The lasting legacy of a literary giant

16 October 2004
By Joe McNamee

WE’RE great men and women on the Ould Sod for lionising our literary giants without knowing the first thing about them.

With most of them banned before breakfast in Ireland during their lifetimes and preferring to live and work in exile, it was often only foreign acclaim that alerted us to our clutch of Nobel Prize winners.

And while some of us (rabid Joyceans from the crib) cluck disapprovingly at the tourist fiesta that passes for Bloomsday - ‘of course, de bould Jemmy wud be spinnin’ in de grave!’ - in private, we’ll take the first page of Ulysses over a fistful of sleeping tablets any day.

And then there is Oscar.

Perversely, we are really quite familiar with the most famous fringe in world literature. We have a good handle on the bio - top wit and gadabout playwright takes a shine to some young fella whose Da blows a gasket, it winds up in court, where eventually disgraced, Wilde loses family, fortune, liberty and reputation.

Even more perversely, we are actually very familiar with his work even if we are not always sure it is Wilde we are quoting.

More than a few customs officers must have nightmares about beer-bloated slobs returning from Marbella “with nothing to declare but their genius”.

But familiarity has bred contempt: with the 150th anniversary of his birth today, the general consensus seems to be that Wilde was more concerned with his reputation as a wit and a dandy than with building a serious body of work.

Oscar Fingal O’Flahertie Wills Wilde was born on October 16, 1854. Following a brilliant academic career at Trinity and Oxford, he married Constance Lloyd and had two sons, Cyril and Vyvyan.

His first novel, The Picture of Dorian Gray, was published in 1890. His first play, Lady Windermere’s Fan (1892) was a huge success. A Woman Of No Importance (1893), An Ideal Husband (1895), and The Importance Of Being Earnest (1895) followed.

In the summer of 1891, he met Lord Alfred ‘Bosie’ Douglas, an Oxford undergraduate and the third son of the Marquess of Queensberry. They became lovers and were inseparable for four years.

Then in April 1895, Bosie’s father publicly accused Wilde of sodomy; Wilde sued. He began the trial in high spirits, facing an old rival from his Trinity days, Edward Carson (later, one of the fathers of modern unionism). But Carson delighted in deflating the flamboyant Wilde and, as the trial collapsed, Wilde was said to be close to nervous breakdown.

He was rearrested and over subsequent trials convicted of gross indecency and sentenced to two years’ hard labour. Constance took the children to Switzerland and reverted to an old family name, Holland. Wilde never saw his sons again.

Upon his release, he wrote The Ballad of Reading Gaol, an agonised response to his incarceration, but it was his last creative act. Wilde died on November 30, 1900.

The reverberations of the bigotry and homophobia that caused Wilde’s fall from grace still rumble in the Wilde/Holland family to this day.

Grandson Merlin Holland is the keeper of his literary reputation and has often spoken and written of the lasting damage of the scandal to his father, Vyvyan, and uncle, Cyril.

To mark the anniversary, The School of Drama, Trinity College Dublin, will present Irish Peacock and Scarlet Marquess, a dramatic reading from the transcript of the trial of Oscar Wilde with Merlin Holland as Wilde and actor Alan Stanford as Edward Carson. It takes place tonight at 8pm in The Samuel Beckett Theatre, Trinity College Dublin. Box Office: 01-6082461.

Wildean wit ...

“We are all in the gutter, but some of us are looking at the stars.”

“Education is an admirable thing. But it is well to remember that nothing worth knowing can be taught.”

“Friendship is far more tragic than love. It lasts longer.”

“Those whom the gods love grow young.”

“All women become like their mothers. That is their tragedy. No man does. That’s his.”

“Always forgive your enemies; nothing annoys them so much.”

“The way to get rid of temptation is to yield to it.”

“The only thing to do with good advice is pass it on; it is never of any use to oneself.”

“Crying is the refuge of plain women but the ruin of pretty ones.”

“Democracy means simply the bludgeoning of the people by the people for the people.”

“An acquaintance that begins with a compliment is sure to develop into a real friendship.”

“I sometimes think that God in creating man somewhat overestimated his ability.” “Those who are faithful know only the trivial side of love: it is the faithless who know love’s tragedies.”

“The man who says he has exhausted life generally means life has exhausted him.”

“My experience is that as soon as people are old enough to know better, they don’t know anything at all.”

“To lose one parent may be regarded as a misfortune ... to lose both seems like carelessness.”

“The sick do not ask if the hand that smoothes their pillow is pure, nor the dying care if the lips that touch their brow have known the kiss of sin.”

“Men always want to be a woman’s first love. Women have a more subtle instinct: What they like is to be a man’s last romance.”

“The only difference between the saint and the sinner is that every saint has a past, and every sinner has a future.”

“Rich bachelors should be heavily taxed. It is not fair that some men should be happier than others.”

“One should never trust a woman who tells her real age. If she tells that, she’ll tell anything.”

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