The Wild Geese Today Irish Blog

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Wednesday, September 15, 2010

'Speranza' -- Another Irish heroine reclaimed from the shadows

We are wretches, famished, scorned, human tools to build your pride,
But God will yet take vengeance for the souls for whom Christ died.
Now is your hour of pleasure—bask ye in the world's caress;
But our whitening bones against ye will rise as witnesses,
From the cabins and the ditches, in their charred, uncoffin'd masses,
For the Angel of the Trumpet will know them as he passes.
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. -- 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. Finally, her last play was rejected by the men in charge of the famed theater company. 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 (left), 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 Esperanza, in poverty, though Devlin lived on Skid Row for far longer. We remain full of 'esperanza,' Italian for hope, whose life story is far more vivid than anything Hollywood could create.

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 detail but a seanchaí's gift for knitting them together to breathe life into a life either forgotten or misunderstood or both.

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 question of Irish independence. 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. After the newspaper's staff was arrested, she and another woman ran it in place of the men, who were either on the run, in prison or in exile. 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 solidly upper-class 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, poetry, but mostly for her unbridled 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, and while on tour he was able to bask in the fire of her republicanism.

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, Kinealy said, Speranza stood by her husband. This loyalty, despite her husband's various mistresses and children with them, would be on display again during Oscar's prosecution on charges of 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 not given 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 was erected at her husband's grave in Dublin's Mount Jerome Cemetery, and a headstone finally erected recently in her London grave.

Kinealy's critique of Speranza was decidedly 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, described Speranza as "a vain and silly woman," without further explanation from her. A recent biographer, Joy Melville, also was more critical of Speranza's legacy, Kinealy and an audience member suggested, but Kinealy thought Melville not thorough in presenting the range of views of Speranza's contemporaries. (The cover illustration of Speranza gracing Melville's book, showing her gone to flesh, is also decidedly 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 love of life lived on her terms, and love for and devotion to her iconoclastic son, these seem incontrovertibly her most glowing legacies. And for helping us understand that, we give thanks to Kinealy!

ET CETERA: There will be a launch party for Christine Kinealy's (right) 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 22 listings on, with some of her best-reviewed work focusing on An Gorta Mor, "The Great Irish Famine." … Audience member Mike Grimes told us he's reading Prisoner 1082: Escape From Crumlin Road, Europe's Alcatraz by Dónal Donnelly about accused IRA soldier Donnelly's escape from Belfast's Crumlin Road Prison in 1960. Grimes emigrated from Pomeroy, County Tyrone. Jim Hawkins, his companion in traveling to Kinealy's presentation, will be displaying his skill as a seanchai at the Irish Cultural Society's next meeting, Tuesday, Oct. 19.

Poem bySperanza (Lady Wilde)

Mother of Oscar: Life of Jane Francesca Wilde

Wikipedia: Anne Devlin

Wikipedia: Alexander Turney Stewart

Irish Cultural Society of the Garden City Area

Drew University: Christine Kinealy

The Stranger's Scoffing’. Speranza, the Hope of the Irish Nation.
Christine Kinealy

"Prisoner 1082: Escape From Crumlin Road, Europe's Alcatraz" by Christine Kinealy

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Saturday, January 14, 2006


A hundred and fifty-eight year-old drummer boy of the famous Irish Brigade may soon come back to life on the silver screen as the boyfriend of a present day teenage girl. Of course, he was only fifteen when he died at the Battle of Antietam, so the match isn’t so bad. That’s the plot of a contest winning screen play by a New Yorker now living in West Virginia. Robert Savage’s script is a modern day horror story, set in Sharpsburg, MD, site of the September 17, 1862 battle. His story won the Anything But Hollywood screenplay contest.

That the fictional drummer boy would have died that day is not surprising. It was the single bloodiest day in US military history, and Savage placed him in the 69th NY Volunteer regiment of the Irish Brigade, who attacked the infamous “Bloody Lane” that day.

You can read more about the screen play HERE.

Thursday, January 12, 2006

James J. Braddock: Inspiration For the Film 'Cinderella Man'

James J. BraddockHeavyweight boxing champ James J. Braddock was the consummate survivor, and his story is one of the most inspiring in the annals of Irish America. Russell Crowe portrays Braddock in the acclaimed movie "Cinderella Man," directed by Ron Howard and also starring Renée Zellweger and Paul Giamatti. The film, rolled out last June, is sure to grab some Oscar nods next month. WGT's Robert Cassidy looks at the life and times of Braddock, the quintessential "Cinderella Man."

Read the rest