Quinnipiac commemorates Irish poet Oscar Wilde 121 years after death

Aidan Sheedy, Copy Editor

The life and legacy of Irish poet and playwright Oscar Wilde resonated with Quinnipiac University students, faculty, and administration as they gathered in the Arnold Bernhard Library’s Oscar Wilde exhibit Nov. 30, to celebrate the 121st anniversary of his death. 

To honor Wilde, participants read aloud his 49-stanza poem “The Ballad of Reading Gaol,” which he wrote on his imprisonment experience and published under his prison identification number: C33.

Quinnipiac University showcased Oscar Wilde for his contribution to Irish culture and gay history. (Connor Lawless)

Since opening in March 2020, the exhibit held key university figures, including President Judy Olian and Provost Debra Liebowitz with a chance to share a cultural experience with the students. Seven student volunteers, most from history professor Christine Kinealy’s Irish studies class, attended and read aloud a passage of one of Wilde’s most potent works.

Quinnipiac has built a history of promoting Ireland’s antiquity through art like Wilde’s writing. A prominent example of this is Kinealy. She was the founding director of Ireland’s Great Hunger Institute and a frequent contributor to Ireland’s Great Hunger Museum, which controversially shut down in August.

President Judy Olian hopes to expose Quinnipiac students to historical perspectives. (Aidan Sheedy)

“I’m sad because … when I came to Quinnipiac in 2013, it had been open for only a year, and I came to help support the works of the museum,” Kinealy said. “What made Qunnipiac so special was no other university in the world has what we have.”

Erika Yaverski, a senior history education major, volunteered to be one of the readers and said she found the event to be a gratifying experience. Yaverski previously took Irish history with Kinealy and said she was already familiar with the piece. To Yaverski, not just reading, but learning the history of the story is just as important.

“A lot of his literature was not very popular at the time (it was published),” Yaverski said. “But his experience as a gay man and the oppression he faced made his words so much more powerful.” 

Liebowitz said she was captivated by Wilde’s words and read the piece aloud with vigor.

“As I was reading, I was struck by the intensity,” Liebowitz said. “The feeling of the intensity was visceral.” 

Liebowitz also said she found the historical aspect of the poem to be crucial to contemporary times.

“It is really about how you help folks today understand the validity and importance of the lessons that history brings,” Liebowitz said. “History isn’t just about a book; it’s about helping us make sense of today.”

The poem was about convicted murderer Charles Wooldridge who was hanged in the Reading Gaol prison in 1896. Kinealy said Wilde’s voice throughout the poem is of compassion and empathy, though he knew the man killed someone. 

He has so much compassion for a man he’s never met, yet he understood (the man’s) predicament.

— Christine Kinealy, director of Ireland's Great Hunger Institute

“He has so much compassion for a man he’s never met, yet he understood (the man’s) predicament,” Kinealy said. “Even though we talk about things (particular) to Ireland, these are universal lessons.”

Public service librarian Robert Young found Wilde’s words to be more personally relatable. 

“We’ve had exhibits like this in the past, but this one holds a special place in my heart because I am gay, and I’ve always enjoyed and appreciated Oscar and what he has done,” Young said. “I’m just glad to be able to participate in this event.”

According to Time Magazine, Wilde was charged and imprisoned for “gross indecency” for his personal relationships in 1895.  This occurred just five years before his premature death at age 45 due to meningitis.

“Not only is (Wilde) a literary genius, he paved the way for being homosexual to be an everyday conversation,” Kinealy said. “Through his suffering, it really paved the way for gay activists, (though) it took a long time.”

Wilde was also discriminated against for being Irish, a common experience for many immigrants for much of the 19th century. 

“Ireland is a country that has suffered greatly,” Kinealy said. “One of the great things about Ireland is its resilience.”

The Great Potato Famine, in particular, caused poverty for thousands of Irish people. As a result, many went elsewhere to create a better life, often moving to the U.S. and the U.K. 

“Even though we talk about things (particular) to Ireland, these are universal lessons,” Kinealy said. “These aren’t stories of just Irish immigrants, it’s a story of all immigrants.”

For Olian, she said attending this event was fulfilling her mission as president to open the students’ minds and expose them to many historical perspectives. 

“(Wilde) has a lot to teach us,” Olian said. “Part of our goal at Quinnipiac is to bring as broad a perspective as possible.”

Yaverski said she wants other students to take notice of the importance of studying not just Irish history, but history all together. 

“He’s not just an isolated figure. He represents a lot of oppression of Irish history as well as the oppression of the gay community,” Yaverski said. “So I think setting that history within a broader narrative is how we can remember his legacy.”