A ghastly, spectral army, before the great God we'll stand,
And arraign ye as our murderers, the spoilers of our land.
-- From 'The Famine Year' by 'Speranza'
Garden City, N.Y. (first published 9/15/10) -- There must be something in the air -- two presentations in metro New York in five days -- each helping recover the memory of extraordinary Irish women. Last week we heard from lecturer Eileen Kearney at NYU's Ireland House about playwright Teresa Deevy (1894-1963), who drifted into the ashcan of Irish cultural history despite gaining six Abbey productions in seven years. Last night, Christine Kinealy, a professor of Irish and European history at Drew University, Madison NJ relayed the poignant story of "Speranza," aka Lady Jane Wilde (right), who, she pointed out, is so much more than the mother of Oscar.
We can only hope that this emphasis on neglected Irish heroines continues -- worldwide -- for Irish history is replete with the ghosts of these women, whose contributions to their native land have either gone unrecognized or subsumed by the luster, or might we say, bluster, of the nation's male luminaries. Who recalls these days Anne Devlin, for example, despite her heroic refusal, in the face of British torture and squalid imprisonment, to inform on revolutionary Robert Emmet. She died, like Speranza, in poverty, though Devlin lived on Skid Row for far longer. Wilde's life story, for one, is far more vivid than anything Hollywood could conjure.
Kinealy's presentation took place in Garden City, a solidly suburban, largely Catholic enclave of Irish- and Italian-American executives and professionals. The burg has undergone a profound transformation since its creation in the 1870s by "Merchant Prince" Alexander Turney Stewart, the County Antrim-born, decidedly Anglican department store magnate, looking to create a suburb for people like him. The venue was the village's public library, the occasion the monthly meeting of the Garden City-based Irish Cultural Society. The society covered itself in glory in engaging Kinealy, who is a gifted story-teller, as well as a prolific writer, with a historian's penchant for details but a seanchaí's gift for knitting them together.
The professor began by asking, "How many of you have heard of 'Speranza?' Only one one hand went up. Speranza, was, in her heyday, one of the best-known women in Ireland, a poet, a proto-feminist, a champion of the poor, a patriot, a nudge at times and even a polemic, who bashed Daniel O'Connell, "The Liberator," no less, for his timidity on the use of force against tyranny. She led a call to arms during the Young Ireland Uprising of 1848 with her poem "Jacta Alea Est" (The Die Is Cast), crafting verse stunning in its eloquence and its force. It begins, "O! for a hundred thousand muskets . . . " She published that poem, and many others, in the Nation, the organ of the Irish republican movement and the most widely read newspaper in Ireland in its heyday. With perhaps less swagger than Constance Markievicz, Speranza acknowledged her authorship of the subversive poem during the trial of Charles Gavan Duffy, whom authorities believed was the author. Speranza's gender and bourgeois station in Irish society saved her from prosecution, Kinealy said.
Speranza was renowned both in Ireland and in the Irish immigrant communities in America for her prose and poetry, but cheered almost entirely for her contempt for British rule over the Irish. In fact, during Oscar Wilde's American tour in 1881-1882, the boutonniere-wearing aesthete found his audience warmed to him only when he invoked the republican legacy of his mother.
Lady Jane was born Jane Elgee, probably in 1821, though she herself, with a hint of vanity, would only admit to a birth year of 1826. Her family was solidly middle-class, and unionist, and so Speranza's espousal of radical government change in Ireland defied her family's, and Irish society's, expectations. She was, like Maud Gonne a generation or two later, a statuesque beauty, standing 6' tall. She was intimate, at least in a conspiratorial vein, with many of the principals of the 1848 Rising, and Kinealy conjectures that she may have had a romance with dashing orator Thomas Francis Meagher, who was transported to Van Dieman's Land for his role in the 1848 rising. She finally married oculist William Wilde in 1851. Wilde, born in Roscommon, grew up in the west of Ireland, and was fluent in Irish, unlike Speranza, despite her gift for languages (she spoke six fluently, Kinealy believes). Speranza and her husband had three children, including Oscar and Willie. Their daughter, Isola, died in childhood. William Wilde was knighted in 1864, the same year he was accused of rape by a patient, a charge against which, Kinealy said, Speranza defended her husband. This loyalty, despite her husband's various mistresses and children with them, would be on display again during Oscar's persecution for what the state called lewd conduct.
William Wilde ran though most of the family funds before he died in 1876, and with his passing Speranza struggled to make ends meet, despite receiving Oscar's surreptitious help. She moved to London, where for a time, at least, she continued to hold "at homes" for writers, including William Butler Yeats, George Bernard Shaw, and Oscar Wilde, in her increasingly more austere apartments, which were often dimly lit. Some thought this was to allow the aging beauty to hide her wrinkles, but more likely, suggested Kinealy, it may simply have been to save on the cost of lighting.
Speranza died in 1896, and Oscar, serving two years hard labor in prison, was refused compassionate leave to see her before she died. She was buried in an unmarked grave in London's Kensal Green Cemetery. As a footnote, a memorial plaque to her memory has been erected at her husband's grave in Dublin's Mount Jerome Cemetery, and a headstone finally placed at her grave.
Kinealy's critique of Speranza was supportive, but, for balance, she offered quotes from novelist Thomas Flanagan, who called Wilde "one of the silliest women who ever set pen to paper." Kinealy also cited a critic in the Irish Independent, who, in 1987, dismissed Speranza as "a vain and silly woman." A recent biographer, Joy Melville, also was more skeptical of Speranza's legacy, Kinealy and an audience member suggested, but Kinealy thought Melville not thorough in presenting the full range of views of Speranza's contemporaries. (The cover illustration of Speranza gracing Melville's book, showing Wilde gone to flesh, is also unflattering.)
Understanding the limited outlets for action offered to women of the Victorian era, it seems safe to say that Speranza hoped her words would inspire great deeds by others. Her poems, unwavering in support of Irish nationhood, her chafing against the limits imposed on those of her gender, and devotion to her iconoclastic son, these are her most glowing legacies. And for helping us understand that, we give thanks to Kinealy!
ET CETERA: There was a launch party for Christine Kinealy's new book, titled War and Peace: Ireland Since the 1960s at O'Lunney's Pub, 145 West 45th Street, Manhattan, on Thursday, Oct. 28. Kinealy is prolific, with 28 listings on Amazon.com, with some of her best-reviewed work focusing on An Gorta Mor, "The Great Irish Famine." … Audience member Mike Grimes, an immigrant from Pomeroy, County Tyrone, told us he's reading Prisoner 1082: Escape From Crumlin Road, Europe's Alcatraz by Donal Donnelly, about accused IRA soldier Donnelly's escape from Belfast's Crumlin Road Prison in 1960. Jim Hawkins, Grimes' companion in traveling to hear Kinealy, will be displaying his skill as a seanchai at the Irish Cultural Society's next meeting, Tuesday, Oct. 19.