What do Oscar Wilde, Eugene O’Neill and Michael Collins have in common? Besides being Irish and having led extraordinary lives as true revolutionaries in the arts, sexual liberation, and politics, they share the same Libra birthday, October 16th.
It’s not surprising that the symbol for the Libra is the scale of justice. These are men who, in their own way, through the sheer force of their personalities, tried to change the world.
According to gotohoroscope.com: “Individuals with an October the sixteenth birthday are incredibly curious and will ordinarily take an avid interest in anything mysterious. A dreamy intellectual [they] tend to be emotionally rather well balanced but also sensitive despite [their] seemingly fairly confident exterior. Witty, compassionate and understanding to those around [them, their] creative mind has an abundance of great ideas and the ability to easily find workable solutions.”
Oscar Wilde, October 16, 1854
“I have nothing to declare except my genius.”
To state that Oscar Wilde was the product of outrageous and brilliant parents is a gross understatement. He may have gotten his genius from them, but he also inherited from them a sense of entitlement that led to his own downfall. To understand Oscar one has to understand his parents, Sir William Wilde and Lady Jane Wilde, also known as the poet Speranza. Both were super-personalities of the Victorian era and dominated Dublin society.
“Biography,” Oscar once said, “lends to death a new terror.” Perhaps he had a reckoning that a book like The Fall of the House of Wilde by Emer O’Sullivan (Bloomsbury Press) would someday be written about him and his family. In this book, which almost reads like a novel, we get a look at the world Oscar grew up in.
His mother, Jane, was one of the leading lights of the Young Ireland movement. Along with the likes of Thomas Davis, William O’Brien Smith, John Mitchel and Thomas Francis Meagher she stirred the pot of revolution with her incendiary poetry in the years leading up to 1848. And according to Timothy Egan’s recent biography of Meagher, The Immortal Irishman, Jane and Meagher may have even been lovers. She even came close to going to jail in the aftermath of the mini-rising of 1848.
His father, Sir William Wilde, was one of the most prominent eye surgeons of his time. But O’Sullivan points out in The Fall of the House of Wilde the tawdry story of his affair with a young woman by the name of Mary Travers. Sir William, who had several illegitimate children, became embroiled with Travers and when he spurred her she brought him to court. She won the suit but was only awarded a farthing. But what sticks out is how Sir William flaunted this relationship, foreshadowing Oscar’s future homosexual affair with Lord Alfred Douglas. So Oscar grew up watching how his parents lived their lives in public—and when he moved to London he followed their example with devastating consequences.
Today we tend to view Oscar more as a gay icon than as an immensely talented writer. We almost forget that he was the most prominent playwright of his day with hits that included Salomé, Lady Windermere’s Fan, A Woman of No Importance and The Importance of Being Earnest. His novel, The Picture of Dorian Gray still haunts as perhaps a premonition he had about his future decay. And, at the end, his poem The Ballad of Reading Gaol almost acts like an obituary to his career.
In this age of gay rights, Oscar, rightfully, is viewed as the first martyr of the modern movement. Oscar once said that “A man can’t be too careful in the choice of his enemies” and he picked a beaut as his enemy—Sir Edward Carson. To most Irish nationalists—and remember Oscar’s mother was a fervent nationalist—the name Edward Carson is an epithet. Carson and Wilde were born on opposite sides of St. Stephen’s Green and went to Trinity College at the same time. They competed at college and they would compete again in the courtroom.
Oscar, at the height of his fame, had an affair with Lord Alfred Douglas which caused Douglas’ father, Lord Queensberry, to accuse Wilde of “posing as somdomite [sic].” Oscar, encouraged by the spoiled Douglas, sued for libel which put him face to face with Carson in court. Carson skillfully demonstrated Wilde’s appetite for young men and when Oscar withdrew his court claim, charges were brought against him and a warrant was signed by H.H. Asquith, the Home Secretary. [It is interesting to note that both Carson and Asquith would play such an important role against the rebels of 1916: Asquith was the prime minister who wanted executions and Carson would get to go after another famous Irish homosexual—successfully prosecuting Sir Roger Casement and sending him to the gallows.]
What comes across in The Fall of the House of Wilde was Oscar’s naiveté. Carson seemed to prosecute him for stepping out with boys who were not of his class. Oscar comes across as someone who didn’t care about class and who treated these young men, be they lovers or not, with generosity and kindness.
In a way it is unfortunate that Oscar now is remembered mostly for being a gay icon. He was a world class writer who should be thought in the same light as Shaw, O’Casey, Beckett and Joyce. For his belief, his lifestyle, he lost his wife and two sons. He may have been foolish, throwing everything away, but he is a martyr for the cause, a cause that would take another seventy-five years before true rebellion broke out at the Stonewall Inn on Christopher Street in New York City with its consequences spreading across the globe. There always has to be the first to die for a cause and poor, quixotic Oscar Wilde was the first victim of the modern gay liberation movement.
