A Tour of Dublin in the company of Oscar Wilde

Context: In May 2009 eight PhD students from the Dept of Museum Studies at the University of Leicester and a finger puppet of Oscar Wilde travelled to Dublin for a trip as part of their Research Week. This article is written by Oscar and as such does not represent the views and attitudes of anyone else on the Dublin trip; any that do are purely accidental.

‘An artist should create beautiful things, but should put nothing of his own life into them. We live in an age when men treat art as if it were meant to be a form of autobiography. We have lost the abstract sense of beauty.’

Dear reader, when I wrote these words in 1890 or so for my deliciously scandalous novel The Picture of Dorian Grey, I was writing, it seemed to me then, for my own time. Yet wonder at how prophetic those words have been! See how today, in the twenty-first century (so impossible to conceive of humankind ever reaching this esteemed number after the destruction he has wreaked in the intervening decades) more than ever the obsession of the artist to communicate a message to the viewer, a message that somehow remains absent from the distortion of misunderstanding created when we are asked to consider more than the superficial. Yet, on the other hand the superficial holds sway over the mass of the populace resulting in some appalling examples of bad taste that would cause many a young lady of my time to faint in an instant! Oh twenty-first century I salute you for your equal confusion and delights!

However, I realise that I am getting terribly ahead of myself and I have forgotten to introduce myself, although of course the intelligent reader shall know me through the manner of works that have been published under the name I am continuing to withhold in the hope (which I fear is vain) that my legacy has been fearsome in the years following my untimely passing away. I jest of course, my name, gentle reader, is Oscar, Oscar Wilde if you must have necessitation for such vulgar things as a surname. I am imposing myself upon this remarkable contraption known as a ‘blog’ (how strange the word seems as it trips from my tongue!) in order to describe to you (and I am sincerely hoping that there is more than one of you) a little jaunt I recently took to the place of my birth, the bustling city of Dublin, as in Dubh Linn, the more prosaic “black pool” in the vulgar English tongue. Or if you are a connoisseur of languages you may also wish to know that in the Gaelic tongue the fair city becomes Baile Átha Cliath. I first made my acquaintance with Dublin in 1854, where I resided with my esteemed parents at 21 Westland Row, only I have very little recollection of this being but a tiny babe in the arms of my mother. However much I would wish to give you a blow by blow account of my formative years (and how I long to believe me!) I would ask you, dearest reader, to seek out such essential information elsewhere as I must keep to my brief of describing for you my little trip, which was not taken alone I hasten to add. Accompanying me, or, rather, I was accompanying a group of young ladies from the Department of Museum Studies at the University of Leicester, who were travelling to the city as part of something they called ‘Research Week’. These ladies were called Viv, Pippa, Mette, Serena, Jen, Jennifer, Cristina and Ceri. I must admit at first I had rather a shock that women could study at a University, in my day it was almost unheard of as women were hardly conceived of having the intellectual faculties to manage a degree, let alone study for the PhD. I am assured however that the twenty-first century has made this a commonplace feature and society is greatly enriched as a consequence. My second shock was that museums, art galleries and their ilk were important enough to compose a discipline of study in their own right! Surely, I thought to myself, there is little to the display of beautiful objects that needs to be pondered over, discussed and contested heatedly? Again I have had my eyes opened to the paucity of my earlier view, these kind ladies of Museum Studies (how strange it still seems to my mind!) having presented a great many persuasive arguments for the necessity of their study, which seems only more pressing in their day and age rather than mine. However, once again, I am running away with myself and deviating from my intention, which was to describe to you our visit, yes I will refer to it as our visit since the ladies I travelled with were only kind enough to include me, the solitary man in their company, in all their activities in the most pleasant and cheerful manner. I have become the strongest advocate for female education in the realisation that it improves their attitude and attention enormously; if only my wife had been so encouraged! Now I will dispense with this fatal propensity to digression and undertake to attempt to convey to you a modicum of the frivolity that we experienced in the city of my birth, although, I have to admit to you, gentle reader, that I have not been so well acquainted with it myself, neither have I returned since the marvellous changes wrought by the twentieth century so I hope you will find it in your hearts to forgive me if I err a little in my descriptions.

