William Wilde Seminar and Public Lecture


news 03 Meitheamh 20106:00 i.n.

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Sir William Wilde 1815-1876

Sir William Wilde, eminent surgeon and polymath, was born at Kilkeevan, Castlereagh, Co. Roscommon. During a productive and somewhat unconventional lifetime he made important contributions to the census of Ireland, to statistical methods as applied to public health, and to the archaeology, folklore, history, art history and medical history of Ireland. His reputation as a surgeon, especially in the treatment of diseases of the eye and ear brought him great distinction and a knighthood. His organisation of the museum of the Royal Irish Academy and writing the catalogue of its collection, under great pressure, brought him international fame in archaeology. He was a remarkable travel writer. When still a young man he published a splendid two-volume account of a voyage which he undertook as medical attendant to a young English patient who journeyed for his health to the Iberian peninsula, Egypt and onwards to western Turkey. Two works, still read for enjoyment and for the archaeological and folkloric interest, are his books Lough Corrib and Beauties of the Boyne and the Blackwater. He wrote a book about Austria which was rediscovered by a scholar in Vienna in recent years. It has important historical significance as a rare outside commentary on Austrian institutions in the first half of the 19th century. As an aspiring specialist, Wilde had spent time studying in Vienna where he encountered some of the greats of 19th-century medicine. Working on the medical aspects of the Irish census of 1841 and 1851, Wilde chronicled the medical effects of the Great Famine and in many later publications he wrote with great passion and indignation about the condition of the poorer people of rural Ireland. A man of remarkable achievements in everything he attempted, his later years were overshadowed by a scandal and by family tragedy. He was married to Jane Francesca Elgee (the poet Speranza) and they had three children, Willie (barrister and journalist), Oscar (the celebrated author) and a daughter Isola who died tragically at a young age. Sir William had three other children out of wedlock, Henry Wilson (who followed his father into medicine) and two daughters, Mary and Emily who died in 1871 in a horrific accident.
Wilde’s fame and achievements have been overshadowed by the celebrity and tragedy of his son, Oscar, but he was a man of exceptional talent with an astonishing capacity for hard work who deserves to be recognised and celebrated much more in his native land.

He was a man of extraordinary energy who attained distinction in almost everything to which he turned his hand. Very well known in his lifetime in Dublin he kept a hospitable house at No. 1 Merrion Square which was one of the most active and influential salons of its day. It was presided over by his wife Jane Francesca Agnes Elgee (Speranza) the poet whom he married in 1851. They had two children, Oscar and William. There is however another side to Wilde that is that he had three children out of wedlock, two daughters (who died tragically) and his son Henry Wilson who followed him into the same profession. For much of his later years he was troubled by scandal which culminated in the famous court action was a cause celeb at the time. The consequences of this failed to deflect him from his medical work, his writing and lecturing and his participation in learned societies. He died after a short illness in 1876 after a lifetime of stupendous achievement and industry. Some of his later work was published subsequently on his behalf by Speranza. He was buried in Mount Jerome cemetery.

This seminar hopes to explore many aspects of the achievements and character of William Wilde whose memory has been obscured somewhat by the brilliance of his son, Oscar. A remarkable and patriotic Irishman in the best mould of specific patriot he was a member of the Home Rule party and an admirer of monarchy.


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