Crinolines on fire, 1860, Creative Commons Image
THIS STORY HAPPENED when I was in my mid-twenties. Like most sensitive young men I was full of romantic notions about all sorts of things. Especially famous writers: most fascinating to me at the time was Oscar Wilde. I was also curious about my family roots, in this case in Ireland. Given these preoccupations I was in the completely wrong place (the cornfields of Iowa), doing the wrong thing (studying for an interminable degree in god-knows-which obscure American modernist poet). I was feeling isolated and claustrophobic in the fishbowl of Iowa City – which was pretty enough and even cool enough thanks to the Workshop students, but which was neither sufficiently old nor charming. Added to this my father had just died unexpectedly at 49. I mourned his death by making rash, unpredictable choices.
So one frosty Iowa spring morning, seized by the desire to abandon my sensible, funded graduate program and pursue my unfunded obsession with Wilde in Ireland, I acted. I withdrew from all my courses and forwarded my small inheritance to the financial department of Trinity College, Dublin. I remember having in mind a particular epigram of Wilde’s, something about lying in the gutter and looking at the stars. Even the gutter part sounded romantic. I was confused, as I say, and overrun by the fever of romance. But that’s how I found myself enrolled the next autumn at the university attended by Wilde (and Samuel Beckett, and Bram Stoker, and many other writers I admired), specializing in Wilde, at a research centre bearing Wilde’s name, in the very house where Wilde was born. (Let’s forget for a moment what happened later: when Ireland and I, having squandered all our money, were subjected to the meanest form of austerity.)
My first term at Trinity had its highs and lows. Academically speaking, it was an inauspicious start: mostly spent in smoky Northside pubs, listening to moody Irish ballads, falling prey to infatuations, drinking too much, lying spread-eagled among the cigarettes and broken glass on the pub floors of Nighttown – that sort of thing. I was attending very few lectures, and still fewer sober.
Yet somehow I soaked up, along with the beer and whiskey and gin, more literature than I ever knew existed. I read voraciously, either in my green leather nook at the back of the Stag’s Head or, like the feckless student narrator in Flann O’Brien’s At Swim-Two-Birds, in bed all day while I nursed a hangover: not only Wilde but Joyce and Behan and O’Casey and Yeats, Elizabeth Bowen and Edna O’Brien, Jennifer Johnston and Eavan Boland, Seamus Heaney and Brendan Kennelly (who was one of my teachers). I waded through the mystical mire of Yeats’s A Vision and read the notorious Black Diaries of Roger Casement, the colonial civil servant turned human rights activist and gay Irish revolutionary, who was caught running guns from Germany to Ireland and executed by the English for treason in 1916. My blood ran black and white, and my eyes puffed up from the strain of reading fifteen hours a day.
It was a grand time and I was enjoying myself immensely. But something still nagged: I wanted to stake a formal claim on my ancestry. So I went down to the Passport Office in Molesworth Street near the National Library to obtain my hereditary citizenship. A kind and maternal woman in her fifties named Maebh took my case. She told me what to do and I brought her all the necessary documents, culled from the detritus of my dead relatives and carried across the Atlantic: certificates of birth, marriage, and death. There was one yellowed piece of parchment written in a calligraphic hand that predated the Irish Republic itself. She stamped all her stamps and scurried back and forth from her window to the ancient photocopier while I stood by and watched. Then my application was complete: the last thing she said before she rang the bell to call the next in line was “Welcome home, son.”
By that time St. Patrick’s Day was drawing near, and feeling now exceptionally Irish I decided to write to my great aunt and arrange a visit. Edna, my grandfather’s sister-in-law, was an ancient woman from Sligo whom I’d never met and who lived alone on a farm in County Monaghan just south of the border. I wrote her a proper letter, straining to remember my cursive script, and a few weeks later she wrote back. She invited me to come up for the long weekend. Leaving the party behind I walked down to the Bus Éireann station on Friday morning and caught a bus going to Belfast. I got off a few hours later in the small town of Clones – where Neil Jordan’s The Butcher Boy was filmed – and found the place respectable enough, if a bit cold and grey. My first thought was: No wonder they left. But one of my grandfather’s brothers had stayed, and now his wife Edna, a robust widow in her eighties with thick glasses and gumboots, was standing there waiting for me. She said hello without offering a hug, and drove us in a battered Mercedes back to the farm at Smithboro, the place where my grandfather was born.
