Writer, Activist Alice Milligan -- Prodigy, Visionary, Humanitarian

Alice Milligan (1866-1953) was born into a middle-class Methodist family, one of 11 children. (Some sources would suggest that there were 13 children.) Her father was Seaton Milligan, a writer, poet, antiquary, member of the Royal Irish Academy (RIA), and a businessman. Her mother was Charlotte Milligan (nee Burns).

Alice was always seen with a pen in her hand, writing, so it is not surprising that she went on to become a teacher and that at the age of 11 years, she co-wrote and compiled a political travelogue of the north of Ireland with her father called "Glimpses of Erin."

She then went on to write her first novel, at age 13, titled "A Royal Democrat." From 1877-1888 she attended the Methodist College, Belfast, where she wrote a series of short stories for the school magazine. She studied English history at Kings College London before moving back to Belfast to study to be a teacher

Milligan was raised in a nationalist household, so they were all strong supporters of Charles Stewart Parnell, an Irish nationalist politician and one of the most powerful figures in the British House of Commons in the 1880s. After his death in 1891, Alice threw her might behind the nationalist cause.

When Anna Johnson’s husband died after a brief marriage, both she and Alice went to live in a house next door to Bulmer Hobson's parents. (Johnson was Alice's aunt, a sister of Seaton.) This is how Hobson [read here] was able to hone his skills as a Fenian, being given the Shan Van Vocht, a magazine that had been founded by Johnson and Milligan (An tSeanbhean Bhocht as Gaeilge 'the poor old woman'). Hobson was, in effect, tutored by both Johnson and Milligan. The title was in fact a song that was associated with the United Irishmen Rising of 1798, an old traditional Irish song. Many different versions have been composed over the intervening years to reflect the political and turbulent climate of the day, which says much about the influences that the Shan Van Vocht had on the Irish in this era.

"Oh, the French are on the sea," says the Shan Van Vocht, 
"The French are on the sea," says the Shan Van Vocht, 
"Oh, The French are in the Bay, they'll be here without delay, 
And the Orange will decay," says the Shan Van Vocht.

"And their camp it will be where?" says the Shan Van Vocht, 
"Their camp it will be where?" says the Shan Van Vocht. 
"On the Curragh of Kildare and the boys will all be there 
"With their pikes in good repair." says the Shan Van Vocht.

"And what will the yeomen do?" says the Shan Van Vocht, 
"What will the yeomen do?" says the Shan Van Vocht, 
"What will the yeomen do but throw off the red and blue, 
And swear that they'll be true to the Shan Van Vocht.

"Then what colour will be seen?" says the Shan Van Vocht, 
"What colour will be seen?" says the Shan Van Vocht,
"What colour should be seen where our fathers' homes have been 
But our own immortal green? " says the Shan Van Vocht,

"And will Ireland then be free? " says the Shan Van Vocht, 
"Will Ireland then be free? " says the Shan Van Vocht, 
"Yes old Ireland will be free from the centre to the sea, 
And hurrah! for liberty," says the Shan Van Vocht.

After the sudden death of Parnell in 1891, Milligan moved to Dublin for eight months, from January until August 1891. This  is where she met the architects of the Irish cultural revival, including Douglas Hyde, W.B. Yeats, T.W. Rolleston and Charles Gavan Duffy, to name just a few of the luminaries of this movement.

It was about this time that Milligan became an ardent nationalist. By 1894, she had become more radicalised, so that, with Jenny Armour, also an ardent nationalist, she founded branches of The Irish Women’s Association in Belfast and other places across Ireland, including Moneyreach and Portadown, and she became its first president and promoted the organisation as the northern voice of Irish female nationalism with Ethna Carbery (actually Anna Johnson), Milligan’s aforementioned companion, also a poet and journalist. Milligan then went on to form a woman’s branch of the Irish Industries Association in Derry, and also contributed to a series of tableaux vivants (meaning a style of artistic presentation by suitably attired costumed actors) to the infamous Lady Aberdeen’s Irish Village at the Worlds Fair Chicago, 1892.