Eugene O’Neill, October 16, 1888
“One thing that explains more than anything about me is the fact that I’m Irish.”
It is only fitting that one of America’s foremost playwrights was born in a hotel smack in the middle of what is today Times Square. His future almost seemed destined since his Irish-born father was one of the leading actors of his day. The theatre, it seemed, ran in his blood from the moment of his conception.
But his birth left a mark on his mother, who became a drug addict, and young Eugene with the middle name of Gladstone, after the English prime minister who wanted home rule for Ireland, began life with a saturnine disposition which only seemed to worsen with age. O’Neill’s portrait of his mother in Long Day’s Journey into Night is devastating and chronicles the dark side of the Irish soul.
After spending some time at Princeton University, O’Neill took to the sea for several years and it inspired several of his plays, including The Long Voyage Home and Bound East for Cardiff. A bout with tuberculosis landed him in a sanatorium for a time and when he recovered he headed for Greenwich Village. There he hung around with the likes of John Reed, Louise Bryant, and a young woman by the name of Dorothy Day.
If there ever was a Catholic odd couple it would be O’Neill and Day. Today, Day is hailed as a “Servant of God” as she begins the journey to sainthood. She has been hailed in the last few years by both Pope Benedict XVI and Pope Francis. She is universally praised for her work with the poor and under-privileged from her base in the Catholic Worker movement.
However, back in the days when she used to drink with O’Neill at the Golden Swan bar on the corner of West 4th Street and Sixth Avenue she was no angel. Before becoming a Catholic icon, she was a drinker and even had an abortion. “She sat in the saloons for hours,” wrote Louis Sheaffer in O’Neill: Son and Playwright, “matching the men drink for drink, and knew ribald choruses of ‘Frankie and Johnny’ her companions had never heard of.” But strangely, they took to each other, though apparently not as lovers.
“He couldn’t bear to be alone,” said Day. “Only an hour after I’d left him to go to work—I was on the Liberator magazine then—he’d be calling me from the Hell Hole or some other bar to come back.” O’Neill had an affinity for people which showed in the characters he wrote about. “One of the fine things about Gene,” said Day, “is that he took people seriously…He took Hippolyte seriously, and almost no one else did. After Hippolyte’d had a few drinks he would get up in the center of the room and whirl around, while the rest of us laughed. But not Gene. ‘This man’s been in every prison in Europe,’ he used to say. ‘He’s suffered for what he believes in.’ Gene was very responsive to people who had suffered.” Day went on to say that O’Neill “couldn’t really love anybody. I felt that he would devour you because he was devoured by his talent, his all-consuming urge to write.”
And write he did. He wrote over 50 full-length and one-act plays. He was awarded the Pulitzer Prize four times for Beyond the Horizon, Anna Christie, Strange Interlude, and Long Day’s Journey into Night, posthumously in 1957. The pinnacle of his career was when he won the Nobel Prize for Literature, 1936.
Because of neurological disease O’Neill had to stop writing after 1943, but just before then he penned the one play that really gets into his Irishness. Long Day’s Journey into Night is a play about a dysfunctional Irish-Catholic family wrought with addiction, alcoholism and bitterness. There is the searing pain of family relationships known especially to the Irish. The play was not supposed to be performed until twenty-five years after O’Neill’s death, but his wife, Carlotta, ignored his will and with the help of Panamanian director Jose Quintero and actor Jason Robards Jr. brought the play to the Circle in the Square Theatre in Greenwich Village in 1956 where it became an instant hit and revitalized O’Neill’s career. There would be other O’Neill revivals such as The Iceman Cometh and A Moon for the Misbegotten, but Journey would be the play that would show his Irishness in naked frankness.
As O’Neill lay dying in a Boston hotel room in 1953, his last words were supposed to be: “I knew it. I knew it. Born in a hotel room and died in a hotel room.” But he had a hell of a journey between the first and the last hotel rooms.
Michael Collins, October 16, 1890
“The man who won the war.”—Arthur Griffith
In 1920 during the height of the War of Independence Michael Collins wore many hats: TD, Minister for Finance, Commandant-General of the IRA, head of the IRB, IRA Director of Organization, and IRA Director of Intelligence. To say that Collins was a departmental genius is an understatement.
As the British frantically searched for him and with a £5,000 bounty on his head, Collins, attaché case in hand, casually walked around Dublin dutifully fulfilling commitments to his various portfolios. Intelligence was handled at #3 Crow Street, just a block from Dublin Castle. Up in Harcourt Street at #6 and #76 he did his finance work in between raids by the British. When the situations got too hot he moved his financial work to #22 Mary Street. He kept other offices at #10 Exchequer Street and #32 Bachelor’s Walk. A lot of his work was also done at Vaughan’s Hotel at #29 Parnell Square (his “Joint Number One”) and the Wicklow Hotel at #4 Wicklow Street, just off busy Grafton Street. For a culchie from County Cork, he knew the streets of Dublin just as good as any native Jackeen.
