May 2012        

History

“The most significant figure of my generation”


With the centenary celebrations of the Great Dublin Lock-Out of 1913 and the Easter Rising of 1916 approaching, a proliferation of books and films on those subjects is already flooding the market. As expected, some will echo the revisionist view that Ireland would have been better off staying within the British Empire, or its spin-off, the British Commonwealth; many will trot out the same jaded biographies of familiar figures from that era, endeavouring to dig up little-known foibles and failings, applying the rudiments of popular psychology to their subject.
     However, some worthwhile studies will be made available to the discerning reader or viewer. One such work is Catherine Morris’s book Alice Milligan and the Irish Cultural Revival.

Alice Milligan (1866–1953)
“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 we had good hope that our own eyes should behold it.”—Alice Milligan
     “Alice Milligan is the most significant figure of my generation.”—Thomas MacDonagh
     Why would one of the signatories of the Proclamation of the Irish Republic describe this now-forgotten woman so? Even a cursory glance at her achievements and output will explain MacDonagh’s admiration for Milligan and her work.
     A founder of newspapers and journals, she gave James Connolly his first space in the Shan Van Vocht. She started to learn Irish in her twenties and went on to promote it through theatre, which she brought all around the country. A writer of poems, plays, and novels, she conducted a public debate with W. B. Yeats on the thorny subject of the relationship between politics and literature. In the 1930s she helped found the Anti-Partition Union and continued to lecture, write and broadcast even while working as a full-time carer for invalid relatives.
     Her achievements are all the more remarkable when we realise that she was born into a unionist family in Co. Tyrone and said herself of her years of Anglocentric schooling that she “learned nothing of Ireland.”
     Anyone interested in learning more can visit the local library and ask for Catherine Morris’s recently published biography, Alice Milligan and the Irish Cultural Revival (Dublin: Four Courts Press). Retailing at €40, which may be beyond the purchasing power of many of our readers, the book is based on fifteen years of research by a historian and author who cannot fail to inspire interest in her subject.
     A few minutes’ browsing on the internet will give some idea of the immense work Morris has conducted in bringing the story of Alice Milligan’s life to public attention once again. The web site of the National Women’s Council of Ireland (www.nwci.ie) has a Youtube documentary film by Ros Kavanagh enabling the viewer to experience a virtual tour of the National Library’s exhibition on Milligan, which ran from November 2010 to March 2011 at its premises in Kildare Street. The video is an excellent resource for teachers or pupils, with many artefacts and publications from Alice Milligan’s life, the meaning and context of which are explained by Morris in her clear, engaging style.
     An excellent 32-page booklet accompanying the exhibition can be requested from the National Library, (01) 6030200 or e-mail info@nli.ie.
     A final word on Alice Milligan, as described by Catherine Morris: “A cultural and political activist who rejected unionist politics that sustained Ireland’s place within empire, to become an internationalist republican.”
[MNM]

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