Oscar Wilde (1854-1900)

Oscar Fingal O'Flahertie Wills Wilde was born in Dublin in 1854 to Sir William Wilde (a celebrated eye and ear surgeon and folklorist) and Lady Jane Wilde (a fiery Nationalist poet who wrote under the pen name "Speranza"). The Wilde family spent their summers in Connemara and later Cong, Co. Mayo, and, during these holidays, young Oscar heard much Irish folklore from his parents (who collected stories from the local tenantry) and Frank Houlihan (a Galway man who worked for Wilde's father). Many critics have noted that the folkloric element in Wilde's fiction for children and adults is one of the most Irish aspects of his art.

Also quite Irish is his outsider's view of the English, abundantly present in his fiction and his social comedies. In these works, Wilde seems somewhat charmed by the "exotic" ways of the English upper classes; as W.B. Yeats put it, "[Wilde] was an Irishman; and England to an Irishman is a far, strange land. To Wilde the aristocrats of England were as the nobles of Baghdad." That said, Wilde, being a socialist (see his essay "The Soul of Man under Socialism"), saw that the charmed lives of these aristocrats were predicated on the exploitation of the lower classes; therefore, he also repeatedly makes cutting observations about the English people who he finds so charming. Indeed, when his characters repeatedly make detached comments about "the English", it comes across strongly as the observations/criticisms of Wilde, the Irish outsider.

In addition to Wilde's four brilliant social comedies, he is also remembered as a dramatist for his powerful Biblical play, Salomé, which was originally written in French. It was denied a license by the Lord Chamberlain (England's theatrical censor), because it depicted Biblical characters – and in a sexy way, no less! The play received its professional, English-language premiere in a production mounted by the Gate Theatre Company at Dublin's Peacock Theatre (the Abbey Theatre's experimental space) in 1928.

Wilde was gay and was sentenced to two years hard labour for "homosexual offenses" in 1895. He left prison a broken man (physically and financially) and spent his last years on the continent – mostly in Paris. During his imprisonment and after, he produced two more classic works: his greatest poem, "The Ballad of Reading Gaol", and an open letter to his former lover, Lord Alfred "Bosie" Douglas, entitled De Profundis.


Find out more

For more on this playwright from an Irish Studies perspective, see Jarlath Killeen's book, The Faiths of Oscar Wilde: Catholicism, Folklore and Ireland (2005). Although it's out of print (and therefore might be hard to find), one might also consult Richard Pine's groundbreaking study, The Thief of Reason: Oscar Wilde and Modern Ireland (1995).

Oscar Wilde (1854-1900)