Of all his portfolios the two most important to delivering Ireland her freedom was probably his work as Minister for Finance and as Director of Intelligence of the IRA. In order to run a country, you have to have money to finance it.
Collins interest in finance goes back to his work in the British postal system in London. The British posts not only conducted the mail, they also were responsible in other areas, such as communications and banking. One of Collins unknown mentors in London may have been Vladimir Lenin. Although none of Collins biographers mentions it, Collins did go to an economic conference in London in 1915 where Lenin was the featured speaker. We know this because of Joe Good, an Irish Londoner who fought in the Easter Ring and knew Collins very well on both sides of the Irish Sea. In his wonderful memoir of that period, Enchanted by Dreams: The Journal of a Revolutionary, Good recalls gently baiting the belligerent Big Fellow about his economics knowledge and telling him of his own personal encounter with Comrade Lenin: “I joked that some famous economist had spoken to me. I did not say it was a lecture Lenin had given in London. At least I knew that Lenin could be described as an economist, but that was all I knew on the topic at that time. To my surprise Mick had also been to the same lecture. The Clonakilty lad had certainly got around.”
Collins raised money for the infant nation by soliciting a National Loan both at home and in America, where de Valera had escaped to. It was, however, a thankless task and Collins soon realized that the collision between money and human greed was not a pretty thing to behold. In a letter to Harry Boland he said: “The enterprise will certainly break my heart if anything ever will. I never imagined there would be so much cowardice, dishonesty, hedging, insincerity, and meanness in the world, as my experience of this work has revealed.” Nevertheless, the National Loan was a huge success, raising £370,000 in Ireland and over $5,000,000 in the United States.
And Collins was quite the marketer also, even producing and directing a film about soliciting money from the Fenian hierarchy. You can see the young Collins—cowlick prominent—comfortably sitting behind a desk at Patrick Pearse’s school, St. Enda’s in Rathfarnham, greeting prominent members of the movement, including Arthur Griffith, Grace Gifford Plunkett and Mrs. Margaret Pearse, mother of the Pearse brothers. It’s interesting to note that the paranoid Collins was supremely camera-shy—the British apparently had no photos of him—and this film was probably meant more for American consumption than anything else, but it highlights the importance Collins gave to the Loan in that he would compromise his security in order for the Loan to succeed. The film is a fascinating look at the young Collins in action:
The Loan and Collins’ intelligence network have a connection. By the spring of 1920 the British had sent a magistrate named Alan Bell to examine the books of several Dublin banks where they thought Collins had deposited the Loan money in phony accounts. In one Dame Street bank in the shadow of Dublin Castle, Bell confiscated over £18,000 pounds. Bell had been harassing Fenians since the time of the Land League and Collins decided he had to go. Members of the Squad pulled Bell off a tram on his way to work at Dublin Castle and shot him dead. Suddenly, there were no more bank examiners volunteering to go to Dublin to examine the books. This and the earlier murder of a spy named Jameson caused Winston Churchill, Secretary of State for War, to put a £5,000 bounty on the head of the man responsible for these deaths. That man, of course, was Michael Collins.
But the portfolio Collins is most famous for is that of Director of Intelligence of the IRA. From 1798 the Irish had been having uprisings that always ended in failure. Collins wondered why? He came to the conclusion that the British always won because of their superior intelligence network, which had skillfully woven spies and informers into every Irish revolutionary movement since the time of Wolfe Tone. Now the big question was, how do you combat this?
He decided the best way was to have an intelligence system of his own, that would be superior to anything the British could do. Under his deputy DOI Liam Tobin, he set up an office at #3 Crow Street, a stone’s throw away from Dublin Castle. There he monitored the British and their movements. He knew whenever a British officer or intelligence officer moved in or out of Dublin. He had his own spies in transportation and at the hotels. Crow Street combed the society pages to see who were the British men about town.
With the intelligence operation going full blast Collins decided in September 1919 to set up his own Active Service Unit (ASU) which came to be known as the Squad or more colorfully as “The Twelve Apostles”—with Collins eagerly replacing Jesus Christ himself! Their job was brutal—they would shoot British spies, touts and informers. Only Collins—and in his absence Richard Mulcahy, chief of staff of the IRA, and Dick McKee, head of the Dublin brigades—could order hits.
It all came to fruition on November 21, 1920 when the Squad executed 14 British Secret Service agents in their beds on what now is called “Bloody Sunday.” Twelve months and 16 days later—with the scales of justice finally favoring the Irish—Collins signed the treaty that made Ireland a nation once again. His Libra dream had come through.
* Dermot McEvoy is the author of the The 13th Apostle: A Novel of a Dublin Family, Michael Collins, and the Irish Uprising and Irish Miscellany (Skyhorse Publishing). He may be reached at email@example.com. Follow him at www.dermotmcevoy.com. Follow The 13th Apostle on Facebook at www.facebook.com/13thApostleMcEvoy.