- Wilde, Homosexuality, Ireland
Éibhear Walshe's interesting and informative study of the significance of Wilde's legacy in Ireland takes its cue from an essay by Alan Sinfield ("'I See It Is My Name That Terrifies': Wilde in the Twentieth Century" in Eileán Ní Chuilleanáin's collection The Wilde Legacy, 2003), where Sinfield contended that "Ireland, as much as England and the United States, might claim the name of Wilde as a gay icon." Walshe's subject is the role played by Wilde in the formation of a homosexual identity in Ireland in the hundred or so years from his imprisonment to the present. Walshe summarizes his project at the end of his first chapter in terms that might seem at first sight to be counter-intuitive to those familiar only with a lazy association of a Catholic and conservative Ireland with homophobia: his contention is that "in Ireland, Wilde largely escaped the full rigours of widespread condemnation experienced in Britain and the United States.... As a result of an intensification of cultural nationalism into the early twentieth century, Wilde's appearances in the Old Bailey, his downfall and his sexual crime could be reinterpreted by later Irish writers in the light of their own aesthetic and political purposes, creating a much different 'Wilde century' in Ireland. Wilde's name never seemed to terrify anyone in Ireland."
The seven chapters that comprise Walshe's book trace particular moments in the varying responses to both Wilde and his work in Ireland since 1895. Initially he describes Irish reactions to the trials principally via reports in the Irish press, outlining the "process" in which "Wilde could be commandeered into the acceptable mode of the Irish rebel" and arguing "that there was a surprisingly reticent, even tolerant, attitude evident towards Wilde in many of the mainstream Irish newspapers." Walshe notes that "little or nothing" has been written about the attitudes of the Irish press, and their "reticence stands in marked contrast to the energetic homophobia of the English newspapers." Consequently, rather than being judged as decadent and corrupting (as in Britain), Wilde's dissidence could be seen as "affirming," [End Page 396] and so could later be reconfigured as "an episode of anti-imperialist defiance." To make his point, Walshe contrasts this relaxed Irish attitude to Wilde's conviction with near contemporary press reports of the trials for indecency and sodomy of some of the officers of Dublin Castle, then the centre of British power in Ireland. In Walshe's words, in these trials, "[a]ll Irish newspapers distanced themselves from what they chose to see as a foreign vice, attacking for purposes of nationalist rhetoric." The upshot, Walshe suggests, was that "later readings of Wilde the Irish rebel served to mitigate the potential severity of Irish commentators, in particular in dealing with his sexuality." Chapter two goes on to develop this point and describes how Wilde's apparent "sinfulness" could temporarily be reconstrued in terms of a heroic "anti-colonial resistance." Walshe's third chapter describes the changes to Wilde's reputation brought about by the "conservatism of de Valera's Ireland," in which "the eroticised body, in any form, was absent from public discourse." Despite the fact that his plays were still being staged in Ireland, and that Wilde was still being written about, for Walshe the "language of mainstream culture" was at this time homophobic. So, for example, Wilde's name is all but elided from contemporary accounts of his Irish alma maters, Trinity College, Dublin and Portora Royal School.
Walshe then documents how matters gradually changed again in the 1960s, a reforming decade in most of Europe and the United States, but a period when homosexuality was still criminalized in Ireland (a situation that remained the case, Walshe reminds us, until 1993). He sees these years accompanying and producing a second "transformation of Wilde's reputation in Ireland"; its principal agent was the actor and writer Micheál mac Líammóir, whose one-man show The Importance of Being Oscar (1960...