Alice Milligan and the Irish Cultural Revival

Published in 18th–19th - Century History, 20th-century / Contemporary History, Issue 6 (Nov/Dec 2012), Reviews, Volume 20

Alice Milligan and the Irish Cultural RevivalCatherine Morris (Four Courts Press, €49.50) ISBN 9781846823138

Alice Milligan and the Irish Cultural Revival
Catherine Morris
(Four Courts Press, €49.50)
ISBN 9781846823138

You only need to browse through the annual saleroom catalogues on the War of Independence produced by Dublin’s main auction houses to confirm that the cultural production of the Irish Revival was imaginative, diverse and vastly industrious. The ephemera are exquisite: newspapers, journals, pamphlets and theatre programmes, illustrated with delicate etchings, illuminated lettering and the semiotics of resistance. Ireland’s renaissance drew its inspiration and identity from multiple sources and communities. The spirit of the movement was inspired by prophets, poets, teachers, playwrights, artists, actors, public intellectuals, historians, social workers and practitioners of different arts and crafts. From this innovative diversity there erupted a common courage to experiment between the traditional and the modern and to fashion an Éire Nua in opposition to the excesses of empire and a world spinning towards crisis.


One of the creative pioneers, known to everyone involved, was the poet, theatre producer and activist Alice Milligan (1866–1953). Born into a Methodist and unionist background, Milligan found her true self while training to be a teacher in Dublin in 1891. There she was drawn to Parnellism and entered into a process of re-education, rejecting many of the cultural values of her upbringing and immersing herself in the history, folklore and customs of ancient Ireland.


On her return to Belfast she became an energetic campaigner. She established the Irish Women’s Association in Belfast, founded and edited radical newspapers, including the Shan Van Vocht, and spread the word of the Gaelic League into the rural recesses of Ulster. She was also a key organiser behind the centenary commemoration of 1798; she believed that the ideals of civic republicanism espoused by the United Irishmen had a meaningful, contemporary relevance. Milligan always practised what she preached. She lived from her teaching, writing, theatrical endeavours and book-selling, existing frugally as a free, radical spirit.


In 1904 Milligan was appointed as a full-time lecturer with the Gaelic League and she began to teach Irish and to organise Irish-language schools. She was also well able to read, write and teach Latin. Her form of pedagogy was progressive and innovative. She incorporated theatrical devices, tableaux vivants and magic lantern images into her lecture performances.


Through her energy she contributed to the reconceptualising of modern Ireland. Her intellectual circle in Belfast included the antiquarian Francis Joseph Bigger, the founder of Fianna Éireann Bulmer Hobson, the scholar revolutionary Eoin MacNeill, and other noted language scholars. Roger Casement, too, was a close friend; she shaped his beliefs and shared his resolve to build cultural connections between Protestant and Catholic communities and to prevent the politics of partition and cultural fragmentation from destroying the Ireland of their dreams.


After Casement’s execution her anti-colonial views were strengthened and she involved herself in campaigning for political prisoners, in anti-partition leagues and humanitarian relief. In 1921, forced to flee Dublin owing to her brother’s links to the British army, she settled in a village near Omagh, where she lived out the last 30 years of her life.


This is not a straightforward biography. The first chapter charts the life of Milligan chronologically. The subsequent five chapters adopt a more theoretical approach to questions of national identity, the politics of commemoration and the critical role of theatre in the making and shaping of history. Morris ranges widely in her intellectual connections, drawing on Arundhati Roy, Marina Warner and other contemporary intellectuals to explain Milligan’s relevance for our own time.


The volume also contains a stunning collection of colour plates of decorated book covers, some of Milligan’s sketches for theatrical costume designs and commemorative postcards produced in 2011 for International Women’s Day. One of these cards depicts a woman dressed in a woven scarf, shawl and skirt and carrying a heavy basket of turf across a bleak Donegal landscape. The image is juxtaposed with a comment by Milligan from 1896: ‘Freedom is as yet a far-off thing: yet must we who desire it work for it as ardently and as joyously as if we had good hope that our own eyes should behold it’.


In her analysis of the different communities of interest and individuals who were touched by Milligan’s pursuit of freedom, Morris achieves her stated intention to refocus the traditional and dominant narrative of the Cultural Revival. Through an appreciation of Milligan’s contribution it becomes undeniable that much of the creative and progressive radicalism underpinning the intellectual justification for the 1916 Rising was a product of a socially progressive and inclusive nationalism rooted in Ulster.


In the censorious climate of partitioned Ireland, however, Milligan’s narrative received short shrift. On her death in 1953 she had no money, no property and minimal possessions. The only traces from her life were her writings, a few photographs and sketches. She had become in many ways the embodiment of the Shan Van Vocht (Poor Old Woman), the allegorical representation of Ireland. Her final years belong to that exemplary tradition of republican women who, after the founding of the Irish Free State, drifted off to the margins like ghosts, haunting the reactionary, ultra-conservative, patriarchal state that emerged following the Anglo-Irish Treaty of 1921. She opposed to the end the intellectual dishonesty born from cultural apartheid. Pleas by Seán McBride in 1953 for Milligan’s papers to be collected went unheeded, until Morris took up the challenge and began her patient work of literary archaeology.


This monograph crowns a striking scholarly contribution by Catherine Morris that was inaugurated with an exhibition at the National Library of Ireland (see HI 19.1, Jan./Feb. 2011, ‘Museum Eye’, pp 52–3). It closes with the donation of her papers to the Omagh Public Library.   HI


Angus Mitchell is a member of History Ireland’s editorial board.


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