Oscar Wilde believed that Balfour did WS Blunt a favour
WS Blunt on his Arabian stallion ‘Pharaoh’ - a man out of place in the bitter Land War of south Galway
Wilfrid Scawn Blunt’s move from the comparative comfort of Galway gaol to Kilmainham came as a shock. The reason for the move was to facilitate his case against the Chief Secretary Arthur Balfour, for prohibiting the meeting at Woodford (when he had not banned a subsequent meeting at Loughrea), and for having him ‘vindictively’ imprisoned.
Poor Scawn Blunt. Although he had met the Chief Secretary on several occasions in the past, even played tennis with him, he believed that Balfour had it in for him. It is probable that Balfour gave Scawn Blunt hardly a thought; but long hours alone in his cell allowed the prisoner, a renowned traveller, an aristocrat with a large Sussex estate, a breeder of fine Arabian horses, a poet and a ladies man, to become obsessed that he was being personally persecuted. He believed that if he won his case against the Chief Secretary, the Chief Secretary would be forced to resign.
Furthermore, Scawn Blunt was convinced that his imprisonment portrayed him as some kind of martyr. He had fearlessly spoken out at a banned public meeting, he had publicly torn up the prohibition document, and condemned the cruel evictions on the Clanricarde estate in south Galway. He was hailed as a hero by the people on his way to prison. Surely this was the time to stand for parliament? He had asked his wife, Lady Anne, to arrange for him to stand for Deptford, which had just become vacant.
But Kilmainham gaol ‘ had something of the forbidding aspect of a modern battleship’. The warders gave ‘no sign of friendliness, no word but of command, no relaxation of the features to a smile. In this grim world there was a stupefying silence, for no one spoke, only the tramp from time to time was heard of prisoners passing in batches to and from their work in the exercise yard, where they marched like mill horses round and round in dreary circles.’
For his first three weeks in Kilmainham Scawn Blunt fell into a ‘black melancholy.’ He found the ‘rigour of the prison rules’ almost impossible to bear. He made no friends there.
‘Peter the packer’
His case was heard in the Four Courts, and the excitement of the preparations lifted his spirits somewhat. But it all ended in a disaster. Scawn Blunt writes * that the case was loaded against him from the start. On his side he had secured the services of The McDermott and Tim Healy, but they made little impression against the Crown’s Peter O’Brien, known as ‘Peter the Packer’ on account of his skill in packing juries for the government in political prosecutions. O’Brien‘ put on his most excruciating leers, and waved his right arm with the most graceful curves and winked his most bewitching wink at the jury box...’ He dominated the court’s proceedings.
After five days Justice Baron Palles brought the case to a halt. He treated Scawn Blunt as ‘a well meaning but ignorant Englishman who had blundered into an illegal position without understanding that he was breaking the law.’ While the
good judge was pleasant enough
in his summary (if somewhat condescending), his expression hardened when he reminded the jury that the plaintiff had spoken in favour of John Dillon’s Plan of Campaign, which he pronounced to be a ‘criminal conspiracy’.
The case was thrown out.
Scawn Blunt’s dejection was made worse when he was informed that he had also lost his attempt to gain a seat at Deptford. A further blow was added when a warden, obviously enjoying the prisoner’s misery, told him that during his trial Balfour held a party at the Chief Secretary’s Lodge, where he invited not only Scawn Blunt’s Wyndham cousins but also his private secretary George Wyndham. Scawn Blunt must have longed for his Arabian stallions at his stud farm Sheykh Obeyd, near Cairo.
‘Halo of martyrdom’
The last 20 days ‘of my imprisonment was like a whole year to me of mental suffering, which, if they had been prolonged would, I believe, have driven me mad. The halo of martyrdom, which in Galway gaol had seemed to surround me, had faded away.’
His last prison sonnet began:
No. I will smile no more. If but for pride
And the high record of these days of pain
I will not be as these, the uncrucified,
Who idly live and find life’s pleasures vain...
But the pain was soon to end. On March 6 1888, at 8am, the prisoner was taken to the governor Beer’s office. He was solemnly given eight pence sterling for his work done in prison. Then the governor cleared his throat. It was customary, he said, to give a word of advice when prisoners are leaving the prison. But that in this case he would dispense with that. Instead he would say something quite different. “Last night my wife was safely delivered of a son, and in memory of your visit to Kilmainham, Mrs Beer and I have decided to christen him after you, by your name calling him Wilfrid Blunt Beer.’
Scawn Blunt said he was honoured by the choice of name. The two men shook hands. He was escorted to the prison gates, and found himself ‘ once more with my wife, and an assemblage of friends in the street.’
With delicious irony Oscar Wilde, reviewing Poems of WS Blunt (1889) could not resist adding: ‘prison has had an admirable effect on Mr Wilfrid Blunt as a poet. Mr Balfour must be praised since by sending Mr Blunt to gaol, he has converted a clever rhyming into an earnest and deep-thinking poet.’
All quotes are taken from The Land War In Ireland - being a personal narrative of events, by WS Blunt, published in London 1912.