The recent unveiling of a statue of Millicent Fawcett outside the Westminster Parliament was significant for two reasons. It was the first monument to a woman in Parliament Square, and by a woman in the iconic space.
Fawcett was a pioneering figure within the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies, the moderate wing of the British suffrage movement, who crucially defined themselves as suffragists and not suffragettes, the difference being primarily one of tactics.
Watching from Ireland, the unveiling of the statue brought to mind an Irish champion of Fawcett’s message who is herself curiously uncommemorated in Dublin. Lady Jane Wilde, who wrote under the pen name Speranza, was a tireless campaigner for social reform and a committed political activist on many fronts in the days of Fawcett.
Her family home, 1 Merrion Square, boasts two plaques. One remembers her husband, the surgeon Sir William Wilde, while another honours her son, the internationally renowned Oscar.
Born in Wexford in 1821, Jane Francesca Agnes was the daughter of a prominent solicitor who was drawn towards radical Irish nationalism by the Young Ireland movement of the 1840s. A movement that was both political and cultural, it drew inspiration from progressive nationalist forces on the European continent, and produced the influential newspaper The Nation, which championed “a nationality which may embrace Protestant, Catholic, and Dissenter … the Irishman of a hundred generations, and the stranger who is within our gates”.
Lady Wilde contributed poetry to the newspaper, often of a highly seditious nature. Against the backdrop of the Great Hunger, her poem “The Famine Year” appeared in print in 1847, accusing the authorities of facilitating the exportation of food from an island in crisis: “Fainting forms, hunger-stricken, what see you in the offing? Stately ships to bear our food away, amid the stranger’s scoffing.”
It was the Young Irelanders who first unveiled the Irish tricolour in 1848, a flag symbolically tied to the second French revolution, being presented by French republican women to Irish nationalists at a banquet in Paris.
The Wilde’s were a curious family. Surgeon William Wilde accepted a knighthood in Dublin Castle for his pioneering work in the fields of medicine and statistics, while his wife retained a deep sense of republican separatism, regarding the castle as an alien institution that stood in the way of the vision of an Irish republic.
Their family home at 1 Merrion Square buzzed with political debate and literary discussion, with the Irish Times proclaiming that it “was known as the house where a guest met all the Dublin celebrities in literature, art and the drama, as well as any stray literary waif who might be either sojourning or passing through the city”.
Oscar Wilde was greatly influenced by the types of guests who passed through his family home in his youth, remembering the nationalist William Smith O’Brien as a man who was “tall and stately with a dignity of one who had fought for a noble idea and the sadness of one who had failed”.
Millicent Fawcett was among those invited to speak at the family home by Lady Wilde in 1870, encouraged to come “explain what female liberty means”. Later, when Oscar Wilde assumed the position of editor at the magazine The Woman’s World, he invited Fawcett to contribute.
As Wilde’s biographer Eleanor Fitzsimons has detailed, Oscar was influenced by the support of his mother for the cause of women’s suffrage and women’s rights in the broadest sense.
There is a certain irony in the manner in which Speranza has been relatively forgotten in Ireland today as, in the lifetime of her famed son, Oscar sometimes found it difficult to emerge from her shadow.
On his first tour of the United States in 1882, he was often billed as Speranza’s son and found himself asked at length about her contributions to the Young Ireland movement and her poetic work.
Later dedicating his letter “De Profundis” to his esteemed parents, Oscar wrote that “she and my father had bequeathed me a name they had made noble and honoured, not merely in literature, art, archaeology and science, but in the public history of my own country, and in its evolution as a nation”.
Following the death of her husband, Lady Wilde lived in London from 1879 onwards, struggling financially in a city where Oscar was emerging as an important cultural voice.
She stood by her son as the scandal of his sexuality led to imprisonment, and was refused permission to visit him in prison in 1896, when she contracted bronchitis, a condition which led to her death at 74.
She was buried in an unmarked grave at Kensal Green Cemetery, something which in some ways embodied the collapse of the standing of the Wilde family. Thankfully, this was rectified by the Oscar Wilde Society in recent times, who placed a Celtic cross memorial at her resting place. It remembers her as a “writer, translator, poet, nationalist, and early advocate for equality of women”.
In April of this year, some Dublin city councillors started to push for a statue to Countess Constance Markievicz on O’Connell Street. Yet if a woman has falling through the cracks of history, it can hardly be said to be the countess, with a bust outside Dáil Éireann, another in St Stephen’s Green and an impressive statue already in place on Tara Street.
Speranza, a formative influence on Markievicz and her generation, is surely deserving of a plaque on the Merrion Square Wilde family home. Amidst widespread commemoration of the women of the 1913–23 period, the pioneering figures that led the way for them are also deserving of remembrance.