The second Oscar Wild Festival in the current season will be held in Enniskillen this year following a successful debut last year.
Oscar’s Wilde’s Enniskillen. Fermanagh in mid Victorian Times 1864-71 is a book published in 2002 as part of a former Wilde Festival in Enniskillen held in that year is intended to convey some idea of what Enniskillen was like in mid-Victorian times – the county town of Fermanagh that Oscar Wilde would have walked through. Perhaps on his way to and from the railway station while boarding at the prestigious, Enniskillen Royal Free School; locally known as Portora, or on excursions from the school to Sunday Church or to Enniskillen Fair Days. It intends to evoke the sights, smells, sounds of a small Irish Victorian town in the middle of Queen Victoria’s long reign. This town and county and its people provided the backdrop to Oscar Wilde’s growing up. John B. Cunningham Esq.
One of the most important voices in Oscar Wilde’s Fermanagh, at this time, was William Trimble editor of the Impartial Reporter newspaper. The paper had been first printed in 1825, and the paper is still published in the 21st century making it the third-oldest newspaper in Ireland after two other Ulster publications, the Belfast News Letter (which is the oldest daily newspaper in the world) and the Derry Journal. This book was researched from the issues of the Impartial Reporter 1864-1871. It originally began life written in the modern idiom with relatively few quotations from the pen of William Copeland Trimble but through time his voice took over. Oscar Wilde grew up reading and listening to the cadences of writers and speakers of the time. Victorian thoughts and descriptions seemed eventually to be better expressed in the words of the time and William Trimble was the master voice of Enniskillen and County Fermanagh and all matters pertaining in Oscar’s formative years. The words are largely those of William Trimble; the choice is mine.
Oscar Wilde attended Enniskillen Royal School from 1864 to 1871. This was a prestigious educational institution to which boys came from all over Ireland, the sons of gentry, military, religious and judicial figures. These boys were destined to follow in their fathers’ footsteps. Because of the distance from their homes the boys resided in the school as boarders. Local boys, chiefly from Enniskillen, made up the rest of the school. In all there were 175 boys in the school when Oscar Wilde attended there. With the arrival of the railway to Enniskillen in 1859 local boys could come from a wider area of Fermanagh. They came and went by train in the morning and afternoon. These were chiefly the sons of the merchant class of local shopkeepers, doctors, officers of the local military garrison etc. and they came and went each day. Some of them, like the boarders paid for their education but a certain number were educated free. There was certainly an amount of class distinction between the locals and the boarders and between those who paid and those who did not. Sometimes this manifested itself in fights between individual boys or in mass snowballing contests as one old boy describes in his memoirs. Oscar and his brother came to this educational establishment at the beginning of the school year of 1864/5, sons of the famous Sir William Wilde. They were Dublin boys, rusticated to a country school – boys used to the big city, now meeting a school full of strangers in a small Irish town.
What Enniskillen made of these city boys with a famous father we do not know but Oscar claims that he did not like his time there very much. However, whether or not he did, everyone’s schooldays have an influence on their later life, for good or ill, for better or for worse. We are influenced by our teachers, the ambience and ethos of the school, the happenings of the world around us as we grow up and the conversations and opinions of the boys and girls of our own age. Like successive layers of varnish, later memories become overlaid with subsequent events, but never entirely obliterate those underneath. We remember some teachers with affection and others with loathing and similarly our classmates. We remember the school bullies, the boyfriends and girlfriends of our teenage years, the escapades we got away with and the disasters when our wrong doings were discovered and the punishments which followed.
In compiling the Enniskillen of Oscar Wilde’s time the local newspaper the Impartial Reporter has been an invaluable source of reference which chronicled the events of the time in Enniskillen and County Fermanagh but also news from all around the world, the royal courts of Europe, happenings in Africa and America etc. The local newspaper, as we know it today, is a very insular, inward looking newspaper compared to those of the past. Television, radio and the national papers have taken over the task of telling us of the doings of the wider world but local, national and international items jostled together on the pages of the Impartial with local news often coming out worst in the struggle for space. Regular local items included in the paper were the meetings of Enniskillen Town Commissioners, the Poor Law Guardians of Enniskillen Workhouse, the Enniskillen Petty Sessions Courts, and the Fermanagh Quarter Sessions Courts. The weather, the fairs of Enniskillen and the coming and going of the local gentry also feature prominently. Schools and Church news were also covered but overall local items, other than advertisements, seldom represented more than ten to twenty per cent of the total amount in the paper. Items copied from the columns of other Irish papers were frequently covered, with acknowledgement, especially if it were sensational material such as a murder, discovery of weapons, descriptions of hangings or sensational trials involving people in high places.
