferriter’s data is at first sight depressing, as each conviction must have entailed immense distress for some now forgotten individual. It calls out, however, for contextualisation of a fairly obvious kind; we might get a somewhat different picture if convictions were broken down by decade, or shorter units, or, equally important, if we knew how many convictions involved coercion, or relations with the underaged, or those whose poverty made them vulnerable, or sexual acts in public places. These questions are of significance, as Ireland inherited the Labouchere Amendment, under which Wilde was convicted, from its membership of the United Kingdom, and it is important to try to establish how far the newly independent state retained the British impulse to seek out and prosecute homosexuals, or whether the authorities merely used an existing law in responding to that that which could not be ignored. There are indications that by the 1950s it may have been the latter. In the postwar years the hostility of the British police and prosecutorial authorities to homosexual people reached a new intensity, resulting in the conviction, alongside numerous less well known individuals, of figures such as Alan Turing, Lord Montagu, Peter Wildblood and John Gielgud (a notable Jack Worthing in The Importance of Being Earnest). The effect of this development, which many saw as a sexually-based witch hunt, was to bring the whole system into disrepute, ultimately leading to the repeal of the Labouchere Amendment. This unhappy episode in British criminal history had no equivalent in Ireland.
As a young man in the 1920s Rupert Croft-Cooke met Alfred Douglas and other, then elderly, members of Wilde’s generation. A lifetime later, in the mid-1960s, on the eve of repeal of Labouchere, he had as his working assumption in his biography of Douglas and in Feasting With Panthers, a study of the late Victorian literary milieu, that the desire of the British authorities to prosecute homosexuals remained undiminished since the time of Wilde and that what was happening in contemporary Britain could be glossed by reference to Wilde’s ordeal. Based on his own experiences, for he had served a prison term in the 1950s, he portrayed a system in which convictions were obtained on the basis of tainted evidence, and in which the malice of the police went hand in hand with the routine cruelty of prosecutors and judges. This, he believed, was the same system that had been in place when Wilde was sent down to the cells. It is difficult to think of any Irish man of letters writing in similar terms at that time.
Following his release from prison, Wilde wrote to a friend, “I still have difficulty in understanding why the frequentation of Sporus should be considered so much more criminal than the frequentation of Messalina”. To view Wilde as a “gay precursor” is to occlude his self-understanding, as articulated through the language of late Victorian Hellenism. The lives of other homosexual Irishmen, whose adult lifetimes fell within the half-century or so after Wilde’s death, also possessed their own specificity and weight, and ask to be viewed as something more than an ante-chamber to a gay future. They had identities and concerns which were separate from ours but which, if we can find the evidence and are attentive, we may hope to tune into. One such moment may be found in Brendan Behan’s poem on Wilde, which he wrote in Paris in the late 1940s and published in Comhar, the magazine of Irish-speaking graduates of the National University of Ireland. Like Hart Crane a generation earlier, Behan focused on Wilde to evoke a sense of a beguiling exoticism and as a means of exploring his own concerns. The poem, which was elegantly translated into English by the poet-diplomat Valentine Iremonger, reflects on Wilde’s life and its many pleasures, seen from the perspective of his death in a cheap hotel on the rue des Beaux-Arts.
ógphrionsa na bpeacadh
ina shearbhán aosta,
seod órdha na drúise
ina dhiadh aige fágtha,
gan Pernod ina chabhair aige
ach uisce na cráifeacht.
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
Behan’s poem gives equal weight to a life devoted to the pursuit of physical and aesthetic bliss and to the horror of death, as at the end of his days the young king of beauty is transformed into a ravished Narcissus. It is a poem infused by a sense of splendour and transgression, as Wilde’s hedonism is experienced as deeply attractive, while it is also accepted that this involved sin and thus entailed consequences. The poem concludes with a deft resolution of this antinomy, as it celebrates Wilde’s deathbed conversion to Catholicism as a means of outwitting of the inevitability of damnation.
Dá aoibhne bealach an pheacaidh
Is mairg bás gan beannacht
Mi ghraidhn thú a Oscair,
bhí sé agat gach bealach.
Delightful the path of sin
But a holy death’s a habit.
Good man yourself there, Oscar,
Every way you had it.
