Oscar Wilde’s Portora School.

 

The diary of Mr. Parker Dunscombe published in 1914 in the Impartial Reporter gives a glimpse of school life about twenty years before Oscar Wilde’s arrival. Dunscombe arrived at the school by the “Shareholder” Stagecoach from Dublin which had picked up boys along the way in places like Cavan and Belturbet. The coach stopped at the White Hart Inn on Townhall Street and his trunk was left there to be collected while he and an older boy walked to the school. He first came to the school in February and walked into the middle of a furious snowball fight between the Boarders and the Enniskillen Day Boys. His companion told him he would be an immediate hit with his new boarder companions if he snowballed the old grey caretaker they met on the avenue. Anxious to impress he did as requested and ran on towards the school. He was welcomed by, Miss Greham, the sister of the Headmaster, who provided them with tea. Only when the “old grey caretaker” walked in and turned out to be Dr. Greham did he realise that he had been duped by his companion, but fortunately he had not been recognised.

Portora.

His account of school life in the next four and a half years includes fistfights over use of the fives ball courts and of one of the Masters organising and refereeing the subsequent fight between himself and another boy in the courtyard of Portora Castle. The Master’s theory was that if the boys gave each other a good hiding they would become friends afterwards – a fairly debatable social theory.

This diary opens up a new angle of looking at Portora by describing the Headmaster’s extensive piggery and his herd of milk cows which supplied the school. On one occasion two boys managed to get out of the school and were returning drunk along the piggery wall. One fell off into the piggery and knocked him out and had to be rescued by the Headmaster. He was therefore literally as well as figuratively – in the sh**. On another occasion all Dr. Greham’s cattle disappeared off the 50-acre farm surrounding the school and were later found on the other side of the river. One particular boy from Tipperary was under suspicion of driving the cattle into the river so that they swam across. While the boy remained in the school he was frequently accused by the Headmaster of “driving his eighteen cattle across the river.”No Sir, he would truthfully reply, you never had more than fifteen.”

The boys dined on milk and dry bread at breakfast and supper and had a substantial meal in the middle of the day, generally mutton with no desert. The Masters dined with the boys, with the senior students at Dr. Greham’s table which almost ran the length of the dining room. Here boys learned from the wisdom and knowledge of the teachers, of what was happening in the town, in the country or the world in general. This would be especially so at the senior table. Discipline was not harsh according to Dunscombe but canings were common and floggings delivered in exceptional cases. On one occasion the boy being flogged rebelled and wresting the cane from the teacher administered his own flogging in turn to the Master.

On another occasion the boy being punished fled the room pursued by the teacher who vainly chased him around the lawn. Eventually the teacher had to give up and returned to slump on his chair exhausted. At Easter the boys were allowed to have a little party to themselves and club together to buy the necessary ingredients for a jolly good feed, I presume, something on the lines of what one can read in the Billy Bunter stories. The Masters supervised these feasts and on one occasion when excessive jollification was found to be coming from one table it was found that, instead of tea, the teapot on the table contained port wine. Oscar and his brother had hampers sent to them at the school by their doting mother and Oscar mentions the envy of “the hamperless boy” in a letter to his mother.

Going out of the school bounds was a serious offence as in the case of the boys who went out and got drunk. Boys were allowed out to visit the town on special occasions such as the Enniskillen Fair Day. In those days most Irish schools took off the fair day and even if the school did not do this officially most of the children went anyway. Boys accompanied their fathers driving cattle to and from the fair and girls accompanied their mothers to do the shopping and pay family bills with the money from the sale of their livestock, butter, eggs, etc. Enniskillen had a butter market, a flax market, a pig market, a potato market, a shambles where meat was sold, all in addition to the Fair Green which at that time was at Windmill Hill on the Sligo Road. The most serious out of bounds was the river and Lough Erne itself which bounded the school grounds. Incidents of people drowning, both accidental and wilful, were extremely common. Only senior boys were allowed on the river, but with boats freely available, it was a temptation hard to resist. Dunscombe himself and another boy successfully reached Devenish Island and got back again unnoticed but the danger of the lake was dreadfully demonstrated in Oscar Wilde’s second year at the school when the son of the Headmaster, Frederick Steele drowned.

Portora was a Royal school set up under legislation by James 1 as part of the arrangements for the Plantation of Ulster. It was supported by a large estate. In 1855, before the Commissioners of Enquiry into the state of the Endowed Schools on the 15th of October, the Headmaster, Dr. Greham gave evidence. The school estate consisted of 41 townlands in Fermanagh, from 4 to 9 miles from Enniskillen on the Swanlinbar road plus Portora farm surrounding the school and a tenement in Enniskillen. The total acreage excluding Portora was about 5,500 acres. It was the most richly endowed of all the royal schools with a gross income of £2,142-12-11. The Headmaster had possession of Portora farm’s 53 acres free of rent. At that time there were 94 on roll – 39 boarders, 55 day pupils and of these 19 were free. The full designation of the school was the Enniskillen Royal Free School and was intended to be free to the people of Fermanagh as other Free Schools had also been established in Donegal, Cavan etc. at the time of the Ulster Plantation in the early 17th century. The Rev. Mr. Steele was now the Headmaster of Portora and had pushed the school to new heights of excellence. Prizes and scholarships came thick and fast and were invariably trumpeted in the Impartial Reporter. However, this did not stop the paper complaining about the narrowness of the Classical curriculum and its lack of suitability to the local needs of Enniskillen and Fermanagh. The Headmaster had a major row on his hands when he expelled a boy from the school for smoking some years before Oscar arrived.

The boys in school and the masters with which they conversed had their minds influenced by what they read in the local paper. Local news was important but so too was national and international news since this was the world that they were, in general, being educated to join. Portora supplied a rich vein of military officers, clergy, judges and colonial administrators to the society of the period. The pages of the local paper was the source of much of this information.. The following eight years chronicle the news background against which Oscar Wilde grew up.

 

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Oscar Wilde’sEnniskillen.

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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.