The childhood home of Oscar Wilde, 1855 - 1878
Number One Merrion Square is the former childhood home of one of Dublin’s most famous sons, the writer and dramatist Oscar Wilde. American College Dublin came into possession of this house in 1994 and was presented with an extremely generous donation in 1998 by Tina and William E. Flaherty, New York City, which provided the College with the funds to undertake a series of restoration works, under the guidance of Mrs Ellen Ross Sarafian, Curator of the Oscar Wilde House.
Tina and William Flaherty’s donation made it possible for the College to create a highly respected and heavily utilized cultural facility that has been regularly used for exhibitions and by Dublin’s cultural and educational communities.
The Oscar Wilde House restoration project involved the revival of traditional crafts to repair plasterwork and joinery and restore the original stone and wooden floors found throughout the house.
The hall, stairs, landing and first floor have all been decorated with period paints and antique mirrors, rugs and fabrics. Reproduction furniture of Irish Georgian design was specially commissioned for the house and was modelled on the furniture found in many of the historic houses around Ireland.
American College Dublin’s students from Ireland, the USA (studying either for a complete degree or for a semester as part of the College’s study abroad programme) and around the world are privileged to be able to study in the unique atmosphere of the Oscar Wilde House.
American College Dublin is honoured to be associated with this famous house, which is a significant part of Dublin’s cultural heritage.
For further information please contact Mary Monahan by telephone +353 1 662 0281, fax +353 1 662 1896 or e-mail Mary Monahan.
A little history
Number 1 Merrion Square was the home in which Oscar Wilde spent his formative years – with an adoring and eccentric mother, whose subversive verse enraged the authorities, and a father who was a brilliant and innovative surgeon, an accomplished antiquarian, a fine writer, a philanthropist and founder of St Mark's Opthalmic Hospital.
The house in Merrion Square to which Dr William Robert Wills Wilde moved his family in the autumn of 1855 was, as his wife wrote to a friend, sited in 'the best situation in Dublin.' Number 1 is on the north side of the square – the oldest and at the time the most fashionable side. In The Importance of Being Earnest, nearly forty years on, Sir William’s famous son would have Lady Bracknell remark dubiously about her other prospective son-in-law’s house in London’s Belgrave Square: 'The unfashionable side... I thought there was something.' Yet even Lady Bracknell would have been impressed by Merrion Square. Built in the closing decades of the eighteenth century to accommodate aristocratic families who wished to position themselves close to the splendid mansion of the Duke of Leinster (now Dáil Éireann, the Irish parliament), it caused something of a social revolution in Dublin by enticing them to move from what were then the fashionable streets and squares on the other side of the River Liffey.
A more lasting social revolution took place after the Act of Union and the abolition of the Irish parliament in 1800, when much of the aristocracy moved to London. The professional classes then started to move into the great houses, and several eminent medical and legal families were already established in the square when the Wildes moved there from Westland Row. It was at Number 21 Westland Row that Oscar Fingal O’Flahertie Wills Wilde, second son of William and his wife, Jane Francesca, was born on 16 October 1854. Westland Row was also a good address, but not quite good enough for a man who had already written two important textbooks on eye surgery, founded a hospital, and would soon become surgeon oculist to the queen in Ireland and a knight of the realm.
Both parents were brilliant, eccentric and, notwithstanding their places in society, committed nationalists. Though obscured by the fame and notoriety of his son, Sir William Wilde has a secure place in both the history of Irish medicine and the history of Irish antiquities. The son of a Roscommon doctor, he graduated from the Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland. After a spell as ship’s surgeon, he specialised in the eye and ear and soon established a formidable reputation. Even today, surgeons still use some of the techniques he perfected, and expressions such as ‘Wilde's incision’ (for mastoid) and ‘Wilde’s cone of light’ are still heard.
Lady Wilde was born Jane Francesca Elgee in Wexford. From her earliest years she was a fervent nationalist and feminist. Adopting the pseudonym ‘Speranza’, she wrote subversive, patriotic verse of little literary merit but peppered with exhortations such as: 'God, Truth and Liberty!' and 'To Arms! To Arms! For Truth, Fame, Freedom, Vengeance, Victory!' On one occasion, when the editor of a magazine containing one of her poems had been brought to court charged with subversion, Lady Wilde stood up in the public gallery and demanded that, as the author, she should also be in the dock. Lady Wilde’s salon was the most famous in Dublin, and was so popular that many devotees had to stand outside craning their necks in order to hear what was going on inside. Because she was sensitively conscious of her great size, Lady Wilde disliked harsh light and insisted that the room be illuminated softly by candlelight. In many respects, the Wildes were an odd couple. Lady Wilde was described as 'elephantine in build and extravagant in manner.' A friend, Henriette Corkran, told about visiting her at Merrion Square: 'When she walked there was a peculiar swaying, swelling movement, like that of a vessel at sea with the sails filled with wind.' Another visitor, John Stuart Blackie, Professor of Greek at Edinburgh University, described her as 'a poetess of the very fervid, patriotic stamp, and a giantess to boot – the biggest woman I ever saw.' Lady Wilde made a virtue of outlandishness, both in dress and demeanour. At the Lord Lieutenant’s Saint Patrick’s Night Ball of 1859, she was resplendent in a dress described as 'three skirts of white silk, ruched round with white ribbon and hooped up with bouquets of gold flowers and green shamrocks.'
