Covid-19 has certainly put a stop to my gallop this year, but I’ve made Clones in County Monaghan my second home and on the weekend before Christmas I decided to avoid the shopping crowds and visit the graves of Oscar Wilde’s two half-sisters at the church of St Molua’s, three miles south west of Monaghan Town on the Monaghan/Clones road. It is clearly signposted although the church cannot be seen from the main road.
I am a huge fan of Oscar Wilde. The Importance of Being Earnest is one of my all time favourite plays, thus I was intrigued to uncover the story of the playwright’s kin, who died in a horrific accident. The sisters were illegitimate, their father being Sir William Wilde, a renowned ophthalmologist and otolaryngologist, who went to great lengths to keep his daughters’ deaths a very private affair, possibly to save his reputation.
The girls, Emily aged 24, and Mary aged 22, were staying with a relative in a local manor called Drumaconnor House. It was Halloween 1871, a few months after Oscar had gone to Trinity College in Dublin, and the girls were invited to a party at Drumacon House. Towards the end of the evening the host, Andrew Reid, asked one of the sisters to dance. Her dress caught fire when she moved too close to the candlesticks. The other sister ran to assist her sibling, only for her own dress to catch alight. Accounts differ as to what happened next, but it is agreed the fires were extinguished and the sisters suffered third degree burns over a large part of their bodies. Little could be done to save their lives or ease their terrible suffering. Mary died on November 9th and Emily on November 21st.
It is believed their father convinced the local constable not to hold an inquest and Emily’s name was changed to Emma when her death was recorded in the Northern Standard newspaper on November 25th. The girls’ surname was also changed to Wylie for a period of time. Sir Wilde managed to successfully obfuscate the passing of his illegitimate issue, and the story remained buried for about seventy years.
To add to the intrigue it’s not really known if Oscar knew of the events, nor if he even knew of the girls’ existence! Furthermore, and this part I find particularly interesting, a woman wearing black would be spotted visiting the sisters’ grave for several years after their passing and such an enigmatic woman is said to have appeared at the deathbed of Sir William Wilde himself! I will leave you to surmise who the woman was. I certainly have my own thoughts on the matter.
Emily and Mary’s gravestone is a simple one, in keeping with the church itself and there are far more ostentatious headstones in the small churchyard of St Molua’s in Drumsnat. In recent years a second headstone has been erected beside the original, the epitaph being exactly the same. Having paid my respects I left, recalling my visit to Oscar’s grave in Père Lachaise cemetery in Paris several years ago on St Patrick’s Day. Unlike the rustic gravestone of his half-sisters, Wilde’s is flamboyant, just like the man himself.