Oscar Wilde Exhibition: 'From Decadence to Despair'

Long Room, Trinity College Dublin

12th October


Good evening,

On behalf of the College, it’s my pleasure to welcome you all to this wonderful exhibition and this very special evening.

Oscar Wilde is not a Trinity graduate, though we sometimes forget that. He was a Trinity student, and a very glittering one – he came first in Classics in his first year, and won a Foundation Scholarship and the Berkeley Gold Medal for Greek in his second. Apparently in later years he would repeatedly pawn and redeem that Medal. Not the least interesting angle of that anecdote is that students in those days won solid gold medals!

He is not a graduate because after his third year he left for Oxford – he was still not twenty years old. But his years here were formative.

He came here in 1870 from Portora School in Enniskillen, aged sixteen, a precociously brilliant schoolboy. At the same time, another brilliant boy exactly his age, came to Trinity from school in Laois: Edward Carson.

I often wonder how the board and fellowship of Trinity felt in 1895 to see their two former prize-winning students face each other across the courtroom floor in one of the century’s most sensational trials.

Wilde recalled that they were friendly in college and would walk about, arms draped around each other’s shoulders. This was no doubt said provocatively, but Carson’s claim that they weren’t college friends and that, even then, he disapproved of what he called ‘Wilde’s flippant approach to life’ was probably also re-writing of history.

Richard Ellmann, one of Wilde’s biographers, has a marvellous line on the different paths of the two men, which also gets across the importance of this university in Wilde’s formation. Ellman writes: ‘Wilde’s character altered so much during Trinity. He became aesthetic while Carson became political.’

That was the great choice open to students in the 1870s: to become political or aesthetic. That Wilde took the latter route was down in no small part to his Tutor in Classics, John Pentland Mahaffy.

It’s impossible to talk about Wilde’s time in Trinity without mentioning Mahaffy who subsequently became Provost, and was a brilliant classicist and a remarkable person in many ways. There are hundreds of anecdotes about Mahaffy, far too many to repeat now. Wilde called Mahaffy his ‘first and best tutor, the scholar who showed me how to love Greek things’.

Mahaffy, on his part, liked to claim that he taught Wilde the art of conversation, about which he wrote a book. Wilde, reviewing the book, candidly regretted that his old tutor could not write as well as he could speak.

Mahaffy is always written into the Oscar Wilde story, but I would like to say a word for another of Wilde’s professors, Robert Yelverton Tyrrell, another witty, brilliant man, who was only about a decade older than Oscar – he was made professor in Latin aged only 25. In 1896 Tyrell signed a petition asking for Wilde’s early release from prison. Mahaffy, who had long boasted of his famous pupil, conspicuously refused to sign and said that that Wilde was ‘the one blot on my tutorship’.

I am afraid that all the institutions that educated Wilde tried to disavow him: Portora, Trinity and Oxford. He has the last word of course – we now cannot do enough to claim him!

Trinity has many world-famous students and graduates, Nobel Prize winners and household names, but among them all, Wilde stands apart. Of him, we can truly say that he is iconic, and one of just a handful of people in history who can genuinely be so described.

In Trinity we do all we can to honour him: his birthplace in Westland Row is now our Oscar Wilde Centre of Irish Writing and in 2011 we acquired the collection of Julia Rosenthal, a London-based rare book dealer with a passion for Wildeana. Her collection is the only Oscar Wilde archive held in a public institution in Ireland. It forms the centre of the exhibition we launch today.

I would like to thank, on behalf of the whole university, all those who put this exhibition together, in particular Ian Sansom, Director of the Oscar Wilde Centre; Helen Shenton; and Caoimhe Ní Ghormáin. Dubliners and visitors to Dublin also owe you a debt of gratitude; this is a marvellous exhibition for the city.

And of course I need hardly say that we are deeply appreciative of the honour Rupert Everett does us in travelling to be here tonight – it is a measure of Oscar’s extraordinary glamour and continued resonance that he has sent to Trinity, on a grey and windy October day, a true Hollywood star.

Thank you.

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