On This Day- 25 May1895  Sentence is passed on Oscar Wilde



It took three trials to send Oscar Wilde to jail. He wasn’t even in the dock himself for the first one, but he might as well have been.

In the summer of 1891 Wilde, then thirty-eight years old, met, and fell in love with the twenty-two year Lord Alfred Douglas, an aspiring poet, known to have had a string of homosexual affairs while at university. Wilde showered the young man with gifts and affectionate letters. The first ‘wrinkle’ in the relationship came when Douglas gave away an old jacket, containing some of the letters, to a friend, down on his luck. They had to be bought back at a high price.


Then there was the matter of Douglas’s father, John Sholto Douglas, Eighth Marquess of Queensberry, one of the most malevolent and repulsive figures in late Victorian Britain, celebrated for devising a set of boxing rules that he had very little to do with. Queensberry was like a super-charged version of the Robert de Niro character in the Meet the Fockersmovie franchise.  He wasn’t very good at spelling either, on 18 February 1895, after having failed to disrupt the opening night of The Importance of Being Earnest, he showed up at Wilde’s London club and left a note, which read ‘To Oscar Wilde, posing as a so[m]domite’. But, he spoiled the effect somewhat by spelling sodomite incorrectly.

Wilde, against the advice of friends like George Bernard Shaw and Frank Harris, and with the encouragement of Alfred Douglas, known to one and all as ‘Bosie’, sued Queensberry for libel. The eminent barrister Edward Clarke, only agreed to take the case after Wilde assured him ‘on his word as an Englishman’ that he was not guilty of the offence of sodomy or of ‘gross indecency’. The latter had been made illegal in the 1895 Criminal Amendment Act. Wilde gave his word, but must have been exercising some form of Jesuitical ‘mental reservation’ because, of course, he wasn’t an Englishman.

Famously, his former Trinity College, Dublin rival, Edward Carson, eviscerated Wilde in the witness box, most notably when asking the playwright had he ever kissed a man named Walter Grainger. Wilde denied the charge. He should have left it there, but, ill-advisedly, added that, ‘He was a peculiarly plain boy’, by way of explanation for his failure to snog the lad. Before Carson could parade a slew of defence witnesses, all prepared to testify to having had homosexual relations with Wilde, Edward Clarke withdrew the libel charge against Queensberry.

The poet’s close friends now advised him immediately to take the next train to Paris. He even got judicial help. When the police had approached a London magistrate for a warrant to arrest the playwright, the magistrate, John Bridge, had delayed acceding to the request for long enough to allow Wilde to escape the country. But, he dallied too long. He was arrested and charged with twenty-five counts of ‘gross indecency’. In the dock with him was his alleged procurer, Alfred Taylor. The most notable moment in the first criminal trial was when Wilde was asked what Douglas had meant in a letter, when he described their relationship as a ‘love that dare not speak its name’. Wilde suggested, disingenuously, that Douglas had been referring to the Platonic affection of an older man for a younger one. Clarke’s closing statement was a work of genius, and was probably sufficient to ensure that the first trial resulted in a ‘hung jury’.

After that even Wilde’s former tormentor, Edward Carson, suggested that the Liberal government of Lord Rosebery, should ‘ease up on this fellow now’. But the authorities were especially zealous in pursuit of Wilde. The reason, other than to reinforce the message of the 1895 Criminal Law Amendment Act, and make an example of such a high profile figure, may reside in the obsessive and fanatical person of Queensberry, and the alleged vulnerability of the Prime Minister. Rosebery, while Foreign Minister under William Gladstone appears, himself, to have had an affair with a Douglas, Bosie’s brother Francis. After the suspected suicide of Francis Douglas a cache of incriminating letters was said to have emerged, and these were allegedly used by Queensberry to blackmail the Prime Minister into continuing the pursuit of Wilde through the criminal courts.

At the second criminal trial the prosecution ran a tighter ship, dropping some of the more dubious witnesses against Wilde. The strategy was successful, and this time Wilde was convicted and sentenced to two years hard labour. His conviction unleashed a lengthy period of official and societal reaction against homosexuality, a criminal offence that had often been tolerated prior to the trials of Oscar Wilde.

