Wednesday 14 November 2018

Alice Milligan: Renaissance woman

She supported political prisoners, was an ambassador for the Irish language and led many a cultural initiative -- and still found time to write for more than 70 journals. Yet today, hardly anyone knows her name. Ailin Quinlan brings the story of Alice Milligan back to life

Ailin Quinlan

Political activist, journalist, playwright, human rights campaigner and 'cultural am- bassador', Alice Milligan is possibly the best-kept secret in Irish literary history.

One of the most intriguing and politically engaged figures in her day -- she was on first-name terms with a roll-call of glittering figures including WB Yeats, Maud Gonne, Roger Casement, Arthur Griffith, Douglas Hyde, Countess Markievicz and James Connolly -- Milligan edited two prestigious journals and wrote for more than 70 Irish, and many international, newspapers for more than 60 years.

The daughter of a humble salesman, she became a staunch Nationalist and supporter of the 1916 Rising, but was forced to flee Dublin after a death threat was issued to a family member.

She was considered by her contemporaries to be the most successful theatre producer of her time -- editor and critic, George Russell claimed she was "the best producer of plays before the Abbey started on its triumphant way".

Her articles, plays, novels, short stories and poems were read by Irish emigrants all over the world, and she was hailed as "the best living Irish writer" by the poet Thomas MacDonagh.

Milligan not only worked tirelessly to promote the Irish language through the Gaelic League, she also founded numerous cultural, literary, feminist and political organisations, including the Anti-Partition Union in the 1930s.

President Eamon de Valera recognised her many achievements and her work for Irish culture when he presented her with an Honorary Doctorate in 1941.

The award marked not only her long career as a prolific journalist, but also her achievements as a theatre producer, playwright, Latin teacher and founder of many organisations that played an important part in social, cultural and political life in Ireland.

And yet, these days, hardly anybody knows her name.

When Cambridge scholar, and cultural coordinator of Trinity College and the National Library of Ireland, Dr Catherine Morris began researching the work of Milligan, she was astonished at how such a hugely significant, cultural and historical figure could have faded into obscurity so quickly.

"This was a highly prominent and unique individual who was extraordinarily ambitious in her vision for cultural regeneration," says Morris.

"She was a major figure in the Gaelic League, and a very prominent figure in her day. She was very close to a number of high-profile people of the time such as Roger Casement, yet she was written out of the very history that she herself had done so much to create."

But that's all about to change. Later this year, Morris will publish a book on the life and career of Alice Milligan, while an exhibition on this dynamic woman, who was at the centre of the Irish Cultural Revival, is being hosted by the National Library of Ireland until March 8.

The first exhibition to chart the achievements of Alice Milligan, the show contains material, including a never-before-seen diary, rare photographs and lantern slides.

So why was Alice Milligan forgotten?

Unlike many of her male counterparts of the time, Milligan's achievements were never documented, partly because she was a woman: "She was a female, and women were really written out of Irish cultural and political history," says Morris.

It's also believed she was eclipsed in the annals of Irish history because she lived and worked in the north -- after Partition, the rich cultural legacy of Irish language activism, theatre shows and cultural magazines was lost.

And then, of course, she published almost everything she wrote in newspapers, from the 1890s right through to the 1940s.

"She published plays, stories, articles and ideas in newspapers, because in those days it was a very fast and effective way of reaching a broad audience in both rural Ireland and abroad," explains Morris.

But daily newspapers are a disposable commodity -- another reason why Milligan disappeared so quickly from the public consciousness.

Luckily, the National Library kept its newspapers and, for the past 15 years, Morris has doggedly sifted through its archives to rediscover the life and achievements of this woman.

Who was Alice Milligan?

Milligan grew up in a large family in a village outside Omagh in 1866 just before the Fenian Rising, one of 13 children born to Charlotte Burns, a linen shop assistant, and Seaton Milligan, a commercial traveller who later became a retail executive.

As a Northern Protestant Irish woman, Milligan was educated first in a local school and then in the Methodist College, Belfast, before going on to study English literature and history at King's College in London. After she returned from London in 1887, Milligan trained as a Latin teacher in Derry and Belfast, becoming interested in the Irish language.

In 1891, she moved to Dublin to study Gaelic, and became aware of nationalism -- and, more importantly of Charles Stewart Parnell, who was to die later that year.