‘Evening hours, girls in grey gauze. Night hours then black with daggers and eyemasks. Poetical idea pink, then golden, then grey, then black. Still true to life also. Day then the night.’ (Ulysses, James Joyce)

The cacophonous streets of Dublin

I include this quote from the impenetrable Ulysses for, may be not perversely, I feel it expresses the atmosphere of the city of Dublin, a succession of colours and voices and sights and sounds that mingle with each other to create a singular confusion about the traveller. We arrived in the late afternoon, having travelled (to my delight) by this marvellous transportation vehicle called the aeroplane which flies through the air as opposed to using the land, and the more prosaic omnibus to which I am acquainted even if in a different form. Alighting from the omnibus, we found ourselves face to face with our hostel; it was hardly salubrious and I am certain that it was intended for riff-raff rather than a person of my esteem, however I subjected myself to slumming it as the ladies of Museum Studies seemed determined to remain there for the two days of their stay. I confess I had never even heard of such a thing as a bunk bed before; they are really quite something.

Oscar contemplates the Hostel surroundings

Looking for direction on the streets of Dublin

Unfortunately troubles with the method of transportation meant that we were severely late for our first appointment at the National Gallery, close to Merrion Square, which, as those who care about my life may know, I used to reside with my parents in a small house overlooking the square (well, I say small, however it was larger than the damnable hostel and far more comfortable besides). A detailed itinerary had been prepared for us by another esteemed student of the department, Keiran, and, as part of this schedule, we enjoyed a lengthy ramble about the galleries in the company of Dr Marie Bourke (Head of Education), taking in a great deal of Irish and European art. I was perturbed that I was not included in the Portrait Gallery along with other great writers such as Joyce and Yeats, however I assuaged my disappointment by admiring the beauty of works by, for instance, Caravaggio, the drama and violence of whose The Taking of Christ stirred my soul with its terrible, compelling beauty.

The National Art Gallery entrance in Merrion Square

The modern entrance to the National Gallery in Clare Street

It was late by the time we left the National Gallery, however I convinced the party to make a pilgrimage to Merrion Square North so that they might take a look at the house in which I lived for their edification.

The house in Merrion Square North where Oscar lived with his parents

The plaque to prove it!

One member of the party, Ceri I believe it was, also discovered on the map that there was a memorial to me within the square itself. After a while of fruitless searching through the trees, we eventually stumbled upon the most bizarre spectacle! It was a version of me, sat astride a large rock in a most genial manner, gazing at passers-by; immediately before this grotesque vision (for I do not believe it to be a true likeness, it has nobility of feature, certainly, however my singular beauty has eluded this particular sculptor) were two columns with some examples of my sayings, confirming, for certain, that I was one of the greatest speakers of my age.

Hmm, now who does this belong to?

Oscar meets Oscar

Oscar closely examines the fine sculptural form of the backside

Oscar's quotes and puddle

After this surprise, which confirmed that I am beloved in my homeland and so tempers somewhat the disagreement I had with it in life, we repaired to the cellar bar of the Merrion hotel for a swift night-cap. Dinner was had close to the hostel and I must confess I would have eaten even the cheapest, stingiest meal because of my hunger!

Intellectual discussions in the Cellar Bar

Oscar was more interested in food and drink!

The next day was cloudy and wet, hardly a surprise for this part of the world, however it proved to be a great vexation when we arrived early at our first destination for the day; the Chester Beatty Library. Close to the Castle, the Library represents the collection of its founder, Chester Beatty, an industrial man who fell foul of England’s political situation and repaired to Dublin with his fortune, bequeathing it eventually to the city upon his passing away. In a similar vein to the National Gallery, we received a talk from those who know the Library in great detail; Dr Michael Ryan, the Director of the Library, and Jenny Suing, the Head of Education. Dr Ryan also gave his time to show us around the collections, which are mostly to do with religious objects, books and manuscripts. I greatly admired the way in which the beauty of the objects was highlighted by the gloom in which they were presented; unfortunately I have no image to illustrate my opinion, you will therefore have to take it on trust. I must confess I found Mr Beatty’s choice of books rather tame, however there were some remarkable illustrations and examples of texts from around the world which made this a worthwhile visit. Luncheon was also very enjoyable, and we took advantage of the remarkable food in the Library’s ‘Silk Road’ cafe, with Keiran, the organiser of our programme, once more joining us.