Sentence was passed in the criminal trial of Oscar Fingal O’Flahertie Wills Wilde one hundred and twenty-three years ago, on this day.


OTD-11.5.1788 Birth of Henry Cooke, Firebrand Presbyterian minister.



He was the nineteenth century Ian Paisley, a powerful orator and head-turning demagogue committed to the notion of the Pope as an anti-Christ, the extirpation of secularism and Godlessness in all its pomps, and possessor of an honorary doctorate from an American university.

Henry Cooke came from a relatively humble background, with the advantage of a Presbyterian ‘mammy’ who nurtured his talents and drove him to achieve educational excellence. The pushy and adoring ‘mammy’ is far from being just an Irish Catholic phenomenon! Much of his erudition, however, may be down to his first teacher, described thus:


The teacher was . . a tall, lanky Scotchman, distinguished by an                                          enormous nose, a tow wig, a long coat of rusty black, leather tights, grey                               stockings, brogues, and a formidable hazle rod ..’


I’m sure, like me, that he got you at ‘hazel rod’. The prospect of some nasty corporal punishment may have been as influential as ‘the mammy’.

Cooke entered the University of Glasgow at an age when most Irish students would be looking ahead to their Junior Cert, and graduated from there at an age when they would be wondering how to fill out their CAO application. He was an ordained minister of the Presbyterian church by the age of twenty.

Cooke’s religious and professional life—which were one and the same thing really—were dominated by the impulse to make the Irish Presbyterian church, in essence, more Presbyterian. He wanted nothing to do with the Ulster non-conformist political radicals who had been the backbone of the United Irishmen’s rebellion in 1798. He also wanted to root out something called Arianism among dissenters. I’m not even going to get started on exactly what that was, except to say that it had something to do with a lukewarm acceptance of the Trinity, and that it was so esoteric a dispute that Jonathan Swift must have had something like it in mind when he wrote about the toxic political dispute in Lilliput over whether people should break off their breakfast egg at the ‘big end’ or the ‘little end’.

Cooke opposed the establishment of a non-denominational system of primary education in Ireland in 1831, which the British government of the day was keen to establish. Here he was, of course, ably assisted by his Roman Catholic, and Church of Ireland peers. Thanks a lot for that guys, it’s been a real boon for cross-community understanding.

He was also a determined enemy of the repeal of the Act of Union, and vigorously opposed Daniel O’Connell’s Repeal Association. When it was rumoured that the Liberator was coming to Belfast in 1841 to make his case, Cooke challenged him to a debate. O’Connell responded, like any good politician, by abusing his opponent, describing Cooke as ‘Bully Cooke … the Cock of the North.’ Cooke, in his turn, accused O’Connell of having skulked away from the challenge ‘beneath the meanness of a falsehood … it will pursue you like a shadow.’

When O’Connell finally did make it Belfast Cooke was the keynote speaker at a huge counter-demonstration attended by thirty-two MPs and, more worryingly, three hundred and thirty-five magistrates. A short while later grateful Ulstermen presented Cooke with a gift of £2000 (or nearly £200,000 in today’s money) for having seen off O’Connell and Repeal.


Life wasn’t all a bed of rose petals for Henry Cooke though. Anyone who has ever spent half an hour writing something, and then lost it when Word crashed, will sympathise with what happened to the poor man. For seven years, he spent every spare hour working on a book called Analytical Concordance of Scripture. With a snappy title like that it was bound to be a huge seller. Full of the joys of authorship he brought the completed manuscript—the only copy—to London to be published. Yes, you’re right, you can see where this is going. He put up at a hotel for the night before handing over the book to his publisher. As you’ve probably guessed the hotel burned down taking the manuscript with it. He never got around to re-writing it, and the world was probably denied a racy, theological classic.

One of his last public appearances was at a Belfast rally against the disestablishment of Church of Ireland (of which he was not a member). This meant that he was one of the longest words in the English language, an ‘antidisestablishmentarianist’ – it was as close as he ever got to Arianism of any kind. He had the good fortune to pass away a few months before Gladstone finally disestablished the Church of Ireland in 1869.

