Over the past twenty years, the reclamation of Oscar Wilde as Irishman has resulted in fruitful postcolonial readings that configure the writer as a subversive critic of English attitudes and Victorian social mores. Under the rubric of national identity, early constructions of Wilde the Irishman by critics including Davis Coakley, Richard Pine and Jerusha McCormack foregrounded issues such as language, orality and storytelling, while also drawing attention to Wilde’s fascination with Catholicism and asserting his putative nationalism.1 Although his Irish background may well be an important context for the consideration of Wilde’s work, it is certainly important to remember that he was a cosmopolitan figure who described himself as “a most recalcitrant patriot.”2 Recently, Ian Small has drawn attention to the need for an explicit, up-to-date discussion of Wilde’s Irish identity.3 That Wilde was Irish by birth is indisputable, but “Irishness” is an evolving concept, not an essential identity, and Wilde’s particular brand of Irishness was the multi-determined product of his privileged upbringing, Protestant education, life experiences, and of the sociopolitical and cultural circumstances of his time. Referring in 1999 to then recent critical approaches to Wilde, Máire Ní Flathúin pointed out that “the concepts of the marginal and the outsider in his work are sometimes pursued in ways that elide the different varieties of Irishness current in the nineteenth century.”4
The timely warning note has not always been heeded by more recent critics. Commentators such as Thomas Wright echo rather than evaluate earlier Wildean scholarship, while overlooking more current critical work on the complex sociocultural and political landscape of late-nineteenth-century Ireland.5 In so doing, they overlook the significance within an Irish context of the related issues of religion, ethnicity and race. In order to assess the usefulness and limitations of continuing [End Page 443] constructions of Wilde the Irishman, this article begins by outlining the writer’s Irish background before addressing critical approaches to Wilde’s Irishness and its influence on his work. Attention then turns to a consideration of Wilde’s stated position on the relationship between nationality and art and his own views on race. This assessment reveals that Wilde’s views on Ireland and the Irish differed considerably from those attributed to him by many critics over the last twenty years.
Oscar Wilde was born in Dublin in 1854 into a family that belonged to the Protestant Ascendancy in Ireland; his father, William, a pioneering eye and ear surgeon with an interest in antiquities, was knighted in 1864 for his work for the Irish Census Commissioners; his mother, Jane, had as a young woman supported the cause of the nationalist movement known as the Young Irelanders, publishing patriotic verse under the pseudonym Speranza in its newspaper, the Nation. As a child, Wilde was privately educated at home in Merrion Square, which was then, as now, one of the city’s most prestigious addresses. At the age of nine, he was sent as a boarder to Portora Royal School in County Fermanagh, from where he progressed in 1871 to Trinity College Dublin, which he left after three years without a degree to take up a scholarship to Magdalen College Oxford.6 He spent most of his adult life living in England, mainly in London.
The importance of Wilde’s Irish background and childhood experiences has been repeatedly stressed since the 1990s, particularly in relation to an understanding of the writer’s attitude to orality and storytelling. So, for example, placing the spoken tales reportedly told by Wilde to acquaintances in an Irish context, Deirdre Toomey argues that Wilde belonged to “the most oral culture in Western Europe.”7 While this fits nicely with W. B. Yeats’s recollection that Wilde once told him that the Irish “were the greatest talkers since the Greeks,” it misleadingly portrays Irish culture as static and monolithic, rather than fluid and incorrigibly plural.8 Although oral traditions were and are strong in Ireland, they were not remarkable for their presence in the fashionable Merrion Square of the late nineteenth century. Moreover, they traverse at least four languages (Irish, English, Ulster Scots, and Cant), encompass...