Dublin Castle in the rain

The entrance to the Chester Beatty Library

The Library is built around a much older, former military building

Cristina reads some of the history of Dublin to Oscar over lunch

With the rain cleared, a group of us took advantage to go for a walk, which took in many great sights within the city, illustrated for brevity through the images below.

Leaving the Chester Beatty Library

Where do these stairs go?

Plaque to Jonathan Swift, author of Gulliver's Travels, born near Dublin Castle

The famous (and huge!) Guinness factory

Another part of the Guinness factory

Memorial to Robert Emmet who was hung and beheaded for his part in a rebellion of 1803

The front entrance to the Museum of Modern Art

The striking gateway at the back entrance to the Museum

The next destination for the excursion to Dublin caused my head to tremble and filled my thoughts with dread; for it was to be Kilmainham Gaol on the western side of the city. Not that I have had occasion to spend time within this gaol, thank goodness, however any person who is acquainted with my life (and I hope, dear reader, you will take the occasion to become so if you are not) will know that I am acquainted with a life behind bars.

Oscar prepares himself for Kilmainham Gaol

I will not go into the details now for it is too painful still for me to bear, only I will include a small burst of verse which I hope will adequately convey my thoughts on the subject:

‘I never saw a man who looked
With such a wistful eye
Upon that little tent of blue
Which prisoners call the sky
And at every drifting cloud that went
With sails of silver by’
(Ballad of Reading Gaol, 1897)

Fortunately Kilmainham is no longer used for its terrible purpose; instead it stands empty as a memorial to the political prisoners who bore witness to its terrible routines and punishments, ending in their execution in the very yard in which we all stood. Well I say empty, its walls today ring with the excited chatter of visitors, for in the twenty-first century it seems that a regression has taken place to the primitive times when audiences would delight upon seeing the trauma and misery that the human spirit is forced to endure by those who would correct the aspects they deem to be subversive. I am assured that the Gaol is an attraction for those who wish to learn more about the darker elements of the city’s past. Whilst I am not certain that this is a pastime I would encourage, it was certainly interesting to hear the history of the Gaol as told to us by Niall Bergin and Brian Crowley, who between them managed to impart a great deal of information about the Gaol and the various uprisings and calamities that furnished it with prisoners. For once I am quite certain that images can be more evocative than the words which I might pour forth from my pen:

The entrance of Kilmainham Gaol, opened 1796

The east wing was rebuilt in 1861 to 'modern' principles of prison reform

Looking at the original plans of the 18th century prison

Oscar sits in one of the cell 'peep-holes'

A view of the 19th century east wing

The grim 18th-century wing

Dark corridors

Inside a cell

Looking around the gaol

Some areas of the gaol were left un-restored

Plaque to commemorate those executed at the gaol during the Irish Civil War, 1922

The former stone-breaking yard where leaders of the 1916 Uprising were executed

Looking around the yard

The gaol serves as a memorial to those executed in 1916

Plaque to commemorate those executed in 1916

I confess that I was greatly overjoyed to leave that gloomy place, it had an atmosphere of dread and hopelessness which never fails to fill me with blacker thoughts. It was excellent to escape to the greener environs of the Museum of Modern Art, to which some of the group had repaired; we met with them and proceeded to return to the city centre for the purposes of lubrication with ample food and drink. I must say I enjoyed my glass of Guinness and the vibrant atmosphere of the common public house greatly cheered my spirits once more. The ladies seemed to enjoy themselves too, despite it being the last evening they would all spend together, and it passed in great merriment.

Oscar in the park

Finally, a Guinness...

The next day I was left to my own devices, although I managed to persuade one of the young ladies to accompany me about the city and she very kindly obliged to carry me to some places of interest. Together we took in a great deal of ground to the south and north of the river Liffey and these are reflected in the succession of images below.

