Of all the great writers born in Dublin, Oscar Wilde is one whose life and work still fascinates people. He was unique, brilliant and ultimately suffered the mightiest fall and died penniless at only forty-six years old.
He was born on 16th October 1854 at 21 Westland Row to Sir William Wilde and his wife Jane. William was one of the leading eye-and-ear surgeons of the day, and his free dispensary was the forerunner of the current Royal Eye and Ear Hospital. Due to his outstanding work with the Irish Census from 1841, he received a knighthood in 1865. And with an increasing medical practice and improving financial position the family moved to a bigger house, a short distance away, at No. 1 Merrion Square. (Today, a colourful statue of Oscar looks at the house from the NW corner of Merrion Square.) Jane wrote poetry for The Nation under the style Speranza (Italian for ‘hope’) and was famed for her parties, where the young Oscar met the great and good, namely; the writer Sheridan La Fanu, the mathematician William Rowan Hamilton and the painter George Petrie among others.
He went to Portora Royal School in Enniskillen and won a scholarship to study Classics at Trinity College, Dublin. In 1874 he won another scholarship and went to Magdalen College, Oxford where in 1878 he achieved a double-first in Classics.
In 1891 wrote his only novel, The Picture of Dorian Gray, which brought Wilde notoriety. In it Gray makes a deal with the Devil to remain young while his picture ages, and this was considered perverse and scandalous. Modern readers take a lighter view, and the story has been made into film on many occasions. From 1892-1895 Wilde had a run of unprecedented success with his plays Lady Windermere’s Fan, A Woman of No Importance, An Ideal Husband, and his masterpiece, The Importance of Being Earnest, all playing to full houses. However, after losing a bitterly contested court case he was convicted of ‘gross indecency’ and sent to two years of hard labour in Reading Gaol. He was so unsuited for this punishment that his health suffered, and it hastened his death three years after his release, in Paris on the 30th November 1900. Always one for the witty remark he is reported to have said when lying on his deathbed after being handed a glass of champagne ‘I am dying beyond my means’. Well said, Oscar!