No nation or culture can be represented fairly by just one person. If any two men could between them manage to convey the essence of Irishness, it would be Oscar Wilde and Michael Collins.
These vastly different men both shaped Irish history, culture and identity in very different ways – and they share a birthday. Wilde was born in Dublin on October 16th, 1854, and Collins was born less than 40 years later on October 16th, 1890 near the village of Clonakilty, in County Cork. Their lives overlapped for just a decade, and both were cut short cruelly.
Wilde’s parents were both successful people. His father was an eye surgeon, and his mother a well-known writer. He grew up in comfort, with an older brother and younger sister, and attended Trinity College Dublin. Collins’ parents were farmers in rural West Cork. At 16, he passed the exam to work for the Post Office and moved to London. Ten years later he returned to Ireland passionate about the fight for freedom and joined in the Easter Uprising.
Two Lives, Two Ways of Being Irish
Wilde is frequently claimed by the British, but his work is thoroughly Irish. His wit and critique of British social structure is an outsider perspective. He grew up in Dublin, raised by a mother who used her own literary talents to revive Celtic folktales. Wilde attacked Britishness from inside the inner circles of the cultural elite, but he was also comfortable outside those circles. He did, after all, travel through the American west, spend time with American poet Walt Whitman and socialize with coal miners and cowboys. Wilde’s work was subtly subversive, and decidedly Irish. He chose the pen as his weapon.
Collins was nothing if not pragmatic. He saw clearly that the fight for Irish freedom would involve bloodshed as well as passionate words. At the age that Wilde was studying at Trinity, Collins was a member of the Irish Republican Brotherhood preparing for war. He emerged as a brilliant strategist after the Uprising, and became minister for finance of the rebel Irish government. (He had worked in the post office bank and other financial institutions in London.) In 1921, as his guerrilla campaign forced the British to negotiate, Collins got the most difficult assignment of his life. He represented Ireland in the negotiations that led to partition of the island into the free state and the North. Nearly a century later, that border is still an on-going problem.
Jail Time and Two Tragic, Early Deaths
One thing these two Irishmen have in common is that they both spent time in prison. Neither belonged there; neither was a criminal. But both were imprisoned because of love. Wilde’s love of Alfred Douglas led to a sensational libel trial, his imprisonment for two years of hard labour and resulting demise. Collins’ love of Ireland led him to join the rebellion and fight the British, and he was jailed for his part in the 1916 Uprising. While jail broke Wilde, it played a part in making Collins.
Wilde’s death came after his health was destroyed by his prison term. His wife and his lover both left him. After he was released from prison, he settled in France and wrote The Ballad of Reading Gaol. He succumbed to meningitis when he was only 46.
Collins emerged from jail as a leader of the Irish rebellion, but his role in the negotiations that led to partition made him enemies. It splintered the fledgling government and led to the Irish civil war. In 1922, while on a trip to inspect troops in his native County Cork, Collins was shot at Béal na Bláth. He was 32 years old.
Despite the harsh and tragic elements of their lives, both men strove to create beauty. They each embodied traits we associate with Irish culture – wit, determination, willingness to take risks for what they loved. Their lives are like so much Irish trad music – beautiful, with joy and grief entwined.