Parnell Monument (1911) at the top of O-Connell Street

Crowds gather at the James Joyce statue, Earl Street North

Looking up at The Spire (2003) on O'Connell Street

The famous General Post Office (1818), site of the 1916 Uprising

Former Debtor's Prison (1790s), Green Street

Green Street Courthouse (1790s)

City Hall (1779), Dame Street

Oscar contemplates another witty comment

O'Donovan Rossa Bridge (1816) across the R. Liffey, the Four Courts (1785) in the background

Pearse Station (1834), Westland Row

The National Museum of archaeology and whatnots (1890), Kildare Street

Birthplace of Oscar Wilde, 21 Westland Row (yellow door)

A fancy door of Georgian Dublin, Merrion Square West

Finn's Hotel where James Joyce met Nora Barnacle in 1904

The young lady, Ceri, in particular seemed to have a curious obsession with finding areas of the city connected with Lord Edward Fitzgerald, a dashing young rebel who pre-dated myself by several decades, however I had heard of his exploits in freeing Ireland of the tyrannous yoke of the British government, which culminated in his involvement in the Uprising of 1798. Unfortunately for him he was captured when the uprising failed to go to plan and, in (it must be said violently) trying to resist arrest, he was grievously wounded. Despite his noble birth, which he repudiated for some strange reason of virtue, he was refused medical treatment in Newgate Gaol and died there soon after. I was therefore compelled to visit the church where he was buried, the public house and street which bears his name, as well as the former site of Newgate Gaol, of which all is left is a park and looks far better for it I assume!

The church where Lord Edward Fitzgerald is buried (died 1798)

The 'Lord Edward' pub which comes recommended

Site of Newgate Gaol (1780)

In order for us to journey back to Leicester, the place of our origination, we met with Jen and Jennifer outside what has become in the more recent century the infamous General Post Office on O’Connell Street, site of the Easter Uprising of 1916. I will not go into detail about this event, suffice to say that the Post Office has a remarkable sculpture of the warrior Cúchulainn in commemoration of the failed uprising, a handsome young man stretched with agony across a tree, the single raven upon his shoulder telling of his death and the final approach of his (once) cowering enemies. A moving reminder of the lengths that one must go to in order to live the life which one deems to be right.

And that almost concludes my description, dear readers, of the aforesaid trip to Dublin; the journey to the airport was fairly unremarkable except for my great joy and pride to find that I have been commemorated at the very departure gate to which we were assigned! It is a more flattering portrait, taken from life, and composed of many small examples of my words, the whole taking up a great deal of the wall.

Long may my words continue to inspire those who see them (and a great deal of persons were passing it as we waited to board the aeroplane) and to endeavour to strive for the life that they desire, forsaking those who would seek to dissuade them. And with that, gentle reader, I bid you farewell, and I encourage you, if you can, to make your own trip to Dublin so that you too might enjoy the many great sights it offers, particularly the memorials to my genius, which, as much as I would try to convince myself otherwise, may owe a great deal to the ‘fair’ city of Dublin.

Wake up Oscar, you are back in Leicester!


Jeanette said…
Oscar (if I may be so bold as to address you by your first name alone), this gentle reader was enchanted by your eloquent prose. You have, once again, declared your genius.

From a fervent admirer, whose hair turned quite gold with grief when she read your Ballad of Reading Gaol.
Ceri said…
Dear Jeanette

Of course you may call me Oscar, I would be very pleased if we were to be on such friendly terms, especially since you have taken the trouble to read one of my works. I wish it had been one of my comedies however, you may find them more palatable.

Thank you ever so much for your very kind comments, it is always wonderful to be reminded that one is indeed, yes, a genius. Thank goodness that I do not need a PhD to prove it I may hasten to add, the very thought of one fills me with the need to go and lie down.

Yours affectionately,
Amy said…
'Her hair turned quite gold with grief', hehe Oscar, you wag. ;)
Jellaby Postlethwaite said…
Hello Oscar, I have been a fan of yours for over a decade; I have a very large collection of things with your face on, I wrote my dissertation on you (incidentally at the University of Leicester), and next month I'm going on a pilgrimage to Dublin in celebration of your 157th birthday. I'm hoping to see as many statues, plaques, etc, relating to you as I possibly can. In order to help me do this, please could you tell me (if you can remember) exactly which gate at the airport the portrait on the wall was at?

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