If you want your child to be noticed, then give him or her a series of names that stand out from the crowd. Such was the case for Oscar Fingal O’Flahertie Wills Wilde, but he turned out not to need his long-winded nomenclature to achieve everlasting fame. His own genius did that for him in ample measure. To really appreciate the man and his work this writer feels that no visit to Dublin is complete without making a courtesy call to his great statue which sits, almost arrogantly, aloft a thirty-tonne quartz rock in Merrion Square Park. It’s appropriately placed opposite to his childhood home at Number One, Merrion Square (now the American College). Very rarely does a city have a commemorative statue that stands so much out of the ordinary that it becomes a ‘must-see’ for visitors and citizens alike. Copenhagen has its Mermaid and Brussels its Manneken Pis. However, I believe this one stands head and shoulders above all the others, both literally and metaphorically.
Oscar Wilde was born in 1854 in nearby 21 Westland Row to remarkable parents. His mother, Lady Jane Francesca Elgee (1821-1896) was a patriot and poet in her own right and in her early years frequently got herself noticed by the authorities for her politically seditious poems and articles. Settling down she married Sir William Wilde (1815-1876) a renowned eye and ear physician, archaeologist and collector of Irish folklore. Oscar received his first name in honour conjointly from an Irish mythological hero and of the then King of Sweden on whose cataract William Wilde successfully operated. The family moved to a more splendid house on Merrion Square in 1855 where many notables in the field of writing and art frequented their salon. Oscar himself attended Portora Royal School in Enniskillen before spending a glittering few years in Dublin’s Trinity College followed by an equally successful time in Oxford University. He spent the next twenty or so years dazzling British society with his wit, plays, poems and lifestyle. But tragedy soon loomed and then crashed over this genius of words.
In 1864, Sir William was sued successfully for allegedly seducing a colleague’s daughter, which wrecked his reputation and led to more or less bankrupting him. He died twelve years later and left his wife penniless. Then on 1867 Oscar lost his nine-year old sister, Isola, to fever. He forever carried a lock of her hair on his person. In 1871 a fire claimed the lives of his two half-sisters. Oscars’ marriage of 1884 to Constance Mary Lloyd virtually ends in 1895 when he is imprisoned following a charge of gross indecency. This was at a time when acts of homosexuality were illegal. Over the next few years both his mother and his wife would die. His two years of hard labour in prison are followed, on his release, by the rejection of society and personal poverty. He wandered Europe for a couple of years before dying, possibly from cerebral meningitis, at the age of only 46 in a low-grade Paris hotel and was buried in a pauper’s grave. He was later reburied in Père Lachaise Cemetery where his monument and grave can be visited today.
So back to his statue! Oscar Wilde was a colourful and flamboyant character and loved to dress as a dandy. So. the talented sculptor, Danny Osborne, created an exceptional statue using different exotically coloured rocks. The shoes and socks are made from black Indian granite. The jacket is crafted from green jade and its pink cuffs and collar are from a rare Norwegian stone called thulite. The trousers are cut from larvakite, also from Norway. For the head and hands, a pale-coloured jade from Guatemala was used. This jade was so hard that it took weeks to just polish each section. Jade represents immortality in many cultures, but Wilde has achieved this anyway.
Fronting the statue of Wilde are “the pillar of life” and “the pillar of art”. A number of memorable quotations from Oscar’s writings are cut into the four stone sides of each pillar. These quotes were chosen by various people associated with Irish cultural life and are written out in each individual’s own handwriting style. On the top of the pillars are two bronzes: the torso of the Greek god of wine, fertility and theatre Dionysus and Constance, Oscar’s wife, Osborne says that he depicted her as around 6 months pregnant with their first child which was supposedly the time when Oscar had his first homosexual encounter with Robbie Ross. Constance is looking across the path in his general direction but not directly at her husband.
Partly funded by a sponsorship from Guinness the statue group was unveiled by Wilde’s only grandson, Merlin Holland, in 1997 (Constance changed the family name from Wilde to Holland when he was sentenced to jail to avoid scandal for her children). Behind the statue of Oscar is a children’s playground which is themed to one of Oscar’s children’s stories, The Selfish Giant.
Oscar memorably once noted that “The only thing worse than being talked about, is not being talked about”. He needn’t have worried. Wilde doesn’t need a statue to attain his rightful place among the immortals, but he would surely approve of Danny Osborne’s work as equal to and wonderfully reflecting his own exceptional genius. Dublin is the winner on both accounts.