Henry Cooke, fiery preacher and unlucky author, was born two hundred and thirty years ago, on this day.



On This Day – 4.5.1836    The Ancient Order of Hibernians in America is founded






Molly Malone may be the best-known Molly in Irish history, folklore or music, but despite her entrepreneurial spirit and wide wheelbarrow, she wasn’t nearly as important, influential, or reviled as Molly Maguire. Whether or not either of these iconic women actually existed, is a moot point, but in the case of Ms. Maguire the organization with which her name was associated, was a force to be reckoned with in Irish and Irish-American political life for much of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

One critic, a unionist, referred to the Ancient Order of Hibernians (often known as The Mollies) as ‘a bitterly sectarian and secret society with a long dark and cruel history’. You might respond, ‘well he was probably a member of the Orange Order, so what would expect him to say?’ But the distinguished nationalist MP William O’Brien referred to the Hibernians as a Frankenstein, and the Roman Catholic Cardinal Logue described it as ‘‘a pest, a cruel tyranny, and an organised system of blackguardism’, although his beef was as much to do with late night drinking and dancing, than politics

So, what was the nature of this monster, or fraternal Catholic organisation, depending on your point of view. Initially it was primarily an American Catholic body, which emerged at a time of anti-Catholic and anti-Irish sentiment in the USA. This was exemplified by the activities of the nativist and anti-immigrant Know Nothing Party, and attacks on churches and church property across the US east coast cities. Founded in New York in 1836 the Hibernians quickly moved into machine politics, and became an arm of the Democratic party, in organisations like Tammany Hall in New York city.


In the coal and anthracite regions of Pennsylvania its lodges or chapters were associated with the secretive militant labour group, the Molly Maguires, called after an Irish agrarian movement of tenant farmers, better known for shooting landlords, than ploughing or milking. In 1884, as Brendan Behan could have predicted, there was a split in the organisation – the reasons are far too tedious to rehearse and don’t really matter anyway as they kissed and made up again in 1898. At that stage, there were just under two hundred thousand Americans affiliated to the AOH.


In the late nineteenth century, the Ancient Order of Hibernians was imported from the USA and began to take hold in Ulster, where it was seen as a political and cultural counterweight to the loyalist Orange Order, and was organised along similar lines. Around this time, it acquired its eminence grise, in the form of the West Belfast Irish Parliamentary Party MP Joseph Devlin. Devlin was the archetypal party boss. If he had moved to the USA he probably would have become Mayor or Governor of New York, or ‘Boss’ of the corrupt but mightily effective Tammany Hall machine.


Instead he used the pietistic and nationalistic AOH as a power base for his dominance of Ulster nationalism and wielded a huge influence on the Irish Parliamentary Party, while it was under the leadership of John Redmond. So powerful was Devlin that not even the Sinn Fein landslide of 1918 could shift him. Almost all of the few surviving nationalist MPs were in Ulster, clinging on largely thanks to Devlin’s popularity and capable management.

The Irish and American branches of the organisation formally merged in 1902. Between then, and the outbreak of the Great War, the Irish section of the AOH grew from about five thousand members, mostly in Ulster lodges, to just short of one hundred thousand throughout the thirty-two counties.

The AOH was never a radical organisation, although it could often be relied upon to resort to strong-arm tactics against loyalist or rival nationalist groups. It opposed Larkin and the Irish Transport and General Workers’ Union during the 1913 lockout. Larkin blamed the AOH for helping to prolong the strike. In the 1930s there was a strong Hibernian presence in the ranks of O’Duffy’s Blueshirts, and many Hibernians joined the Irish Brigade which fought for Franco in the Spanish Civil War. For a century and a half, until 1993, the AOH ran the New York St. Patrick’s Day parade with a rod of iron, ensuring that, for example, gay and lesbian groups were not allowed to parade.

On the plus side, it served as an effective protective force against American nativism, and has contributed hundreds of thousands of pounds and dollars to charitable causes.

The Ancient Order of Hibernians, in many ways a mirror image of the Orange Order, was founded in the notorious Five Points neighbourhood in New York, one hundred and eighty-two years ago, on this day.