The tragedy of Oscar Wilde's half-sisters

A short distance south west of Monaghan town, on the road to Clones, is a sign post which reads ‘Drumsnatt Church of Ireland’. To the rear of this small country church is a headstone, bearing the inscription: “In memory of two loving and loved sisters, Emily Wilde aged 24 and Mary Wilde, aged 22, who lost their lives by accident in this parish, Nov 10th 1871. They were lovely and pleasant in their lives and in death they were not divided” (11 Samuel Chap 1, v 23).

The sisters in question, who lost their lives in a fire in a nearby manor house, were the half sisters of the Irish poet, novelist and dramatist, Oscar Wilde, who was born in Dublin 1854, and who was now just a few years younger than the two girls in what can only be described as a freak accident. Five years before the tragic event, when Oscar was just twelve, he had lost his younger sister Isola, who died at the tender age of ten years, following a bout of fever, at the home of her aunt, Margaret Nobel, in Edgeworthstown, Co Longford.

Isola’s death had a traumatic effect on Oscar Wilde, and for months afterwards he was inconsolable. Even when he died in 1900 his possessions included an envelope containing some strands of his beloved sister’s hair, with the inscription “My Isola’s Hair’ penned on the envelope. At the time, Oscar was a student in Portora Royal School, Enniskillen, from where he later advanced to Trinity College in Dublin in 1871 and then on to Oxford in 1874.

It was shortly after Wilde had gone to Trinity that the Monaghan tragedy occurred, but his grief on this occasion was not on the same scale as was so clearly shown for his beloved Isola, since Emily and Mary were only his half-sisters, being the illegitimate daughters of his father, the renowned eye and ear surgeon, Sir William Wilde of Dublin. Some sceptics might argue that he was not even aware of the existence of these two girls as this had been a very carefully guarded secret. Despite the fact, however, their father Sir William attended their funeral and, according to one report “his groans could be heard be people outside his house.”

Only one newspaper, the local ‘Northern Standard’ reported the tragedy in a very brief obituary in its issue of November 25th 1871 their deaths having been discreetly kept from the Dublin press. Normally, such an event would have been widely publicised, but it was clearly hushed up to prevent Sir William facing further scandal, having previously been involved in the controversial Travers trial.

The two young Wilde sisters had been sent to Co Monaghan to be looked after by a relative, a Revd. Ralph Wilde, and were boarding with the Rector of Drumsnatt. They proved to be very popular with the local people and were invited to attend a ball, given in their honour at a local manor, known as Drumaconnor House, still known by that name and currently a B&B just off the Monaghan/Clones road.

After the other guests had gone home the two girls remained for a while longer, and their host took one of them for a final waltz around the sitting room floor, but as they passed the open fire-place her crinoline caught fire and in the panic which followed, her sister’s dress also caught fire. Their host tried to smother the flames by wrapping his coat around them and then rolling them in the snow at the foot of the fourteen steps leading up to the front door. His efforts proved fruitless, however, and both girls died from their burns. The “Northern Standard’ in its brief obituary, reported that Mary died on the 8th of November and that ‘Emma’ by which name Emily was better know, died on the 21st November.

Local historian Eamonn Mulligan, co-author of ‘The Replay - a parish history’ (a history of the parish of Kilmore and Drumsnatt) published in Monaghan in November 1984, wrote the following - “In 1871 when Emily was 24 and Mary was 22, there was a ball taking place in Drumaconnor House, which is off the Clones to Monaghan road and about two miles from Smithboro village. The two girls attended the ball and remained there when all the guests had gone home. The host took one of the girls for a last dance around the floor. As they waltzed past an open fireplace, the girls crinoline dress caught fire. Her sister, seeing her plights, came to her assistance and her dress also caught fire. The host of the ball wrapped his coat around them and rolled them down the steps in front of the house into the snow. But, alas, it was too late for both young girls died.”
Eamonn later adds - “They were buried in the graveyard beside St Molua’s Church of Ireland.”
In their efforts to conceal the whole tragic episode and to shield the person of Sir William for further adverse publicity, the name of the Wilde sisters were actually altered to read ‘Wylie’ in several later reports, particularly in two reports written by the Coroner for the county, Mr Alexander C Waddell, who was clearly influenced by the stern request from Sir William Wilde that no inquest be held. Instead, an inquiry was held to be followed by a second inquiry, but still no inquest. Both of the Coroner’s reports are quoted in full by one of Co. Monaghan’s leading historians, Mr Theo McMahon, in the 2003 edition of ‘Clogher Record’ of which Theo was editor of several years. The second of the two reports is somewhat similar in content to the first and is re-produced by Theo on page 135 of ‘Clogher Record 2003’ and reads as follows: -

“On Wednesday 22nd November 1871 the death of Miss M Wylie, daughter of Sir William Wylie, was reported to me as resulting from very serious injuries caused by her clothes accidentally catching fire from those of her sister Miss L Wylie on the night of 31st October in the house of Mr Reed of Drumaconnor. In accordance with the report I attended the residence of Mr Reed where she had been an invalid since the painful occurrence. From all the circumstances of the case, same as those attendant on the death of her sister, I did not consider anything further necessary than a careful inquiry into the facts, which showed that everything possible was done to preserve the life of the deceased.”

Drumaconnor house, where both of the young sisters died, is still an imposing residence, very neatly and impressively maintained by the Treanor family. The sitting-room where the tragedy occurred, is about fourteen feet by twelve, not the largest location for dancing around, but still large enough for one or two couples to perform a waltz or other such dance that was the fashion of the time. Crinoline dresses were also the fashion of that period, and it is very easy to understand how the swirling ends of the dress could have been caught by a naked flame as she was passing the open fire. One can just image the smile on the young lady’s face as she enjoyed the waltz and then the sudden panic as the flames enveloped her. Easy too to understand why her sister ran immediately to her aid and also to understand how her dress likewise caught fire.

The efforts of the host must have been of panic proportions, yet it appears that he did everything within his power to extinguish the flames. How he did this is recalled in the folklore of the area, where the story still relates of his rolling the two girls in the snow at the front of the house, after having tried to quell the flames by wrapping them with his own coat. The burns of the young ladies must have been horrendous and medical help must surely have been summoned as quickly as was humanly possible but eventually it was all to no avail and the girls were doomed. The funerals took place from Drumaconnor House to Drumsnatt church and graveyard, where the officiating minister was the local Church of Ireland clergyman, Rev. Thomas Le B Kennedy.

The story is still very much alive among the people of Kilmore/Drumsnatt parish, and we must b e extremely grateful to Eamonn Mulligan and Fr. Brian McCluskey, co-authors of ‘The Replay’ and to leading historian Theo McMahon for doing so much research on the subject and endeavouring to present the facts of the case for the benefit of future generations of folklorists and historians in north Monaghan. Many Wildean scholars regularly visit the graveyard at Drumsnatt, but the place and its historical burial plot could be much better signposted that they are at present.

While Oscar Wilde was probably regarded as ‘the greatest tallker of his age’ and is universally acclaimed as one of the great writers of the 19th century, his tragic, less-known half-sisters go unremembered, but lie at rest in the small country graveyard at Dumsnatt, little more than three miles south west of Monaghan town.