Speranza

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!”

Thomas Davis

There are few events in Irish history as tragic as the death of Thomas Osborne Davis. He was a rare man whose impact on the history of Ireland has never been truly appreciated. Born in Mallow, Co Cork on Oct 14, 1814, the son of a British Army Surgeon, he was educated at Trinity College and called to the Bar in 1838, but Davis heard another call: the call of Ireland. He heard it in the voice of Dan O’Connell when the Great Emancipator visited his home town in 1842, and asked a crowd of 400,000, “Where is the coward who would not die for Ireland?” This was a fiery young O’Connell, not the parliamentarian of later years, and he raised the consciousness of the Irish to a new spirit of nationalism. Men like Davis, filled with the fire of that patriotism, joined his cause. You see, after the brutal suppression of Ireland following the rising of 1798, the country remained depressed until O’Connell began to raise the issue of Catholic emancipation. It was then that the Irish people began to raise their heads again, but when they did it was not the voice of O’Connell they heard, but the voice of Thomas Davis and the ‘Young Irelanders’.

O’Connell fell short of the goals he inspired in other men when he chose to negotiate in the Parliamentary arena. Davis, on the other hand, fired by O’Connell’s early speeches against the tyranny of England, never changed direction as his mentor had. The young Protestant barrister with two colleagues, Charles Gavan Duffy and John Blake Dillon, founded The Nation, a newspaper that would propagate patriotism and a love for Irish national literature like no other tabloid of its time. It was then that the doctrines and principles of Wolfe Tone and the United Irishmen were resurrected, and Tone was finally recognized as the Father of Modern Irish Republicanism. As the spirit of nationalism once more began to beat in Irish breasts, a poem appeared in the April 1843 edition of The Nation. It was called the ‘Memory of the Dead’, and it read:

“Who fears to speak of ‘98? Who blushes at the name?
When cowards mock the patriot’s fate, who hangs his head for shame?
He’s all a knave, or half a slave who slights his country thus;
But true men, like you men, will fill your glass with us.”

The Nation became a great power whose place in history is that it rekindled the dying flame of Wolfe Tone’s nationalist doctrine of Irishmen – Catholic, Protestant, and Dissenter, together for Irish freedom. The gallant attempt at independence by the United Irishmen of 1798, and by Robert Emmet in 1803 were all but forgotten. England’s brutal and abusive suppression after those attempted risings had all but stamped out the memory of the great Tone and his ideals. The Nation revived that memory, and the sentiment that had inspired it, and in so doing, created a nationalist tradition that has lasted to this very day, due in no small part to the writings of Davis himself.

It is truly written that the bullet of the patriot is soon forgotten while the words of the poet are immortal. Davis was brilliant with words and verse; his poetry captured the nation’s imagination. He lionized Ireland’s hero’s, and gave her some of her most inspiring ballads. His lament for the great Chieftain Owen Roe O’Neill who was poisoned by a pawn of the English in 1649, seethes with fury:

Did they Dare, Did they dare to slay Owen Roe O’Neill
Yes they slew with poison him they feared to face with steel.
May God wither up their hearts, may their blood cease to flow,
May they walk in living death, who poisoned Owen Roe.

His memorable poems about Fontenoy, the Clare Dragoons, and Wolfe Tone were on the lips of every Irishman of the age. He drew to his philosophy such talented future leaders as John Mitchel, Speranza, William Smith O’Brien, Michael Doheny, Clarence Mangan, D’Arcy McGee, and Thomas Francis Meagher. His followers became the Young Irelanders, and their impact on history was considerable for they carried Davis’s philosophy into the origin of Ireland’s greatest nationalist movement – the Fenian Brotherhood. Unfortunately they did so without the master, for Thomas Davis succumbed to a fever brought on by an exhausted condition, and he died at his mother’s home in Dublin on September 16, 1845 – 164 years ago. It was only a month before his 32nd birthday and just at the start of An Gorta Mor – the great hunger that would devastate his beloved Ireland. How he would have faced that tragedy can only be imagined, but there is no doubt that it would have been memorable.

The death of Davis, the brave young hope of his country, was a greater disaster for Ireland than she has ever recognized for he was the bridge between Wolfe Tone’s United Irishmen and the Irish Republican Brotherhood. It was he who insured that the nationalism of Tone was not interred with him in that green grave at Bodenstown which Irishmen cherish as their most prized possession. The only consolation we have is that his songs are with us still. Who has not marveled at the bold courage displayed in The West’s Awake; and who is not moved – to this very day – by the nationalist sentiment in the song he wrote to express his fondest desire – A Nation Once Again.