By 1895, Milligan had helped to establish the Henry McCracken Library Society (McCracken was a founding member of the Society of the United Irishmen) in Belfast and became its first President. By October of the same year, the McCracken Society had founded its own Belfast-based journal called The Northern Patriot. Under the editorship of Milligan and Johnson, the Northern Patriot was defined by its strongly regionalist agenda. But both Milligan and Johnson [Carbery] were dismissed by December 1895 in the midst of a controversy, when their sponsor found out that Johnson's father, Robert, was an active Fenian.

It was at this time that Milligan, not one to sit on the sidelines while others did all the hard work, became involved in the Gaelic League -- she was elected to three of the five subcommittees created to bolster the effectiveness of the 1896 centenary. These had been set up to celebrate and mark the great importance of the 1798 rebellion, while serving as the secretary of the Dublin-based 1898 Centenary Association, she also sat on the Letterkenny Centenary Association.

Milligan was a pioneer in the formation of The Irish National Theatre, and began to take theatre to diverse communities across Ireland and beyond, to places where there were few resources and a lack of dedicated venues. She staged plays on the streets and in schools and fields where people would sit on felled trees and hay stacks.

On her return from one of her many forays doing human rights work in the Congo, she met her great friend Roger Casement and commandeered him to help her in clearing fields in Antrim, where they constructed stage sets, to enhance the culture of the Irish people. The audiences were active participants and helped construct the stages and costumes, all showing a willingness to be involved in their national culture and language.

Milligan's interest in amateur theatre grew so much so that writer and poet Susan Mitchell (1866-1926) wrote about her “looking back during the civil war at the intervention that Milligan made, in imagining a cultural republic, that Milligan was the most successful producer of plays and cultural revival, writing eleven plays that were staged by the  Irish Literary Theatre (inghinidhe na hÉireann) before the Abbey Theatre started on its triumphant way."

By 1904 Milligan was appointed by the Gaelic League as a travelling lecturer, staging plays all over the English-speaking districts of Ireland, raising funds and encouraging and promoting the Gaelic language. When her aging parents took priority over her work, she stopped travelling to care for and support them with the help of her sister. The year 1916, however, brought her grief and sorrow on an unprecedented scale as both her parents died, as did her sister Charlotte Milligan Fox, founder of the Irish Folk Song Society.

Milligan was in London during the Easter Rising and attended Roger Casement's trial - -upon her return to Ireland she joined the campaign in support of political prisoners. By this time, she was running a bookshop in Dawson Street, Dublin and writing poems for the New Ireland newspaper.  After the War of Independence, she supported de Valera in his opposition to the treaty, a decision she believed was made supernaturally by her poet brothers Ernest and William. (No clarification has been made on the supernatural cause of her support for de Valera.)

With no home of her own, Alice was reliant on her brother William [a British army officer] for a roof over her head. When he was posted to Bath, in England, they both went to live with relatives there. When he got married and had a family, Milligan continued to live with her brother. When he was posted to the north of England, she again also accompanied them. Eventually, he was posted back to Omagh, County Tyrone ,and they all found accommodation in the rectory there. Milligan remained politically active and became a founding member of the Anti-Partition League, writing articles and poetry for the Derry Journal, The Northern Nationalist and American newspapers.

Despite a life spent trying to enhance the culture and language of the Irish people, Milligan never gained any status in Irish history books. She felt socially and politically isolated -- being a lodger in her brother’s household did not offer her any security in her own right. She wrote constantly to friends making them aware of her isolation, using language like: "I feel I am an interred prisoner; only existing among family who opposed my view" -- a lonely life for sure, for one who was so full of passion for the revival of her Irish heritage and culture.

Milligan died in April 1953 and was buried in Blackford Municipal Cemetery, County Tyrone, with no dignitaries attending her funeral. Anna Johnson (Ethna Carbery) had died in 1902.

