A Compendium of Irish Biography/Wilde, Sir William Robert Wills

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A Compendium of Irish Biography by Alfred Webb
Wilde, Sir William Robert Wills

Wilde, Sir William Robert Wills, antiquarian and oculist, the son of an eminent provincial physician, was born at Castlereagh, County of Roscommon, in 1815. He was educated at Banagher and Elphin, never passing through college, although his merits were afterwards recognized by Dublin University conferring upon him the degree of M.D. In 1832 he was apprenticed to Surgeon Colles, and five years afterwards obtained his surgical diploma. The same year (1837) he made a yacht voyage in charge of an invalid patient, and his account of the trip was his first essay in literature. In 1841 he commenced practice in Dublin as an aurist and oculist, which he continued during the rest of his life with splendid success and widespread reputation. In 1844 he founded the St. Mark's Ophthalmic Hospital in Dublin, and contributed largely to its funds. He became editor of the (Dublin) Quarterly Journal of Medical Science, and from time to time published works on medicine, Irish biography and antiquities, and general literature. It is probably in the department of Irish antiquities that he will be longest remembered. Though, perhaps, not much of an original investigator (except in the matter of crannoges), he had the happy knack of popularizing and bringing into notice the information entombed in ancient annals and the drier disquisitions of others. There are no more delightful hand-books than his Boyne and Blackwater (1849), and his Lough Corrib (1867). His Closing Tears of Swift (1849) is a valuable contribution to the study of that great man's character. Sir William Wilde was one of the most active members of the Royal Irish Academy, and edited a volume of the Museum Catalogue, He delighted in angling and in the outdoor life of the West of Ireland, and had summer residences near Cong, and at Illaunroe, in Connemara. He especially delighted in Kylemore, where his friend Andrew Armstrong resided in summer. Sir William Wilde edited the Irish Census for several decades, and his observations upon population and disease were considered especially valuable. On the publication of the Census Report of 1861 he received the honour of knighthood, "not so much," as Lord Carlisle said at the time, "in recognition of your high professional reputation, which is European, and has been recognized by many countries in Europe — but to mark my sense of the service you have rendered to statistical science, especially in connexion with the Irish census." He received honorary diplomas from the Royal Society at Upsala, from the Antiquarian Society of Berlin, and from other learned bodies on the Continent, and was decorated with the Order of the Polar Star by the King of Sweden. In every thing connected with Ireland's ancient history, traditions, literature, and relics, he was inspired with an impassioned fervour. On the round tower controversy, in particular, he was the champion of Mr. Petrie's conclusions. In 1873 he obtained from the Royal Irish Academy the Cunningham Gold Medal, the highest honour in their gift. In 1853 he was appointed Surgeon Oculist in Ordinary to the Queen in Ireland. In 1857 he took a prominent part in welcoming the British Association to Dublin; he presided over the Ethnological Section, and conducted the Association trip to the Islands of Aran. Sir William died at his residence in Merrion-square, Dublin, 19th April 1876, aged 61, and was interred in Mount Jerome Cemetery. The following remarks upon his character and writings will be found in the Journal of the Archæological Society for October 1876. "Yet he was no dry and formal writer. His love of the antique past was an enthusiasm, and all that is strange and beautiful in the ancient art and architecture of Ireland touched him deeply. He had, besides, a vivid sensibility to the picturesque in nature, while his intense love for the old customs, the old legends, and the old songs, in the language of the people amongst whom he had passed his boyhood, was almost pathetic in its tenderness, and gave a warm human glow to all he wrote, even about the far-off pagan ages, and the shadowy heroes of the ancient battlegrounds. … Sir William had unusual gifts and facilities for acquiring knowledge on all subjects upon which he wrote, a marvellous memory, that no lapse of years seemed to deaden, and a remarkable power of utilizing all he saw and heard. He had also a wide acquaintance with all classes of the community throughout the country, who were ever ready and courteously willing to give him information he required. By the peasantry he was peculiarly loved and trusted, for he had brought back joy and hope to many households. How gratefully they remembered his professional skill, always so generously given, and how, in the remote country districts, he would often cross moor and mountain at the summons of some poor sufferer, who believed with simple faith that the Docteur mor (the great Doctor, as they called him) would certainly restore the blessed light of heaven to blind-struck eyes. In return, they were ever glad to aid him in his search for antiquities, and to him came many objects from the peasant class for his inspection and opinion—a fragment of a torque or a circlet, an antique ring or coin—and in this way many valuable relics were saved from loss, and given over to the Academy's Museum." In 1851 he married Jane Francesca Elgee (a relative of the late Sir Robert McClure, discoverer of the North-west Passage), well known in Ireland as a poetical writer, under the name of "Speranza." [1](1876) [2]

Authorities
  1. Archaeological and Historical Association of Ireland, Journal. Dublin, 1853-'77.
  2. Manuscript and Special Information, and Current Periodicals.