The Behan poem is written in a language which has been crafted to recall Wilde’s yearning for beauty. In its concluding lines there is a shift to a more demotic, vocative register, in which is possible to discern a throb of approval for Wilde’s solution of having things both ways. The poem could be seen as a variant on one of the most familiar tropes in the history of Christian sinners; that God may make me chaste, but not yet. Although its setting is Wilde’s room in the Hôtel d’Alsace of 1900, it could be seen as a companion piece of Máire Mhac an tSaoi’s “Ceathrúintí Mháire Ní Ógáin”, in that its real locale is Catholic Ireland of the late 1940s, a place in which it was accepted that sex outside marriage was sinful. Behan does not contest that judgment, any more than the speaker in Máire Mhac an tSaoi’s poem, or the adulterers and other sinners of the novels of François Mauriac – another troubled Catholic homosexual – doubt the justice of God’s judgment. The poem thus belongs to a different moral space from that which many gay people now inhabit and can scarcely be accommodated within their categories without violence to its meaning.
Behan’s poem pointed to a disequilibrium within the lives of many homosexual men between a Catholic worldview which was part of themselves, and experienced as being normative, and their own homoerotic impulses. Their Church taught that that which they desired was contrary to God’s intention for humankind, as known by reason and as inscribed in the order of nature. To this Catholic language of an objective moral order, a variety of homosexual voices replied by appealing to their own self-knowledge and their experience of life’s journey. There is a striking uniformity about what such individuals had to say as, without apparent mutual influence, they insisted that their sexuality was not a choice but rather part of their deepest selves, something they had been born with, and for that reason could not be a stranger to divine intention. Although, to judge by Alan Bray’s The Friend, accommodations between homosexual people and the Christian Church had been possible throughout long periods of time, the increasing explicitness with which issues relating to sexuality were raised in the twentieth century meant that earlier models of coexistence were no longer possible. Religion, however, had its sociology as well as its dogmatic and moral theology, allowing for pragmatic adjustments to be made in individual lives, as that which was received by the faithful did not always coincide with what was taught by the clergy. These dilemmas belong not only to a different time and place, but to different sensibilities. Behan’s poem reminds us of the otherness of the past, of how different the world was even comparatively recently, and of the need to understand that different place in its own terms rather than imposing ours.
Éibhear Walshe, although impressed by Terry Eagleton’s Saint Oscar, has, we have seen, reservations regarding its approach to issues of sexuality and nationalism. It is in this context that he notes, almost as a sub-reservation, “Eagleton’s unequivocal portrayal of Bosie as a pernicious influence on Wilde”. It seems, in context, implied that Eagleton’s judgment may be unduly negative, particularly as Walshe immediately goes on to single out other aspects of the portrait as being more even-handed. It is certainly the case that until recently the prevailing judgment on Lord Alfred Douglas (Bosie) has been harsh. This assessment was based on observation of Douglas’s behaviour at the time of Wilde’s downfall – when others urged prudence, Douglas egged him on – and also on the persuasive power of Wilde’s prison letter, De Profundis, in which he charged his former lover with a significant responsibility for what happened. More recently, as part of the process of “re-gaying Wilde”, a more understanding view of Douglas has emerged, most notably in Neil McKenna’a intriguing study The Secret Life of Oscar Wilde. In this reading, in place of Wilde’s portrait of a vain, shallow and destructive egoist, Douglas has been presented as the protagonist of a great and passionate love affair and a harbinger of gay modernity. This is a judgment which not only reverses what Wilde had to say in De Profundis – where what was remembered of the relationship was its banal, anti-creative, futility – but also the view of Wilde’s wife and children and many of his friends, both homosexual and heterosexual. This view was also shared by Douglas’s contemporaries, who observed him in contexts unrelated to the events of 1895.
Douglas stares out at us from photographs of the 1890s, a young man of mask-like good looks and self-absorbed, expressionless features. He was destined to survive the fading of his looks and lived on for a further four and half decades after Wilde’s death in 1900. It proved to be a life marked by anger and self-assertion, unending quarrels, litigation, and the dispatch of vitriolic letters (sometimes anonymous) to anyone who displeased him. Particular hatred was directed towards Robert Ross, whose ruin he attempted to bring about using tactics similar to those his father had employed in entrapping Wilde. In De Profundis Wilde, while giving full weight to Douglas’s role in his downfall, signally failed to explain the combination of delusion and obstinacy which was his own particular contribution to the catastrophe. In spite of this inability to explain his own actions, he brought considerable psychological penetration to his portrait of the younger man. Although deeply unflattering, De Profundis was not merely an accusation and could be seen as an effort to startle Douglas into a sense of wakefulness and self-knowledge. The effort was, of course, unsuccessful, as Wilde’s subtle reflections on human life and its conduct were addressed to an unusually callow and conventional recipient.
