Tuesday 21 November 2017

Review: Alice Milligan and The Cultural Revival by Catherine Morris

Four Courts Press, €49.50

Dermot Bolger

Dermot Bolger on a well-researched and passionately argued work in praise of Alice Milligan's achievements

Like many others who went into disillusioned voluntary exile, the poet George Russell ("AE") left Ireland for England in old age. Frank O'Connor (who called AE "the father of three generations of writers" because of his kindness and unflagging support in getting new writers published) visited him during his final, lonely illness. He met two English poets also visiting the old man out of kindness because, as they off-handedly told O'Connor, AE was "actually a rather good minor Georgian poet".

Based solely on AE's literary output, this was not an unfair description. But for anyone who lived through early 20th-Century Ireland's intellectual and culture turmoil, this description grossly understates how central AE was as a lynchpin and innovative campaigner for radical change. A problem with someone absolutely central to their time is that they quickly become "of their time": with future generations unable to grasp their importance from just their words left behind.

AE's contemporary, Alice Milligan, has suffered this neglect and dilution 10-fold, being essentially forgotten before the Liverpool-born, Irish-based academic Catherine Morris began the task of reclaiming her reputation. It culminates in this book which reasserts Milligan's centrality in the intellectual battle to imagine the sort of radically different Ireland which might arise if Ireland achieved true independence.

Milligan is a fascinating figure. Born into a unionist family outside Omagh in 1866, she was not just a poet, writer and intellectual, but also a radical, pioneering, cultural, political and community activist. Her family moved to Belfast, where she began her teaching career. Her first novel, A Royal Democrat, reflects the conservative unionist social milieu of her birth. But after moving to Dublin to learn Irish, she became engrossed in Parnell's political struggle. Her political sympathies shifted and she began a lifelong battle to promote Irish culture and the possibilities of a new state.

Morris's book shows her as a dynamo: founding the radical journal the Shan Van Vocht; publishing a vast output of articles and poems, and being key to the development of an Irish national theatre. Four years before the Abbey opened, her drama was staged by the Irish Literary Theatre. But she did confine her work to Dublin. She pioneered the use of magic lantern shows to project historical scenes in small village halls as a Gaelic League Irish language teacher.

This expanded into the creation of tableaux vivants, where actors from the local community held poses on stage to depict moments from history, with music and narration highlighting the powerful scenes being recreated. After the Easter Rising, she travelled to London to attend the trial of Roger Casement, who had undergone a similar political journey. She regularly visited political prisoners, and -- while living in suppressed circumstances in Northern Ireland after partition -- helped to found the Anti- Partition Union. She remained engaged in national and international causes in her old age.

One reason for Milligan's neglect is that she grasped the importance of newspapers to get her ideas into homes which books did not reach. Although she published several collections of poetry, her work was mainly disseminated through a maze of short-lived magazines and papers, with Milligan too focused on the next deadline, the next idea and the next cause to collect the bulk of her work for further publication.

Morris is superb at placing Milligan's changing ideas within the context of other activists in the revival movement. But occasionally the scale of ideas threatens to overwhelm the tragic story of Milligan's personal circumstances.

De Valera's Ireland saw only two roles for women: on their backs or on their knees -- in a marital bed or church pew respectively -- with laws decreeing that, after marriage, they must surrender their jobs and become subservient to their husbands. Cosgrave's government hardly lauded women revolutionaries either, after Cumann Na mBan voted overwhelmingly (419 to 63) against the treaty. A country which elected Westminster's first female MP discreetly obliterated the memory of how vital a role women played in cultural and political movements before independence.

This new state had no role for a radical such as Milligan. By her death, aged 87, in 1953, she was nearly a forgotten figure, who had spent most of her final decades in a form of "internal exile". Unable to survive as a writer, she wound up in the Northern Ireland state, which she hated, as an unpaid nurse to her alcoholic brother -- a former British army office who censored her correspondence so that friends needed to use "safe addresses" to write to her.

It was only when her brother and his wife died did Milligan -- then aged 75 -- achieve some limited liberation to openly throw herself back in her pioneering activism. The state paid some token tributes upon her death, but then -- as with most female contemporaries she was quietly written out of the picture, barely even recalled as "a minor Georgian poet".

Crusading in its zeal, yet impressively researched and impassionedly argued, Morris's book restores Milligan to a central role in the debates of those years, and in doing so Morris reexamines Ireland's Cultural Revival and the gap between the nation it envisaged and the dour state which came into existence.

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