By Liam Nolan
Oscar Wilde’s mother’s name before she got married was Jane Francesca Agnes Elgee. She was a famous poet and writer before Oscar was born. In her early years as a writer she called herself ‘Speranza’, the Spanish word for Hope.
Jane was born in County Wexford in 1821. Her family were Protestant, of English stock, and staunchly Unionist. Her solicitor father died when Jane was only three. His death left his wife with insufficient money to provide the kind of education that would otherwise have been the norm for young females of Jane’s class and social standing.
But the lack of formal education proved no handicap to Jane. An extraordinarily studious girl, she was a voracious reader with a remarkable aptitude for languages. By the time she was 18, she could speak and read 10 European languages.
Tall, articulate and pushy, she was interested in many subjects, but one in which she had no interest was politics. That is, until she witnessed the funeral of Thomas Davis, who had died from scarlet fever at the age of 30.
The more she learned about this fellow Protestant who had founded (with Charles Gavan Duffy and John Blake Dillon) the weekly journal The Nation, the more Jane became attracted to the inclusive nationalism he espoused. It was a nationalism that ignored ethnic or religious identity.
Despite her Unionist background, she became an instant convert to Davis’s form of nationalism.
A passionate letter she wrote to The Nation struck home with Gavan Duffy, the paper’s editor. He recognised a potential journalistic jewel in the fieriness of this John Fansworth Ellis — for that was how Jane Elgee had signed her letter. Gavan Dufy contacted her and offered her work.
All the contributors to the paper were required to choose pen names. She chose ‘Speranza’. Duffy’s admiration of her writing prompted him to say that she was “the spirit of Irish liberty embodied in a stately and beautiful woman.”
Moved and angered by the Famine, she wrote powerfully about the starving millions dying in Ireland, and “stately ships bearing our food away.
Aware of the revolutions taking place in Europe, she penned a rebel- rousing unsigned editorial, “Jacta Alea Est” (The Die Is Cast) calling for Ireland to join in those revolutions.