Books History Reviews The Irish Language - An Ghaeilge

Alice Milligan – An Fíorghael

A national newspaper in Ireland carrying an article praising an Irish Republican and Revolutionary hero? Or in this case, a heroine. Whatever next?

But then again – what a heroine!

Professor Declan Kiberd reviews the biography “Alice Milligan and the Irish Cultural Revival” by Catherine Morris in the Irish Times, a study of the only woman to my knowledge to have been sworn into the Irish Republican Brotherhood (IRB):

“‘[Alice Milligan] …believed that the greatest sin a people could commit was to bring the work of the dead to nothing. Her lifelong project, in novels, poems, plays, journalism and tableaux, was to liberate the still-unused energies buried in the Irish past and to demonstrate their rich potential for her generation.

Hence, for her, the importance of “the memory of the dead” kept forever green in song, story, gardens of remembrance and that ultimate repository of all that is recalled by the underlings of history, “tradition” (or the passing down of felt experience in oral lore).

The fate of her writings after her death, in 1953, is an even bleaker illustration of the ways in which authors can join the ranks of the disappeared. Although artists as distinguished as Brian Friel and Benedict Kiely and politicians from Eamon de Valera to Seán MacBride have celebrated her writing, most of it was journalism and is no longer of easy access.

…Yet Catherine Morris has challenged this neglect, sifting through hundreds of archives to narrate the astonishing life of a gifted woman who was arguably one of the greatest of all inventors of modern Ireland.

Milligan came from a family of Methodist unionists, advanced enough to encourage her education, her study of Irish and her involvement in field naturalists’ clubs. (It was through an intense study of the national landscape that many Protestants of her generation impatriated themselves to the point at which they wished also to study Irish history.) She remained on good terms with her siblings, even though Morris, whom I advised on this project, inclines to the opinion that she was recruited eventually into the Irish Republican Brotherhood. (In 1919 she told Sinéad de Valera she had been “sworn in”.)

… the experience of Irish-language classes in Dublin soon converted her into a republican. With her Catholic friend Anna Johnston, she edited a paper, the Shan Van Vocht, that had a truly global distribution and that gave an early publishing opportunity to many soon-to-be-famous Irish revivalists.

Morris reminds us that it was in ordinary journals, pamphlets and newspapers – rather than in more expensive arts-and-crafts volumes of high modernism – that the agenda of the Irish revival was carried forward.

…Looking back in 1926 George Russell found something momentous as well as mysterious about it all: “Thirty years ago there did not seem a people in Europe less visited by the creative fire. Then a girl of genius, Miss Milligan, began to have premonitions . . .”

Milligan was a genuine republican, self-reliant and keen to promote self-reliance in others. …Yet when members of her own family suffered prolonged illness in the later decades of her life, she selflessly returned north to nurse them. This entailed living as a kind of “internee” (her word) in a state whose very existence embarrassed and disappointed her, but she provided care and comfort with the same love, practicality and imagination that characterised everything she did. She was one of those rare souls who can embrace radical politics without ever lapsing into fanaticism or intolerance.”

Catherine Morris’ new book is available from the Four Court Press and in the video below she gives a tour of the National Library of Ireland exhibition, “Alice Milligan and the Irish Cultural Revival”. For more on Alice Milligan see this article from the National Women’s Council of Ireland, and this excellent review on the history-site, The Irish Story.

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