So would boys at school in Portora read the local newspaper? Perhaps yes, and perhaps no, but regardless of individual boys reading the paper themselves, the conversation of the masters and the gossip and talk of the other boys would have supplied the deficiency. Boys were present from all over Ireland and indeed further afield, and interested in stories from their own area. These boys, especially the boarders, were being educated for places in the military, judicial and religious establishment, not alone in Ireland but throughout the British Empire and all knowledge of the society in which they were destined to make a living was almost as equally important as what they were imbibing from their masters at Portora.
The period represented by Oscar Wilde’s attendance at Portora lies about halfway through the long reign of Queen Victoria. What would Oscar Wilde and his brother have seen, smelt, heard, and experienced as they walked through its streets on their way from the railway station on the east end of the town to their school on the west end of Enniskillen – on the days they walked to church – on the days they were let out to experience the fair of Enniskillen? Did any of this influence his life or works? It is hard to answer that but “perhaps” is probably the best we can get. Boys arriving by train from Dublin or other parts of Ireland invariably had large trunks of clothing etc. and these were left at the station to be collected later by someone from the school and the boys then walked to the school. New boys were invariably accompanied by someone older who was already attending the school. Belmore Street and the eastern approach to Enniskillen from the railway station was not the town’s most inviting aspect. The street was smelly, unpaved and dirty. Until the level of the street was raised it was a swampy area which frequently flooded. Old people recalled catching fish where Dunne’s Stores and the Railway Hotel are currently situated. There was no pavement and horse and cow dung lay where it fell until one of the town scavengers swept it up. These scavengers, (their official title) were employed at an annual fee to keep the streets tidy but rubbish etc often piled up when they took a few days off on hire to a local merchant to move goods or furniture with their horse and cart. Many in town kept a few cows to provide milk for their family and work people. In the warmer weather they were driven too and fro morning and evening to be milked, and to grazing off the island of Enniskillen. They deposited their manure on the streets adding to that of the numerous horses and donkeys. In busy cities, street sweepers would sweep a path across the street for gentlemen and their ladies; in return for a fee of course. In dry weather this was tolerable to a degree but in wet weather the mud and manure could be many inches deep. Broken and unmade sewers produced a heavy stench especially in warm weather and the tannery in Belmore Street with its supply of high smelling animal hides added to the miasma. Fermanagh County Jail was one of the first grim sights of Enniskillen as one came from the train. The gallows over the main door was a grim reminder in an age when hundreds were hung each year in the British Isles. The tumult of a fair day can only be imagined today. Street singers, impromptu auctions, lowing cattle, bleating sheep and squealing pigs, horse and donkey carts trundling along interspersed with the carriages of the better off all added to the exciting, noisy atmosphere. Most houses were thatched, other than the houses of the wealthy, and the merchant’s premises and turf smoke filled the air. Boat loads of turf constantly arrived at Enniskillen as this was the principal fuel of the time.
Crossing the East Bridge where the bulk of the flow of the River Erne was then directed, provided views of boats going to and fro and bulky Erne cots (large flat bottomed boats) unloaded their cargoes of sand, turf, brick, timber etc at various quays and small beaches around the island. Sewage discharged directly into the river, and dead animals, and unused animal parts from the butchers all ended in the Erne. So too, unfortunately did the corpses of numerous unwanted little children. These sad little deaths were so commonplace as to be little noticed and an aspect of mid Victorian society seldom mentioned. Enniskillen had been a garrison town for centuries with around 50 resident prostitutes practicing what is reputedly the World’s oldest profession. Someone once added that lawyers were the second oldest profession but not nearly as honourable as the first.
At the Diamond in Enniskillen, and indeed at other places, street sellers called out their wares, such as apples and sweets, and auctions frequently gathered a crowd. Off duty soldiers and their lady friends thronged the streets especially towards the West end of the town and quarrels and drunken rows were extremely common. The Wilde boys would have passed Cassidy’s Tobacco factory along Church Street and the town brewery as they crossed the West Bridge. By now they could see Portora on the hill and depending on the time of day a stream of local Enniskillen boys on their way to or from the school many of them furthest away on ponies. Looking over the bridge boys would see boats and cots from Lower Lough Erne and sometimes the steamer “Devenish” on her way to or from a pleasant trip to Belleek or Castle Caldwell, a round trip of about 50 miles.