I knew by now not to expect much of the legendary family farm, and in this lack of expectation I was not disappointed. There had once been a larger house, Edna told me, the one where my grandfather lived until he was nineteen, but it had been torn down in the sixties. In its place was a small and sensible two-storey stucco house. There were a few crumbling outbuildings to add a bit of romance, several sheep on the front lawn that Edna called “pets,” and some large enclosures behind the house which held five bulls and two or three horses. Edna said that although she lived alone there were a couple of local men who worked the farm, and her niece Ruth, my father’s cousin, stopped by almost every day. Inside the house was a mix of the very old – sombre furniture that, having survived the long journey, would never leave – and the strikingly new, including a huge television positioned directly opposite a sleek black leather lounger.
On Friday night Edna served fish fingers and boiled potatoes and milk for dinner. Since it was just the two of us we ate in the kitchen, and afterwards we retired to the living room. There we sat, Edna in her lounger and me on the lace-covered sofa, watching The Quiet Man with John Wayne and saying very little to each other. I was beginning to realize that, unlike the Dubliners I had met, Edna was a woman of few words. I remember trying to ignore the silence by focusing on the film, and noticing that John Wayne’s trousers were pulled up higher than any trousers I’d ever seen on a man.
But eventually during a long advertising break we started to talk. She told me the history of my family, once prosperous “gentlemen farmers” now reduced by emigration and economic crisis to this lonely widow living in a few rooms of a modest country house. We touched on education – Edna surprised me with the news that she had attended Wesley College, a Methodist boarding school once situated on the edge of St. Stephen’s Green – and then about particular Irish authors (Shaw was a graduate of Wesley). I asked Edna if she had seen any famous productions of the plays of Wilde or Yeats or Shaw or Synge at the Abbey or the Gate. She indulged me as much as her failing memory would allow: she had definitely seen something scandalous by Shaw.
But I also learned another, more shocking family history – one that was loosely tied up with my own. It was the story of Oscar Wilde’s two illegitimate half-sisters. Wilde’s father, William Wilde, was a notorious philanderer, and he had children hidden away in houses up and down the country. Two of these children, Mary and Emily, had lived on the farm, or “estate,” next to ours. They had died together – shortly after Oscar’s seventeenth birthday, though it is unclear whether he even knew of their existence – in a tragic fire in that very house. On October 31st, 1871, during the last dance of a country ball, the hem of one sister’s – Emily’s – crinoline evening gown had suddenly burst into flames. Crinoline was notoriously flammable: so much so that this sort of death was not uncommon. Hundreds of young women seem to have died in similar fires during the nineteenth century. In this case the other sister, Mary, tried to rescue her, but she was also wearing a crinoline gown; both sisters received mortal burns. William Wilde, Edna told me with a sideways glance, had been spotted at the graveside in the weeks after the funeral, wailing openly in his grief. He never recovered, she said. He died a few years later, a broken man. Not unlike his son after prison, I thought. What a tragic family.
The story came up completely by accident. Not long after I arrived, I had noticed a dust-jacketed copy of Richard Ellmann’s biography of Wilde sitting primly on a doily-covered china cabinet. Ellmann, the American son of a Jewish Romanian immigrant father and a Ukrainian mother, was Goldsmiths’ Professor of English Literature at Oxford University from 1970 to 1985. (He also passed through Trinity College, Dublin.) Ellmann wrote the definitive biography of James Joyce in 1959 and a dozen other books on famous Irish authors. He also published an anthology in the 1960s that strongly influenced the study of literary modernism – especially its slant towards Irish writers. Along with The Pound Era by Hugh Kenner, a fellow Yale graduate and Hibernophile, Ellmann’s The Modern Tradition shaped the modernist canon for decades afterwards.
