Modern Ireland's infant nurse

Even though Alice Milligan spent most of her life in Ulster, this tireless political activist was a key nurturer of the Republic…

Even though Alice Milligan spent most of her life in Ulster, this tireless political activist was a key nurturer of the Republic – and a prolific cultural ambassador, as the first public exhibition of her work shows

AWARDING Alice Milligan an honorary doctorate, in 1941, Éamon de Valera declared: “No future record of the relations of Irish literature with the history of Ireland . . . can fail to commemorate the . . . poetry of this distinguished Ulster lady.” But the annals of Irish cultural history did not record who Milligan was or why she was important to any future republic we might imagine. The National Library of Ireland has put an end to our forgetting by opening the first public exhibition to celebrate the work of this extraordinary Northern Protestant, who became one of the most prolific cultural ambassadors of her generation.

One of 13 children, Milligan was born in 1866 in a village just outside Omagh, in Co Tyrone; she died at the age of 87, a few kilometres from her childhood home, in 1953. The Milligans were Protestant unionists who moved to Belfast in the 1870s when their father, Seaton Milligan, was promoted from commercial traveller to executive in the city’s first department store. Alice Milligan was educated at Methodist College in Belfast and King’s College London, where she studied English literature and history. Reflecting on the Anglocentric nature of her formal education, she recalled: “I learned nothing of Ireland.”

On her return to Belfast in 1888 she trained as a Latin teacher in schools in Belfast and Derry. She relinquished the unionism of her upbringing after the death of Parnell, in 1891, taught herself Irish and thereafter became an ardent worker in the national movement for the promotion of Irish culture and art. Thomas MacDonagh in 1914 wrote that Milligan was the best living artist of his generation because the complex set of identities she embodied made her “the most Irish”. She is indeed a fascinating figure, one of those, like Francis Ledwidge in Seamus Heaney’s memorial poem, in whom “all the strains criss-cross”.


Besides her prodigious literary output – which includes four novels, 11 plays, a political travelogue, a biography of Wolfe Tone, numerous articles, short stories and poetical works – Milligan was a tireless political activist and journalist for six decades. As an early exponent of visual culture, Milligan travelled Ireland taking photographs that she transferred on to glass slides and projected at public gatherings using magic lanterns. Milligan further developed her ideas for community and Irish- language education in tableau-vivant shows, in which people re-created scenes from Ireland’s history and projected their own stories into a reclaimed public space.

The tableau vivant, a theatrical form of staging still pictures, was particularly appropriate for the Irish-language movement, as it derived from state censorship of spoken language in theatre. The silence of the pictures created a space for non-Irish-speakers to participate in the formation of a national theatre movement.

Throughout her long and active life Milligan founded multiple literary, feminist and political organisations. She set up two cultural journals that had a global readership, was a key figure in the Gaelic League and helped to found the Ulster Anti-Partition Council in the 1930s.

In this post-Celtic Tiger era, when Irish artists, educationalists and cultural practitioners are being called on to help regenerate the Irish economy and revive the beleaguered soul of the nation, we have much to learn from Milligan, because she put art and culture at the centre of the civic society she wanted to create.

Alice Milligan's futuristic first novel, A Royal Democrat(published in 1890), ends when an Irish republic is declared, in 1949. In her 87 years of life as an unmarried woman the author of this controversial fiction never experienced what it was to live in a democratic Irish republic. Until 1922 she lived as a subject of empire in Omagh and Belfast; then, after partition, she spent the final three decades of her life as a full-time family carer in the newly founded province of Northern Ireland. She described herself in private letters throughout this period as an interned prisoner. This feeling of political isolation intensified after publications and letters were censored because of earlier connections she had with Roger Casement.

But it was in her daily life and in her communications with others that Milligan experienced the democracy of a republic. In 1896 she told readers of her journal the Shan Van Vochtthat liberation would be realised only by an act of collective radical hope: "Freedom is as yet to all appearances a far off thing; yet must we who desire it work for it as ardently and as joyously as if our own eyes should behold it."

FROM THE LAST decade of the 19th century the Irish cultural revivalists used the technologies that sustained empire – postal services, global transport networks, newspapers and printing presses – to communicate their national and global ideas for Irish society. Their vision engendered a political dynamic into Irish culture that made it utterly transformative. As Declan Kiberd has noted: “No generation before or since lived with such conscious national intensity or left such an inspiring (and, in some ways, intimidating) legacy.”

The poet and editor Susan Mitchell argued in 1920 that Milligan was “the infant nurse” of “the biggest Irish political movement of today” who had “looked after it while it was yet inarticulate and who expressed its wants”. George Russell – aka AE – similarly lauded Milligan as a founder of the Irish cultural revival, claiming her as “the most successful producer of plays before the Abbey Theatre started on its triumphant way”.

In April 1953 Seán MacBride, the Nobel Peace Prize laureate and founder member of Amnesty International, called for Milligan’s papers to be collected. He was concerned that her story should be remembered not least because her cultural and political work was so in tune with Amnesty’s human-rights principles.

The imprisoned speechless body became the abiding visual metaphor for so many of the cultural, political and feminist issues addressed in Milligan’s artistic practice. Perhaps it was her abiding solidarity with the disempowered that Bobby Sands was trying to rekindle when he asked for Milligan’s poetry to be smuggled into his Maze prison cell while he was on hunger strike in 1981.

A young Conor Cruise O’Brien once wrote of Milligan: “The radius of her friendship was an index of her quality. WB Yeats, Standish O’Grady, Arthur Griffith, John O’Leary – these are only a handful of the names which add up to a roll call of modern Irish history.” This roll-call was indeed extensive: she organised the Irish-language movement in the North with Casement and helped establish branches of the Gaelic League in the south with Thomas MacDonagh. She gave James Connolly his first space in Irish print before helping him to establish the first Belfast branch of his Irish Socialist Republican Party in 1896. She travelled extensively with magic-lantern and theatre shows to help establish a culture of community activism. Her early Irish plays and tableaux vivants were performed by an incredible array of people who themselves would go on to make a profound impact on Irish history. These included Molly Allgood, Máire Nic Shiubhlaigh, Edward Keegan, Sinéad de Valera, the Fay brothers, Rosamond Praeger and Maud Gonne.

The National Library of Ireland’s new exhibition highlights how Milligan’s story was always available for us to discover in the nation’s rich collections of newspapers, manuscripts, poems, ephemera, diaries, photographs, magic-lantern slides and illustrated magazines. What we learn from the library’s collections is how she sought out cultural ways to negotiate intractable religious and political problems. She campaigned for political prisoners through the official channels of the state as well as through poetry; she developed links between theatre and language teaching; between local community, visual culture and national protest. In her, more compellingly than in any other activist, the multiple alignments of the individuals and groups that made up the Irish cultural revival criss-crossed and revealed their density.

Catherine Morris is cultural co-ordinator at Trinity College Dublin and the National Library of Ireland. Her book Alice Milligan and the Irish Cultural Revivalis published next year and her article on Milligan and drama is in the Field Day Review next month. Alice Milligan and the Irish Cultural Revival is at the National Library of Ireland until February, or online at