Mary Travers and the price of her honour

Week II

In 1864 just when Sir William Wilde had begun to build the holiday home of his dreams, overlooking the upper Lough Corrib, near Cong,* his family was involved in a vicious libel case that was to cost him dearly.

A long-term patient of his, and the daughter of a colleague, Mary Travers and Sir William had enjoyed a love affair, but that intimacy had turned decidedly sour. Mary now claimed that Sir William had sexually assaulted her while she was senseless having been administered chloroform.

It was no secret that, prior to his marriage at least, Sir William had an eye for the ladies. He was known for his passionate nature. He was the father of three children born while he was still a single man: a boy, Henry Wilson, and two girls, Emily and Mary who were given their father’s surname.**

Sir William acknowledged paternity and provided for their education. They were reared with relatives, away from Dublin, and did not seem to bother his wife, Jane Elgee, whom he married in later life.

His wife was well known in Dublin for her radical poems and extreme nationalist views urging rebellion against Britain. Her views were forcefully expressed in The Nation , before the authorities closed the paper down.

Jane was also renowned as a brilliant hostess. Their dinner parties at Merrion Square were open to the good and the famous. Among writers and musicians, university professors, and government officials, you could find Maria Edgeworth, the hilarious Charles Lever, with whom Sir William had been to medical school, and the more serious poet, barrister, and antiquarian, Sir Samuel Ferguson.

The Wildes were a famous and very popular couple on the Dublin social scene.They had three children, Willie, Oscar, and a girl Isola Emily. Unusually for the time, the children were allowed to mix with the house guests. No doubt Oscar’s precociousness shone on these occasions.

Enormous energy

Sir William Wilde was an extraordinary man. The son of a doctor who practised at Castlereagh, Co Roscommon, he became a brilliant eye and ear surgeon. He trained in London, Vienna, Berlin and Heidelberg. Even today surgeons use the terms ‘Wilde’s incision’ for mastoid, ‘Wilde’s cone of light’ and ‘Wilde’s cords’.

Famously, he came into the possession of the skull of the brilliant Jonathan Swift, the deadly satirist and political pamphleteer, and Dean of St Patrick’s Cathedral, Dublin. He was reputed to have been mad. But Wilde showed that the poor Dean was not insane, but physically ill. Wilde founded, and funded, St Mark’s Hospital for the poor in Dublin, and built up a huge practice from his home at 1 Merrion Square, now the headquarters of the American College, Dublin.

With enormous energy he pursued his non-medical interests. He brilliantly and speedily catalogued the entire contents of the National Museum in Dublin. His three-volume catalogue is still used today. His organisational skills were recognised, and he was appointed a commissioner to supervise two important population censuses in post famine Ireland, for 1841 and 1851. He was knighted for his services to medicine and to the state.

The Trial

Mary Travers began a full-scale war of words against the Wildes. She wrote a pamphlet crudely parodying the Wildes as Dr and Mrs Quilp, and portraying Dr Quilp as the rapist of a female patient anaesthetised under chloroform. She distributed pamphlets outside the building where Sir William was about to give a public lecture.

Lady Wilde, forgetting the politesse of Dublin society, and going straight for the jugular, wrote to Mary’s father, in devastating terms, saying that his daughter ‘consorted with all the low newspaper boys in Bray, employing them to disseminate offensive placards in which my name appears….’

Lady Wilde accused her of only looking for money, and concluded with deadly precision, that ‘the wages of disgrace she has so loosely treated for and demanded, shall never be given to her.

‘The wages of disgrace’ stung. Mary Travers, while Dublin sat back and enjoyed all its sensational revelations, sued Lady Wilde, for attempting to destroy her honour. Unfortunately for Mary she proved to be a poor witness. She continually contradicted herself. Even though she protested that she had never looked for money, she had sought money from Sir William on several previous occasions. She was accused of suffering from laudanum addiction.

Lady Wilde, on the other hand was well used to the glare of publicity, and successfully convinced the jury that the alleged affair was a symptom of Mary’s ‘hysterical and maddened imagination’. ***

After only 80 minutes the jury found in Mary’s favour, but awarded her a paltry farthing for her honour. The Wildes had to pay costs, which were a serious £2,000. But more damaging was the fact that Sir William refused to enter the witness box during the trial. His behaviour was considered ‘ungentlemanly.’

Next Week: Escape to Lough Corrib, and the tragic deaths of Emily and Mary Wilde.

NOTES: *Sir William’s house by the Corrib, which is in private hands and still stands today, is built on the site where he believed the legendary battle of Moytura was fought where the Tuatha De Danaan defeated the Fomorians on the north shores of the Corrib. He and his family spent their summers there while he researched the history of the lakes in the district, visited ancient monuments, and collected folklore, which he would eventually publish in his famous book Lough Corrib .

** The girls lived with their uncle in Co Monaghan, the Rev Ralph Wilde (and I will tell of their sad tragedy next week ). The boy, Henry became a professor of ophthalmic surgery, and assistant to his father at St Mark’s Hospital.

*** The Diary of Mary Travers, a novel by Eibhear Walshe, published in 2014 by Somerville Press.

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