I had taken down several of Ellmann’s books from the stacks at Trinity library during my first two terms. In particular I recalled spending a week in bed around Valentine’s Day, sick with a humiliating case of adult chicken pox, reading his edition of Joyce’s fascinating and filthy letters. I guessed he might have written about Wilde reluctantly, being unsure what to do with him: Wilde was modern, but not exactly a modernist; he was gay, which Ellmann seemed to have difficulty talking about; and unlike Joyce or Yeats, he seemed to have left his Irishness behind when he left Ireland. In fact, as I later learned, Ellmann struggled with the biography through the last two decades of his life. As fate would have it, Wilde was not only Ellmann’s last subject, but also his crowning achievement. Ellmann died in 1987, the same year the book was published, and Oscar Wilde was posthumously awarded both the Pulitzer Prize and the U.S. National Book Critics Circle Award. (The book was later used as the basis for Wilde, the biopic with Stephen Fry giving his uncanny performance as Oscar incarnate.)
I knew most of this at the time, and I was delighted to find an object of common interest, so I asked my aunt about the book. Edna was dismissive at first, saying it had been sitting there for a decade gathering dust. After some gentle prodding, however, she told me the story of how the book had found its way into the house. Ellmann had come to Ireland to research the book, and one of his stops was Monaghan to investigate the story of Wilde’s sisters. As Edna told it, he had lain in wait outside the local church on a Sunday, and when the congregation emerged Ellmann started asking if anyone knew the story of the sisters’ death. Someone pointed to my great uncle and said, “Ask him, he’ll know.” So Ellmann interviewed my uncle about it, and when the book came out he sent a signed copy as thanks. And there it sat, long after Ellmann and my uncle had gone.
The story of Wilde’s sisters that my uncle told Ellmann is a sensational one, reminiscent of something Gwendolen Fairfax would read on the train. The first published account of the story appears in a biography of William Wilde by T. G. Wilson in 1942. Yeats’s father recalled the sisters’ death in a letter in 1921 – so the story was probably familiar to the small world of Dublin society. At the same time, some of the obscurity surrounding the events stems from discretion on the part of the authorities when dealing with sensitive matters involving people of significant social standing. From reading several accounts, including the one my great uncle gave to Ellmann, I learned that the births of Mary and Emily Wilde were indeed out of wedlock (that antiquated yet evocative phrase) but they predated the marriage of Oscar’s parents. At the time of their death Mary and Emily were wards – like Cecily Cardew in The Importance of Being Earnest – of William Wilde’s eldest brother, the impeccably named Reverend Ralph Wilde. The Reverend Ralph, who christened Oscar, was rector of St. Molua’s, Drumsnat: the parish church that my family attended in Monaghan. The neighbour’s house, where the party took place, belonged to a local bank manager named Andrew Reid. Reid was the man who had taken the last dance with Emily and then tried in vain to extinguish both sisters when their dresses caught fire.
The night itself, October 31st, seems to have been a party to celebrate All Hallow’s Eve, or Samhain in Ireland. It was most likely attended by the well-to-do landowning families in the area, from neighbouring estates like ours. (I asked whether it was likely that anyone from our family had been present, but Edna just shrugged indifferently.) There was plenty of alcohol, and the party went on late into the night. Accounts of the event differ, with some even calling it a Christmas party. Some accounts also describe there being snow on the ground: Reid is said to have rushed Emily outside and rolled her in the snow to put out the flames, while Mary ran around screaming frantically until she collapsed. There is no mention of snow in the official inquiry, but then the inquiry also gives the family name not as Wilde but “Wylie.”
The aftermath of the tragedy was, if possible, even more gruesome than the terrible accident itself. The sisters remained in the house, as was the custom at the time, where they were treated for the severe burns they had both suffered. To die on Halloween night would have been merciful: instead they lingered on for days and weeks at Drumaconnor. Mary, the younger sister who had tried to help, died first, on November 9th. Her death was kept a secret from Emily, who was also near death, to spare her the shock; nevertheless, three weeks after the accident, on November 21st, Emily also died.
