Sir William Wilde - broken by the death of his children

Week III

Mary and Emily Wilde died when their dresses caught fire at a house party in November 1871.

Mary and Emily Wilde died when their dresses caught fire at a house party in November 1871.

Seven years after the Mary Traver’s case, in which Sir William Wilde, a famous doctor and socialite in the Dublin of the mid 19th century, emerged legally unscathed, but socially damaged, a far worse scandal threatened to ruin his reputation entirely.

Travers had alleged that Sir William had molested her while she was anaesthetised. His wife, the formidable Lady Jane Wilde, leapt to his rescue by sensationally denying the accusation, and writing that, among other things, Travers ‘consorted with all the low newspaper boys in Bray’.

Travers sued her, but was awarded an insulting farthing for ‘loss of honour’. Sir William was landed with a whopping legal bill for £2,000. Far more damaging, however, was his refusal to enter the witness box, gossip surmised that there was some truth in Miss Traver’s accusation.

I have mentioned that before his marriage Sir William had three children, two girls Emily and Mary (who were given their father’s name ), and a boy, Henry Wilson, whom he later took as a partner in his St Mark’s Hospital. Sir William privately acknowledged paternity, and paid for the children’s education. With the exception of Lady Wilde, it is likely that only very few people knew of Sir William’s dalliances with the ladies before his marriage. The girls lived with their uncle, Rev Ralph Wilde, of Drumsnatt, in Co Monaghan, away from the Dublin scene. And there the matter would have privately rested were it not for the terrible happenings on the snowy night of November 10 1871.

The two young women, Emily (aged 24 ) and Mary (aged 22 ) were invited to a ball at Drumaconnor House. After most of the other guests had gone, their host, Mr Reid invited Mary for a last waltz. As they swirled around the room, Mary’s highly inflammable crinoline dress touched the open fire and burst into flames. The remaining guests screamed in terror. Emily rushed to her sister and attempted to put out the fire. But her dress too, burst into flames. Reid tried to smother the spreading fire, even rushing them outside and covering them in snow.

But little could be done. In agony Mary died on November 19, and Emily on November 21 from severe burns.

Strangely silent

Such an appalling tragedy would have been headlines in all the Dublin newspapers for weeks. But they are strangely silent on the matter. Instead the local paper, The Clogher Record, mentioned the tragedy but referred to the two women as Miss M Wylie, and Miss L Wylie. In the coroner’s report the surnames were correct but Emily’s name was changed to Emma.

It does appear that Sir William and Lady Wilde used all their influence to block the truth from coming out. Hearing the news from Drumaconnor, Sir William contacted the local constable urging him to see that Emily was not told her sister had died ‘so as not to aggravate her fragile state’; and later, convinced the constable not to hold an inquest, but merely to make an inquiry - which would be simpler. He may also have asked for the names to be changed.**

Sir William however, was completely broken by the event. It is said that his moans and cries could be heard by those passing his house at Merrion Square.

‘A golden sunbeam’

It is also likely that his children with Lady Wilde, Willie, Oscar and Isola Emily, knew nothing of their half-brother and sisters. The family secret was kept secret. But Oscar did not escape remorse when his beloved sister Isola Emily, whom he described as ‘dancing as a golden sunbeam about the house’, died suddenly aged 10 years.

Oscar, 12 years-old at the time, was devastated. Throughout his life he visited her grave frequently. He kept a lock of her hair in a decorated envelope. It was found among his few possessions when he died a pauper in Paris November 30 1900.

Tread lightly, she is near

Under the snow,

Speak gently, she can hear

The daisies grow.

And concludes:

All my life is buried here. (Requiescat, By Oscar Wilde ).

Next Week: ‘Westward Ho! Let us rise with the sun - and be off to the land of the West...’ Sir William’s book on Lough Corrib is published. Later Colm O Lochlainn rages against its Irish spellings!

NOTES: *The Strange secret behind the death of Oscar Wilde’s half-sisters, by Mariana Zapata.

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