Fascinated by him and what he stood for, Milligan followed his campaigns across the city, sketching him as she went. His unexpected and dramatic death that October became a turning point in her life.

"Her whole attitude shifted and she left behind the Unionist politics of her family and upbringing. It was at this point she began to look at arts and culture as a way forward for Irish society," says Morris.

After spending some months in Dublin, Milligan returned to the North, where she worked hard for the Gaelic League, travelling Ireland to fundraise for the language movement and promoting Irish through her theatre work.

For her, learning Irish was not just about studying a grammar textbook -- she brought the language back into the rural communities of the North through local theatre groups who performed in both Irish and English and dramatic tableaux in which silent groups of actors performed stories through pictures.

Thanks to these hugely popular cultural initiatives, the number of Irish language speakers in Belfast surged from 900 to almost 4,000 within a decade.

Between 1891 and 1916, Milligan established numerous cultural, literary and feminist organisations. She also founded and co-edited two groundbreaking journals: a cultural journal called 'The Shan Van Vocht' that boasted a readership among the Irish diaspora in South America, Canada, America and Britain; and 'The Northern Patriot', a successful literary and cultural journal.

In 1896, she opened an office in New York to help market the journals to the Irish diaspora in America.

It was an uphill battle all the way. Following her conversion to nationalism, Milligan was ridiculed as "a black mark on her family's reputation" and received no support from either the media or her so-called Nationalist allies; the Unionist press in Belfast lambasted everything she did, while the Nationalists she tried to befriend attempted to exclude her on the grounds of gender or religion.

Milligan recorded how she would often turn up to an Irish cultural meeting and be told to leave because she was a woman. "I'm not here as a woman, I'm here as a member of the press," she would answer.

When she was in her 80s, Alice Milligan told an interviewer how her colleague in the Gaelic League, the renowned Patrick Pearse, had fiercely opposed her employment as a Gaelic League organiser because she was not a native Irish speaker.

Undeterred, Milligan argued time and again. "In the Gaelic League everyone is a worker ... In the Gaelic League it is good to mix and mingle with people of another way of thought."

With her sisters, she collected and published Irish folk songs from Co Tyrone and actively promoted the Irish language as a "lantern lecturer", in which she used a sort of early form of projector to illustrate tales for her audience.

In 1916, she faced a new challenge: many of her friends and colleagues were executed and imprisoned, while, in the weeks leading up to the Rising, her parents and her sister, for whom she had cared devotedly, all died.

Milligan remained a great supporter of Roger Casement's human rights work and together they organised cultural events to support the Irish language movement in Antrim and Donegal.

Alongside her cultural interests, Milligan was also a political and community activist. She helped to organise the 1898 centenary commemorations of the 1798 rebellion, and in 1916, after the Easter Rising, she travelled to London to attend the trial of Roger Casement. She spent much of that year visiting political prisoners, and after Partition, when she was again living in Northern Ireland, she helped found the Anti-Partition Union.

After Casement was executed -- she campaigned for him and attended his trial -- Milligan moved to Dublin in 1917 and set up a book shop to help support herself and her brother William, a recently demobilised British Army soldier and to raise funds for Irish political prisoners.

Throughout the War of Independence, she worked in the shop and wrote plays and poems of solidarity for prisoners in the Irish newspapers. Then, in 1921, she and William were forced to flee Dublin after he received a death threat because of his former involvement with the British Army.

Milligan took him to the North, leaving her business, all her possessions and her hopes of personal independence behind. "William was given 24 hours notice to get out of Dublin or he would be shot. He and Alice had to pack up and leave," says Morris.

Milligan remained in a village outside of Omagh for almost three decades, caring for William, his paralysed son and her sister-in-law.

It was an inevitable duty for a woman in her situation at that time, says Morris: "As the only unmarried daughter of a large family, it often fell to Alice throughout her long life to look after ageing parents, sick relatives and help with the care of her siblings' children."

Nevertheless, Milligan continued to promote the value of the Irish language, Irish culture and the arts in newspapers, on radio broadcasts and through plays and poems, remaining politically active right through to her death in 1953.

Even in her later years, she remained active, helping to found the Anti-Partition Union and even campaigning in local elections. In her 70s she was fundraising for Indian Famine relief.

For further information on Alice Milligan visit the exhibition at the National Library of Ireland or log on to www.nli.ie/discover. A free booklet by Dr Catherine Morris on the life of Alice Milligan, produced by the National Library, is also available at the library

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