Oscar Wilde, that pioneer of camp sensibility, was not one to respond to tragedy with too much sentiment. One of the most famous remarks attributed to him is the one about the death of Nell Trent, the angelic child in Dickens’s The Old Curiosity Shop. Wilde is said to have quipped: “One must have a heart of stone to read the death of little Nell without laughing.” (The child’s death in the popular serial story took everyone by shock: before it was revealed, people were said to have lined the docks in New York, shouting to sailors arriving from England, “Is Little Nell alive?”) In The Importance of Being Earnest, the supremely unsentimental Lady Bracknell, on hearing that Algernon’s friend Jack Worthing is an orphan, declares: “To lose one parent may be regarded as a misfortune; to lose both looks like carelessness.” The same could be said of sisters.
It is hard to say with any certainty what happened that Halloween night, at the end of the party when most of the guests had left. Events were intentionally covered up, and details were kept to a minimum to avoid scandal; the story that was passed down in the neighbourhood, and that my great uncle told Richard Ellmann outside the church, was likely filled in and smoothed around the edges with the passing of time. Was there really snow on the ground in Ireland on October 31st? Was it Emily who danced with the host, or Mary? Who else was in the room? How much had been drunk?
The story ends in the tiny churchyard of St. Molua’s, Drumsnat parish, two miles from Smithboro, County Monaghan, where I drove with Edna that Sunday to visit the graves of our ancestors before catching the bus back to Dublin. In the car on the way Edna repeated a story I had already read in Ellmann’s biography. It was the local legend of the “woman in black” – thought to be the girls’ mother – who visited the graves regularly for twenty years after the tragedy. Oscar Wilde also used to tell the story of a woman in black. Wilde, who was still a teenager at the time, recalled an unknown woman’s visits to his house during his father’s last illness. The woman would come into the house and kneel by William’s sickbed, while Oscar’s mother stood by watching without interfering, apparently knowing that her husband and the woman, who shared a tragic bond, had loved each other deeply.
We entered the churchyard through the wrought iron gate and explored separately in silence. Edna’s hands were clasped behind her back, her head bowed. Right away I noticed that among the names on gravestones that I could read – Arthur Brady; Henry and Anne Finnegan; Robert John Bole and his wife Charlotte, who had emigrated to Alberta and whose bodies had been returned for burial here; Martha Brown, Ruth’s mother – at least half were marked by my family name. There was Thomas Hanna, and Stephen, who died in 1835, and his brother James, and their sister, whose name I couldn’t read. Edna pointed out the grave of another great aunt, Amy Elizabeth, whom my sister was named after. I knelt in the grass and took some pictures. The grave of Mary and Emily was there too, and I photographed it. In contrast to their younger brother, whose famous tomb I had seen once in Père Lachaise cemetery, the sisters were all but anonymous, their gravestone untended and overgrown and lost to time.
Years later I went back to Smithboro and the churchyard of St. Molua’s. Things had improved. The Oscar Wilde Society had erected a new monument beside the old one to mark the Wilde sisters’ final resting place. The simple stone read:
In Memory of
Two loving and beloved Sisters
EMILY WILDE aged 24
MARY WILDE aged 22
who lost their lives by accident
in this parish in Nov 1871.
They were lovely and pleasant in
their lives and in their death they
were not divided
(II Samuel Chap. I, v 23)
Julian Hanna was born in Vancouver and is currently self-exiled on the island of Madeira. His research on modernism and digital storytelling appears regularly in academic journals; his creative writing has appeared in The Atlantic, 3:AM, Flash, Minor Literature[s], Cine Qua Non, and elsewhere. Find him on Twitter @julianisland.
What an interesting story. Imagine dying because of a dress. And that this was not an uncommon occurrence in those days…wow.
Ah, well, the truth is it still happens, only the usual victims are the very young and the elderly. A quick Google hunt found a somewhat dated article (1967) that put clothing deaths in the thousands per year.
Thank you for such a fascinating story. By recounting it as passed down through your family, you have kept the memory of these two young ladies alive. I wonder about the host, the bank manager. I wonder if he had a romantic interest? How terrible he must have felt for the rest of his life.