In 2012, it took a book by Catherine Morns titled "Alice Milligan and the Irish Cultural Revival" to not only heighten the awareness of Milligan’s powerful presence within her era's Irish cultural renaissance, but to pay homage to a forgotten hero who played a huge role in bringing the language and culture to the Irish people.

Morns' 15-year undertaking that saw her collect papers that had remained scattered and uncollected from all over the world has allowed all of us to gain that insight into one of Ireland's most prolific writers, poets and dramatists. After Morns' book was published, TV documentaries based on her life and exhibitions followed; notably at the National Library of Ireland. Morns gifted her entire archive research on Milligan to Omagh Public Library. Milligan’s descendants have gifted her diary to the National Library. Other very important archives can be found in the Francis Biggers Papers, Belfast Central Library, and the Brother Allen Library, O’Connell Secondary School, Dublin.

Alice Milligan, we salute you!

Views: 807

Tags: 1916, Arts, Drama, Dramatists, Easter Rising, Irish Freedom Struggle, Irish heroines, Irish women, Poets, Writers

Comment by Colm Herron on November 27, 2016 at 7:08am

This is brilliant Mary. So packed with detail and still so readable. I was especially struck by your line: Despite a life spent trying to enhance the culture and language of the Irish people, Milligan never gained any status in Irish history books.

I think two big reasons might be: 

a) she was a woman, and

b) she wasn't a drama queen.

Comment by Katarzyna Gmerek on November 27, 2016 at 8:20am
This is really interesting! Some time ago I have read The Royal Democrat, which struck me with slightly childish naivety - did not know that the Authoress was just 13 years old.. But the book was enjoyable for me. As someone who researches Polish-Irish cultural encounters, I am still wondering how did she come up with the idea that Prince Arthur had not only an Irish grandmother, but also a Polish grandpa - the King of Poland, anyway (this futuristic utopia was written in the times when both Ireland and Poland were not free, and the Polish spirit, similarly like the Irish, was being associated with rebelliousness. Indeed, the young Prince of Wales is incurably non-English and ends up as, well, I recommend you to read this book if you had a time ;) But this was written in the times when the very young author had still a mixture of Nationalist and Unionist beliefs, instilled into her probably by home and school, so the book has sort of a happy ending...

Heritage Partner
Comment by That's Just How It Was on November 30, 2016 at 11:45am


Yes I do believe that  being a women in this era, did not help Alice's cause for recognition, just look at Cumann na Mbann  and all the other women  hero of that era.. no recognition.  no iconic status in the history books..!!

Drama Queen she was not... indeed if anything she played down her importance in all aspects of her life... I was a sad end for someone who gave so much of herself to her country 

Heritage Partner
Comment by That's Just How It Was on November 30, 2016 at 11:52am

Katarzyna Gmerek... I will look for Milligans book... The Royal Democrat.. it does sound very interesting... That she was only 13 years of age , writing such a book, without the sophisticated  equipment of computers,, google research etc.. was no mean fete ... An amazing brain,,,, combined with an ability to write about people of whom there would be little knowledge in that era, is beyond my comprehension ... That she was not acknowledged in the history books..., until relativity recently, is a shame on all Irish historians.... !!   Very well done to Catherine Morns who resurrected her memory  

Founding Member
Comment by Nollaig 2016 on December 5, 2016 at 11:04pm

Fascinating Woman.

Heritage Partner
Comment by That's Just How It Was on December 6, 2016 at 7:03am

Yes indeed she was...Not before time that she and other women of that era were brought out of the historical archives, and acknowledged for their worth in Irish History 

Comment by Richard R. Mc Gibbon Jr. on December 25, 2016 at 10:57am

Well told story of a strong Irish women (as if the Irish had any really weak women), following her passion and making her mark in Irelands history. Thanks for the information ! 

And Nollaig Shona Dhuit to all.    Slainte


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