Douglas’s endless law suits, and the periodic destruction of documents which marked his career, could be seen as tactics for the avoidance of self-knowledge. It seems likely that this was also at the bottom of his posthumous vilification of Wilde, who in De Profundis had told him things he did not care to hear. As Wilde observed, “The truth always made you angry.” Wilde’s prison letter is not a balanced work; it is a case for the prosecution, written by one who had come to regard his obsession with Douglas, and all it brought in its train, as the principal cause of his imprisonment. One view of De Profundis is that it amounts to little more than a lover’s quarrel, magnified by the desperation of the writer’s situation. This seems less plausible when one recalls that central elements in its assessment of Douglas were confirmed by many who met him, in quite different contexts, during the long years that followed Wilde’s death.
Douglas makes an unlikely candidate for the role of gay trailblazer. Early in the twentieth century he converted to Catholicism, without thereby learning to be charitable, and, having foresworn his own lusty youth, took to denouncing homosexuality and homosexuals. Among the living his most prominent target was Robert Ross and among the dead Wilde. In 1913 he put his name to the book Oscar Wilde and Myself, which had been ghost written by the journalist TWH Crosland, a man seized by an intense hatred of his subject. A year later he referred to his former friend as “that filthy beast Wilde”, while in 1918 he was “the greatest force for evil that has appeared in Europe in the last three hundred and fifty years”, who had exercised “a diabolical influence on everyone he met”. In testifying on behalf of Pemberton Billing during the Maud Allan libel case, Douglas expressed the view that Salomé should be suppressed as, behind a cloak of flowery language, it was “an exhibition of perverted sexual passion”. In preparing for another of his court appearances he was led by an angel to uncover a crucial piece of evidence regarding Robert Ross’s sexual life, which allowed him to humiliate Ross in court. In 1924, having invoked the aid of Saint Anthony of Padua and Saint Thomas Aquinas, he denounced Wilde in verse as “perversion’s priest, this lord of lies”. Douglas remained combative to the end, although with the passing years he had fewer occasions to give vent to his rage. When Frank Harris, whose biography of Wilde he particularly detested, died, he reflected that this “removes the last of my enemies from this world … I have had a Mass said for Harris … I attended the Mass and prayed for his soul.” It is difficult not to regard this as the voice of a self-deceiving Tartuffe who, having emptied religion of its content, had reduced it to a mirror of his own aggressions.
Douglas did not confine his dislikes to individuals. The “violence of opinion”, which Wilde noted in De Profundis, persisted and he was given to condemning “every kind of wickedness from anarchy to sodomy”. Amid his multiple hatreds, he reserved particular venom for Jewish people and for the Irish. These feelings were at their most acute in the wake of the First World War, when he was obsessed with what he saw as a Jewish role in undermining Britain’s war effort, while the Irish electorate’s vote in the November 1918 general election for independence also attracted his ire. There was, however, a difference for, whereas the Jews were a disorder at the heart of reality, a “leprous spawn” that “spreads its contagion in your English blood”, the Irish were merely an intense irritant, who refused to fit in with the English scheme of things. Douglas’s Irish dimension had as its focus the “surrender to Sinn Fein”, a phrase which over two decades he circled around with the obsessiveness of Mr Dick around King Charles’s head in David Copperfield. Although in the 1920s Douglas’s feelings about Ireland were mostly expressed in prose, he was moved to verse following the killing of the former chief of the Imperial General Staff, Sir Henry Wilson, by agents of Michael Collins. This was an occasion on which he showed he could bring to Irish affairs the same facility for spotting conspiracies as marked his reflections on the Jews.
Look you, to whom the profit? Whose the dread
Of Wilson living? Whose uneasy head
Makes softer sleeping now that Wilson’s dead?
Who fawned on Collins like a mongrel cur?
Who handed Ireland to a murderer?
Who gave the feeble King dishonour’s slur?
God knows, we guess to what void soul it came
Reeking of hell, co-habitant with shame,
Judas companioned to th’eternal flame.
