When I was researching Dublin of old for Dark Warning I kept crossing cyber paths with Sir William Wilde, father of Oscar. He was a renowned eye and ear surgeon but it is his interest in Irish folklore and the traditions of ordinary Irish people that had me bumping into him online.
I was trying to figure out what a Halloween bonfire would have been constructed from back in 1796 – bonfires are a huge part of Irish Halloweens. As I type now there will be kids gathering palettes and tyres and any old junk they can get hold of to construct as towering a bonfire as they can for Friday night. The fires will be lit after the trick and treating is all done, and there will be ‘bangers’ and fireworks. When I was a kid the bonfires were usually presided over by teenage boys and little children were kept away; nowadays parents will take charge at many (though not all) of them.
I came across a description Wilde gave of a May Eve bonfire in the Liberties. He described the bonfire as made up of old furniture and turf and bones – animal bones. I hadn’t realised the word bonfire came from bone fire (doh!) This gave me the idea of topping the bonfire in my story with the skulls of horses. The idea was irresistible – horse skulls alight in the dark, staring down at you with flames shooting out their empty eye sockets.
William Wilde was knighted in 1864 but he had a rather spectacular fall from grace shortly afterwards. A former patient accused him of seducing her and it was the talk of Dublin. He would already have been gossiped about as he had three children from relationships prior to his marriage – all of whom he acknowledged and supported. This is his grave, which we spotted recently in Mt Jerome Cemetery in Dublin.
Oscar’s mother, Jane Wilde, was also a writer and collector of tales. She was quite a woman – a poet, a journalist, calling for armed revolution in Ireland in the 1840s and arguing for women’s rights. When her husband died in 1876 she discovered they were close to bankruptcy. She moved to London and eked out a living from her writing. We know her as Speranza, and her collections of Irish folktales, many based on William’s research, are still in print today. She had a lot of financial support from Oscar but he was in prison in 1896 when she was dying. Lady Wilde requested a final visit with him but the authorities refused. Oscar paid for her funeral but could not afford a headstone. She is buried in a common grave in Kensal Green. Father, mother, son, all died relatively destitute and shunned by ‘society’, but their voices are still alive and with us today.
Portrait of Oscar Wilde by graffiti artists Dusto and Psychonautes, on the rear wall of the Cork Opera House, Half Moon Street.
PS: Don’t forget to check for hedgehogs before you light your Halloween bonfire…have a spooky one.