Alice Milligan: Irish Cultural Revival

An essay in booklet form by Dr. Catherine Morris accompanies an exhibition Discovery: Alice Milligan and the Irish Cultural Revival at the National Library of Ireland, Dublin. It features the life and work of an almost forgotten pioneer as cultural, political and social activist. A line from the essay reads: The year 1891 changed Alice Milligan’s destiny and transformed the history of Ireland. This turning point in her own life is absolutely bound up with the transformations in Irish culture and politics.
The multi-media exhibition aims to revive Alice Milligan’s reputation as a major figure in Ireland and one of the most vivacious and politically aware Irish women of a hundred years ago. Her life and work are recounted in a book by Sheila Turner Johnston, Alice A Life of Alice Milligan, whose interests and achievements were rooted in factors already bubbling in the Irish cauldron at the time of her birth in the 1860s.
Alice Milligan (1866-1953)
Alice Letitia Milligan was born September 1866 in a village outside Omagh in County Tyrone. She was one of thirteen children born to Seaton Milligan and Charlotte Burns. In the 1870s the family moved to Belfast where Alice Milligan and her siblings were educated at Methodist College. She completed her formal education studying English literature and English history at King’s College London.
On her return to Belfast she began training as a teacher and taught Latin in schools in Derry and Belfast. Milligan reflected that during the years of her Anglo-centric formal education she “learned nothing of Ireland”. Between 1888 and 1890, she published a travelogue with her father called Glimpses of Erin and her first novel A Royal Democrat. Marketed to an English readership these early publications reflect the constructive unionist cultural landscape and politics of her social environment and upbringing.
From the 1890s she promoted the Irish language in accessible, democratic ways, often harnessing popular elements of visual culture. One approach she used was to adapt magic lantern shows, in which images were projected onto a wall in front of an audience and described by a speaker, and incorporate them into her national and international work as a Gaelic League teacher.
Irish Cultural Revival From archives discovered at the National Library of Ireland, the range and extent of Alice Milligan’s interests is extraordinary. She was heavily involved in print culture, founding a journal, The Shan Van Vocht, and publishing prolifically in the press throughout her life; her first volume of poetry, Hero Lays (1908) was a collection of the poems she had published over the years in Irish newspapers and journals. She had a key role in the development of national theatre; as early as 1900, her play The Last Feast of the Fianna was staged by the Irish Literary Theatre, and in 1901 she worked with Maud Gonne and the Fay brothers to stage two major productions in Dublin.
The exhibition’s visual displays reflect this key aspect through the projection of scenes from her life and work. She also adapted the very popular form of tableaux vivants in which actors on stage hold a still pose for some moments, depicting a scene and accompanied by narration and often music, to dramatise scenes from Irish history and culture, frequently enacted by the communities with whom she was working. With her sisters, Edith Wheeler and Charlotte Milligan Fox, she collected and published Irish folk songs from County Tyrone.
Alongside her cultural interests, Alice 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, travelled to London to attend the trial of Roger Casement. She spent much of that year visiting political prisoners, and after Partition when again living in Northern Ireland, she helped found the Anti-Partition Union. Although much of the 1930s was spent by her in the role of family carer, she remained engaged by contemporary issues, and into the 1940s she was active in international causes such as the campaign for Indian famine relief.
Alice Milligan died in April 1953 in County Tyrone just a couple of miles from where she was born. She played a pivotal role in Irish cultural, social and political life. An obituary in 1953 recalls … ‘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’.
The exhibition tells a remarkable story about one of Ireland’s almost forgotten and most neglected women. It is hoped to revive interest and bring her fascinating life and work to a whole new audience. Related activities include story telling at the National Library with projection of magic lantern images that were used for audiences in the pioneering work of Alice Milligan.
Ita Marguet
Note: Acknowledgement is given to National Library of Ireland NEWS, Number 41: Winter Issue and other sources used in this text including NLI exhibition booklet. It follows a visit in January 2011 to the exhibition Discover: Alice Milligan and the Irish Cultural Revival, National Library of Ireland, Kildare Street, Dublin (November 2010 – February 2011).