Alice Milligan – cultural revolutionary

I visited the Alice Milligan exhibition at the National Library of Ireland last Friday. (Note: to view items from the exhibition, go to the link above, click ‘Launch the Online Discover Exhibition’ ->Collection Area->Alice Milligan.) It’s a nice collection, if fairly small, and the best part is the excellent accompanying booklet, in which Milligan’s importance to the cultural revival is detailed. The Shan Van Vocht newspaper, founded by Milligan and Ethna Carbery, played a very important role in the development of what is known as advanced nationalist discourse. She made the difficult and brave decision to promote Irish culture in the north, isolating herself from her unionist family and neighbours in the process. Her promotion of the Irish language in the north with Roger Casement was extremely successful, but she also helped Thomas MacDonagh found Gaelic League branches in the south. Her tableaux vivants were performed by Inghinidhe na hÉireann, including Anna Johnston, Sinéad Flanagan (later de Valera), Máire Nic Shiubhlaigh, Helen Laird, Susan Mitchell and Ella Young. [1] She published James Connolly’s first article in an Irish newspaper, and helped him to found the Irish Socialist Republican Party in Belfast in 1896, [2] while George Russell praised her as the most successful producer of plays before the foundation of the Abbey Theatre.

In a video presentation, the curator, Catherine Morris, questions why Milligan’s role in the cultural revival was forgotten. One reason, she suggests, was that so much of her work was contained in newsprint, another, that the role of women in the revival was suppressed after 1919. I would tend to agree with Róisín Ní Ghairbhí, who suggested in relation to Patrick Pearse’s legacy that the cultural revival is seen only in terms of the 1916 Rising [4], and that it is only recently that much attention has been paid Irish theatre outside of the Abbey. The first Irish language theatre productions, for example, tend not to be referred to at all outside of histories of the Gaelic League. The stress laid on the military aspect of the revolution by the Irish state was one reason for the role of women in the cultural revival being overshadowed. As Susan Mitchell argued in 1919: ” The story of the men who loved Ireland has often been told, and I, with other Irish women rejoice to do them honour, but I am a little jealous that of Irishwomen the hero tale has not been told…”. [5] Revisionism and some feminist writing has skewed the picture of the involvement of women in the language and cultural revival, portraying a liberal, Anglo-Irish cultural elite as being at war with a retrograde, Gaelic, patriarchal movement [6].

The work of Inghinidhe na hÉireann and their collaborators in the realm of arts, culture and language was hugely important, but tends to receive scant recognition.  Moreover, there is often a marked disdain for “Irish-Irelanders”. Sinéad de Valera, for example, who acted in possibly the first Irish language play to be staged in Dublin, won a gold medal for oratory at the 1907 Oireachtas and wrote several popular Irish language plays for children during the 1930s and 1940s, is the subject of barely-concealed contempt on the part of Tim Pat Coogan and T Ryle Dwyer, two of her husband’s biographers. In degrading the cultural activities which were the context for the independence movement, the actions of the revolutionaries are depoliticised and decontextualised. Ní Ghairbhí argues persuasively for a postcolonial reading of Patrick Pearse, and “points out that his political sensibility was informed by a deep awareness of his Fenian Heritage and his involvement with the Gaelic League”. Andrew McGrath’s analysis of the Anglo-Irish war argues that the “Irish Republican tradition which culminated in Sinn Féin was not inspired by a traditional or reflex anti-Britishness”, but by an international perspective based on Roger Casement’s “revulsion against empires in general, and the British empire in particular… linking the abuses he witnessed in the Amazon and the Congo with aggressive expansionism, [seeing] a logical continuity between the heedless profiteering in South America and Africa and the nature of Ireland’s relationship to Britain”, and by Pearse’s “concept of a sovereign people which included and enfranchised all classes”, and his hope that the result of the First World War would be the enfranchisement of many nations. [7]

While she lived out her last years isolated and poor [3], I’m not so sure that it’s the case that Milligan was forgotten, or rather written out of history, until relatively recently. She was presented with an honorary doctorate in 1941 by Éamon de Valera as chancellor of the National University, and Denis Coffey, the President of UCD, paid fulsome tribute. In 1953, Seán MacBride called for her papers to be collected so that her role would not be forgotten. Conor Cruise O’Brien 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.” Milligan’s poems, especially ‘When I was a little girl’, were known to schoolchildren until perhaps ten or fifteen years ago. Catherine Morris’s forthcoming biography will be a welcome contribution to the wider history of the Irish cultural revival that is once again being told. Alice Milligan and her contemporaries should not be forgotten.

[1] An Introduction to the Bureau of Military History 1913-1921,

[2] Modern Ireland’s infant nurse (Catherine Morris), The Irish Times, 20 November 2010


[4] An cath atá romhainn anois is geall le briatharchath é: Pearse & Postcolonial. Theory by Róisín Ní Ghairbhí, in The Life and After-life of P.H. Pearse: Padraig Mac Piarais: Saol Agus Oidhreacht, eds Róisín Higgins & Regina Uí Chollatáin (Dublin, IAP, 2009)

[5] Alice Milligan and the Irish Cultural Revival (booklet accompanying the exhibition), National Library of Ireland, 2010

[6] The Politics of Irish Identity and the Interconnections between Feminism, Nationalism and Colonialism by Breda Gray and Louise Ryan in Nation, Empire and Colony: Historicising Gender and Race ed. by Ruth Roach-Pierson (Indiana University Press) 1998

[7] A Moral Analysis of the Anglo-Irish War (1919-1921), with Special Reference to Just War Theory, Andrew McGrath, PhD thesis, St Patrick’s College, Maynooth (2010), pp. 46-7


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