Following the outbreak of the Second World War, Douglas reverted to Irish affairs when, in common with the other smaller European democracies, Ireland elected to remain neutral. In a morale-boosting poem of 1941, published in the Evening Standard, he assumed the persona of Colonel Blimp, somewhat improbably as he had not served in the First World War as no regiment would accept him. This included the lines:
I never would have crawled before Sinn Fein,
Or licked the boots of ‘Dev’
Lord Alfred’s more measured thoughts on Anglo-Irish relations were set out in a pamphlet of 1940 entitled Ireland and the War Against Hitler. In this he presented Irish neutrality as bearing out the folly of the earlier “surrender to Sinn Fein” and as a fulfilment of what he had “foretold with absolute certainty” in the 1920s. Douglas was more than willing to refight old battles, and was particularly anxious to vindicate the good name of “the wickedly calumniated Black and Tans”. In the 1920s, he recalled, he had been alone in drawing attention to “the appalling outrages committed by the Sinn Feiners”. These were “far worse than any attributed to Hitler, and were at last answered by mild ‘reprisals’ on the part of the ‘Black and Tans’”. In so far as the situation of 1940 was concerned, Douglas believed that the alternatives were surrender to the IRA, which would mean the establishment in Ireland of a Soviet Republic on the Russian model, or the reimposition of English rule. He favoured the latter option, proposing that the British government “should politely request Mr. de Valera’s permission to take over the Irish ports which Ireland cannot defend, and he should be told that if he refuses our polite request the ports will be taken over whether he consents or not”.
All this is predictable stuff, there being many in England at the time who held similar views. Douglas’s most piquant Irish involvement, which was unique to himself, occurred in 1936 when WB Yeats edited the Oxford Book of Modern Verse. In De Profundis Wilde had commented on Douglas’s illusions. One of the most persistent of these was that he was a major poet. (WH Auden characterised his poetry as “versified drivel”.) Douglas was stung when Yeats omitted his work from the Oxford Book, while including lengthy extracts from “The Ballad of Reading Gaol”. Unlike Robert Ross and Frank Harris, litigation with Yeats was not possible, and he therefore resorted to another well practiced instrument of aggression and dispatched a telegram:
Your omission of my work from the absurdly-named Oxford Book of Modern Verse is exactly typical of the attitude of the minor to the major poet. For example Thomas Moore, the Yeats of the 19th century, would undoubtedly have excluded Keats and Shelley from any anthology he had compiled. And why drag in Oxford? Would not Shoneen Irish be a more correct description?
In 1923, following the publication of his pamphlet The Murder of Lord Kitchener and the Truth About the Battle of Jutland and the Jews, Douglas was sentenced to six months in prison for criminal libel. The anti-Semitic sonnet sequence which he produced while in jail could be seen as the cry of rage of one who had brought his own life to ruin and, like others among the twentieth century deranged, needed a powerful, malevolent, external agency to which his inner chaos could be attributed. His sentiments regarding Ireland were of a more conventional kind and indeed he seems to have got on well with Irish prisoners, including Sinn Feiners, whom he met while in prison. If aspects of his sentiments regarding Ireland were eccentric, he was eccentric within the grammar of his culture; the two periods in which he was most vociferously anti-Irish, the years 1919-21 and 1939-41, were both times when Irish decisions and actions were interpreted in England as defiance of English will. Where Alfred Douglas is concerned Terry Eagleton surely called things right, suggesting that, in assessing this truly appalling figure, heterosexual common sense may provide a surer guide than gay solidarity. In fact an earlier generation of homosexual men were well able to take Douglas’s number; in Auden’s view he was “a vicious, gold-digging, snobbish, anti-Semitic, untalented little horror for whom no good word can be said”. Irish readers are well placed to bring a useful skepticism to revisionist accounts of Douglas.
As is well known, GK Chesterton was a man of contrarian disposition, who had a suspicious relationship with many of the progressive orthodoxies of his age. He was, for example, unimpressed by late Victorian ideas on race, which he saw as providing a pseudo-scientific cover for the interests of the rich and stupid. In his view, “When a wealthy nation like the English discovers the perfectly patent fact that it is making a ludicrous mess of the government of a poorer nation like the Irish, it pauses for a moment in consternation, and then begins to talk about Celts and Teutons.” Although he saw nothing odd in Yeats’s claim that he and many of his fellow countrymen saw the fairies, Chesterton was unhappy with the poet’s use of the adjective “Celtic”, believing that “Ireland has no need to play the silly game of the science of races”. Race was, in fact, a category which was of little interest to the Irish. As Chesterton spotted, in contrast to the massive presence of racist ideas in Victorian and Edwardian England, the Irish concept of identity was culturally based and (in aspiration at least) absorptive, rather than being biological and pre-determined. Éibhear Walshe is unusual in availing of race as a category to present sections of his material. At various points throughout Oscar’s Shadow, the reader encounters reference to “Wilde’s sexual and racial character”, to a reading of Wilde which “draws a useful parallel with encoded elements of race”, to “the contestation of [Wilde’s] racial and sexual identity” becoming part of a larger debate, and to a particular “construction of Wilde” moving to a point “where his writings and his aesthetic are derived almost exclusively from his racial origins”. I am unable to say what this means.