Sir William, though of average height, appeared dwarfed by his wife’s massive presence, and they were frequently caricatured as a giantess and a midget. The painter John Butler Yeats said of Sir William that 'his figure was spare and exceedingly well-knit. He walked with his elbows ... very rapidly. He had sharply inquisitive eyes... and looked very eccentric… a wiry restless man and a contrast to his ponderous wife and her measured speech.' The elder Wilde did not escape what has famously been described as 'the daily spite of this unmannerly town.' He was the subject of many rumours – some undoubtedly true – which included one in which he was reputed to have seduced the wife of the future king of Sweden while the prince was temporarily blinded following surgery. Another rumour that took root in Dublin was that the Wildes’ cat had attempted to eat the eyes of a patient who lay anaesthetised, his eyes temporarily removed from their sockets, on Sir William’s operating table in the basement of Number 1 Merrion Square. Before his marriage, Sir William had fathered three illegitimate children – one of whom became a doctor and worked as his assistant – and had three known mistresses thereafter. Lady Wilde knew of his promiscuity and did not complain. According to John Butler Yeats, prior to her marriage she had been found in flagrante with the constitutional nationalist leader Isaac Butt.
When Oscar was a child here, the house had six live-in servants and two governesses. Sir William had his study on the ground floor and a consulting room on the third floor with a back staircase through which the patients entered. This room is preserved, with an interesting collection of historic surgical instruments loaned by the Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland. Sir William’s basement operating theatre is now a café used by the students. The famous salon was on the first floor; the dining room is across the hallway.
Although the Wildes had several happy years in Number 1, it was, in a number of respects, a house of profound tragedy. The first of the many misfortunes that were to bedevil the family came in 1867, when their 10 year old daughter, Isolda, died. In 1871, the two illegitimate daughters of Sir William – Emily and Mary – were burned to death when their crinoline gowns caught fire during a ball. Then came an allegation of rape by a patient with whom Sir William had become involved romantically. Although never proved, it ruined his reputation and severely damaged his practice. He made a comeback, but his health deteriorated through 1875 and he died the following year, leaving Lady Wilde heavily in debt.
Forced to sell, she left Dublin on 7 May 1879, having convinced herself that the move had nothing to do with financial difficulties but was necessary because Dublin had lost its glamour and had become a dowdy provincial backwater. To an old friend she wrote: 'We leave tomorrow for London... the focus of light, progress and intellect.' It was alas, a forlorn hope – for more tragedy awaited her there. Her financial worries increased, and Oscar’s imprisonment in May 1895 broke her spirit. She lived for a further nine months, a lone figure sitting in a darkened room, refusing all company and speaking only rarely. Her eldest son William – a feckless spendthrift and an alcoholic, who had pawned Oscar’s clothes while he was in prison – lived on for a further four years and died in March 1899, aged 47.
As for the erstwhile family home on Merrion Square, like so many of the beautiful Georgian houses of Dublin, it fell upon hard times. Impractical for family use in the modern world, some of these large four-storey-over-basement houses were converted into offices. Many more ended up as tenements. A large number were bought and demolished by property developers during the 1960s and 1970s, when Ireland’s planning and conservation laws were notoriously inadequate and much of Dublin's priceless architectural heritage fell victim to the wrecker’s ball. Nevertheless, unlike nearby Fitzwilliam Street, most of which was demolished, Merrion Square survived, worn but relatively intact. After the Wildes departed in 1878, Number 1 Merrion Square continued to be used as a residence. Eventually it was converted into flatlets and fell into disrepair. The house was boarded up in 1971 and remained closed for 23 years, during which there were many break-ins, resulting in the theft of valuable fireplaces, plasterwork and other artefacts.
Fortunately for devotees of Wilde and lovers of the arts, the house in which he spent his earliest years and listened to brilliant conversation (which he would later adapt for use in his classic comedies) came into the possession of American College Dublin. In 1994 the College commenced a comprehensive campaign of restoration and refurbishment which created the teaching and cultural facility that adorns Dublin’s south Georgian quarter today. The College is located in three adjoining Georgian houses, including the Oscar Wilde House. As Oscar would have wished, it is the bright and happy side of the house that lives on. Time has dimmed the troubles and tragedies of the Wilde family; the shutters have been opened and once again the voices of bright, happy young people and intellectuals sound within the walls of Number 1 Merrion Square.