Speranza is an Italian word meaning ‘hope’ and it was also the pen name by a most fascinating woman. Her name was Jane Francesca Elgee, born in Dublin on 27 December 1821. She later married Sir William Wilde and had a special interest in Irish Fairy Tales which she compiled. Though she was from a loyal Protestant background, she became an ardent supporter of Irish independence and wrote for the Young Ireland movement of the 1840s, publishing pro-Irish and anti-British poems in The Nation newspaper under the pseudonym Speranza. When her writings called for armed revolution in Ireland, Dublin Castle shut down the paper and brought the editor, Charles Gavan Duffy, to court. Duffy refused to name who had written the offending article and was about to be sentenced when Lady Wilde stood up in court and boldly claimed responsibility.
Her life was not easy. She had three children: Willie, Oscar and Isola. Her husband was accused in a sensational court case for seducing a co-worker who also brought an action against Lady Wilde for libel when she defended him. The case cost the Wildes £2,000. Then their daughter, Isola, died of fever at the age of nine and in 1876 Sir William died leaving her virtually bankrupt. Lady Wilde went to London and joined her sons, Willie, a journalist, and the author Oscar Wilde.
She lived with her eldest son in poverty, supplementing their income by writing for fashionable magazines and books based on her researches into Irish folklore. She contracted bronchitis and died at home on 3 February 1896. Willie, her eldest son, was penniless and Oscar paid for her burial in Kensal Green Cemetery in London. A headstone was too expensive so she was buried anonymously in common ground. A monument, in the form of a Celtic cross, was later erected to her memory by the Oscar Wilde Society in about 1999.
Lady Wilde was a patriot who should never disappear from memory for the legacy she left in documenting the folk and fairy lore of Ireland and most especially for her brilliant poetry. No voice that was raised in the cause of the poor and oppressed, Martin MacDermott wrote, none that denounced political wrong-doing in Ireland was more eagerly listened to than that of the graceful and accomplished woman known in literature, as ‘‘Speranza’’ and in society as Lady Wilde. In a review of her poems in the Fenian Irish People in 1835, it was stated: No Irish writer of our time, except perhaps, Thomas Davis, has been praised so highly, nearly all the Young Ireland leaders offered incense at her shrine. Fenian leaders added their praise: Doheny wrote an essay on her; Mitchel quoted her poetry in his Last Conquest and Meagher quoted her in his speeches and called his boat ‘‘Speranza.’’ Who cannot marvel at the emotion in her verse entitled, THE FAMINE YEAR:
Weary man, what reap ye? — “Golden corn for the stranger.”
What sow ye? — “Human corses that wait for the avenger.”
Fainting forms, hunger-stricken, what see ye in the offing?
“Stately ships to bear our food away amid the stranger’s scoffing.”
There’s a proud array of soldiers — what do they round your door?
“They guard our master’s granaries from the thin hands of the poor.”
Pale mothers, wherefore weeping? “Would to God that we were dead —
our children swoon before us, and we cannot give them bread!”
Little children, tears are strange upon your infant faces,
God meant you but to smile within your mother’s soft embraces.
“Oh! we know not what is smiling, and we know not what is dying;
but we’re hungry, very hungry, and we cannot stop our crying.
And some of us grow cold and white — we know not what it means;
but as they lie beside us we tremble in our dreams.”
There’s a gaunt crowd on the highway — are you come to pray to man,
with hollow eyes that cannot weep, and for words your faces wan?
“No; the blood is dead within our veins – we care not now for life;
let us die hid in the ditches, far from children and from wife!
We cannot stay to listen to their raving famished cries —
Bread! Bread! Bread! and none to still their agonies.
We left an infant playing with her dead mother’s hand:
we left a maiden maddened by the fever’s scorching brand:”
Better, maiden, thou wert strangled in thy own dark-twisted tresses!
Better, infant, thou wert smothered in thy mother’s first caresses.
“We are fainting in our misery, but God will hear our groan;
yet, if fellow-men desert us, will He hearken from His throne?
Accursed are we in our own land, yet toil we still and toil;
but the stranger reaps our harvest — the alien owns our soil.
O Christ! how have we sinned, that on our native plains
we perish homeless, naked, starved, with branded brow like Cain’s?
Dying, dying wearily, with a torture sure and slow —
dying as a dog would die, by the wayside as we go.
“One by one they’re falling round us, their pale faces to the sky;
we’ve no strength left to dig them graves — there let them lie.
The wild bird, if he’s stricken, is mourned by the others,
but we — we die in Christian land, — we die amid our brothers
in the land which God has given, like a wild beast in his cave,
without a tear, a prayer, a shroud, a coffin, or a grave.
Ha! but think ye the contortions on each livid face ye see,
will not be read on Judgement-day by eyes of Deity?
“We are wretches, famished, scorned, human tools to build your pride,
but God will yet take vengeance for the souls for whom Christ died.
Now in your hour of pleasure — bask ye in the world’s caress;
but our whitening bones against ye will rise as witnesses,
from the cabins and the ditches in their charred, un-coffined masses,
for the Angel of the Trumpet will know them as he passes.
A ghastly spectral army, before great God we’ll stand,
and arraign ye as our murderers, O spoilers of our land!”