In Oscar’s Shadow, having distanced himself from much that characterised older Irish forms of self-understanding, Éibhear Walshe is left with somewhat depleted resources. Although he has written a book large sections of which concern the past, the author’s focus is firmly on Ireland of the early twenty-first century. Oscar’s Shadow is a work in which the present is the measure of all things and in which contemporary needs and agendas are unchallenged by other voices or modes of understanding. From this perspective Éibhear Walshe has brought to an earlier Ireland, with its values and concerns, its insights, limitations and absurdities, what EP Thompson once called “the enormous condescension of posterity”. The prevailing spirit in Oscar’s Shadow is didactic; it is a secular Hibernian variant of the Victorian morality tale, which provides yet one more example of the ex-Catholic Irish congratulating themselves that they are not now as they once were. As is perhaps inevitable, the portrait which results from an investigation carried out in this spirit is marked by a certain flatness, by the absence not only of depth, but also of nuance and surprise. Where Oscar Wilde and the Irish are concerned, there is a more interesting story to be told.
A Note on Sources
For attitudes towards Wilde in twentieth century Ireland see The Prison Letters of Countess Markievicz, (Virago, 1987), p. 229; E Ní Chionnaith (ed) Iriseoireacht Uí Chonaire (Cló Iar-Chonnacht, 1989), 91; A Clery, “The Philosophy of Sanity”, Studies, December 1922, 571-81; “Belloc on Christians and Others”, ibid, December 1922, p.647. The exchanges regarding freedom of art may be found in Misneach of December 18th, 1920, January 29th and February 5th, 1921. For Piaras Béaslaí see P Ó Saidhail, An Béaslaíoch, (Dublin, 2007), 463-496; For PS O’Hegarty see The Separatist, September 2nd, 1922; The Dublin Magazine, Jan-Mar 1932, 51-6; D Breathnach and M Ní Mhurchú, (ed), Beathaisnéis, ( Dublin, 1997), Vol 5, 181-3; A Clarke, Twice Around the Black Church, (Dublin, 1990), 41, 143; A Clarke, A Penny in the Clouds, (London, 1968), 60,172; E Ní Chuilleanáin (ed), The Wilde Legacy, (Dublin, 2003),13; GP Dillon, All in the Blood, (Dublin, 2006), 17; . Ó hÚid, “Aon-Mhac Speranza”, An tUltach, July 1948, 7; St. John Ervine, Oscar Wilde: A Present Time Appraisal, (London,1951), 9, 366,16; E Evangelista, (ed) The Reception of Oscar Wilde in Europe, (London and New York, 2010), 162; Senate Debates, Vol. 22, November 18th, December 2nd/3rd, 1942; Ó Saidhail (2007), 756.
For nationalism and sexuality see CS Andrews, Dublin Made Me, (Dublin and Cork, 1979), 299; P. Muldowney (ed), Eoghan Ruadh Ó Súilleabháin Na hAislingí, (Aubane Historical Society, 2002), 158, 12; GD Zimmermann, Songs of Irish Rebellion, (Dublin, 1967), 53-6; Sherard, (1906),124. B Behan, Brendan Behan’s Island, (Corgi Books, 1965), 180-1.
For London and New York comparisons see M Houlbrook, Queer London 1918-1957 (Chicago and London, 2005), 189; G Chauncey, Gay New York 1890-1940, (New York, 1994), 237; MG Murray, “Pete the Great: A Biography of Peter Doyle”, The Walt Whitman Quarterly Review, Summer 1994, 1-51.
For Lord Alfred Douglas see H Montgomery-Hyde, Lord Alfred Douglas, (New York, 1985), 203, 225, 266-7, 291, 301, 160, 249, 321 ; D Murray, Bosie, (London, 2000), 251, 252, 291, 286; Hoare, (1998), 16-24, 151- 9, 214-6; A Douglas, Ireland and the War Against Hitler, (London, 1940), 5, 6, 7, 35-6.; WH Auden, Forewords and Afterwords, (London, 1973), 305, 303; GK Chesterton, Heretics, (London, 1928), 171,177.
Brian Earls’s essay “‘The mother in hoors and robbers’: Bram Stoker as Urban Folklorist” was published in the 2012 issue of Béaloideas: The Journal of the Folklore of Ireland Society.