It may seem out of place that the name Robert (known as Robbie ) Ross is associated with probably the best known literary monument in Ireland, namely the autograph tree at Coole Park. With the exception of two soldiers’ names, all 24 others are poets, writers and artists all of whom Lady Gregory believed were worthy to be included in her particular and original ‘hall of fame.’
Robbie Ross was a Canadian journalist, art critic and art dealer, but known famously for his devotion to Oscar Wilde, who for a period was his lover, and finally his literary executor. Ross’s open sexuality, at a time when male homosexual acts were illegal, brought him many hardships.
He never hid his sexual preference, coming out to his parents at an early age. At Cambridge university Ross was equally open about his homosexuality, for which he was frequently bullied. He caught pneumonia when he was held in a fountain by a number of students. Ross believed they were urged to do so by a professor Arthur A Tilley. When he recovered he fought for an apology which he received from the students; but when he complained about Tilley his complaints were ignored.
Ross dropped out of college and worked as a journalist, and critic, and had at least two long-term partnerships with men. But on March 1 1895, he was drawn back to Wilde when he, Wilde and Lord Alfred Douglas (all of whom had been sexually active together at one time or another ), approached their solicitor with the intention of suing the Marquess of Queensbury, Douglas’ father, for criminal libel.
It was a disastrous move for Wilde then at the peak of his dazzling career. He was London’s most talked about celebrity, married to the beautiful Irish writer Constance Lloyd with two young boys Cyril and Vyvyan.** Wilde’s witticisms were repeated to hilarious laughter; and his stories and plays were sellouts.
Instead of the Marquess of Queensbury being guilty of anything, however, it was Wilde who was found guilty of gross indecency. He was sentenced to two years hard labour in Wandsworth prison.
I had forgotten that Augusta Lady Gregory, renowned for her critical role in the Irish Literary Revival at the beginning of the last century, was also a mother, a lover, and a woman of the world. I am reminded of her generous and experienced personality reading William Henry’s well researched The Autograph Tree,* where he fills in the background of the 26 names whose initials are carved into the trunk of the great copper beech tree in the walled garden at Coole, near Gort.
Started in 1898 the initials of many of the names are now indecipherable (Parks and Wildlife Services have good photographic copies ), but George Bernard Shaw’s is still visible, as is William Butler Yeats, Sean O’Casey, Jack B Yeats, and the rest are too faint, but include John M Synge, Lady Margaret Sackville, (whom Lady Gregory hoped would marry her son Robert ), and others.***
After prison Wilde’s life was ruined. He was destitute and bankrupt. He went to Paris where he cadged off his friends and English visitors. But Ross remained loyal and was with him when he died November 30 1900.
As Wilde’s literary executor, Ross began tracking down and purchasing the rights of all Wilde’s books, stories and plays which had been sold off to pay his debts. He was able to give Cyril and Vyvyan (who had fled to Switzerland with their mother, to escape their father’s public humiliation ), the rights to their father’s works, along with money earned from their publication or performances while he was executor. He finally commissioned the controversial, modernist sculptor Jacob Epstein, to produce a work which can be seen today over Wilde’s tomb in Pere Lachaise cemetery in Paris.
His own ashes (Ross died October 5 1918 ), rest in a small compartment at the back of the sculpture.
William Henry surmises that it was George Moore, a friend of Ross, that brought him to Coole one day. Because of the enormous publicity surrounding the Oscar Wilde case and his subsequent death, Lady Gregory would have been familiar with the story, and the efforts made by Ross and others.
There are many aspects of Ross’s character that I am sure won her admiration.
Next week: The interesting life of Lady Margaret Sackville.
NOTES: *By William Henry, recently published by Mercier Books, now on sale €15.
** In 1888, Constance Lloyd had known Oscar Wilde for nine years; she had been married to him for four. Her love for her brilliant husband (“As long as I live you shall be my lover,” she wrote in answer to his proposal in 1883 ) was fully returned. “I feel incomplete without you,” Oscar told her shortly after their marriage. A proud new father, he couldn’t stop urging male friends to get married.(Franny Mole, Guardian ).
*** Other names included are Sara Allgood, Frank and William Fay, G W Russell, John Quinn, Augustus John, James Dickson Innes, Lennox Robinson, George Moore, Douglas Hyde, Violet F Martin, Countess of Cromartie, John Masefield, Elinor Monsell, Dame Edith Smyth, Theodore Spicer-Simson, General Sir Ian Hamilton and General Sir Nevill Lyttelton.