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Read Alice Milligan's biography

06 September 2016

Alice Milligan features in An Irishman's Diary in the The Irish Times. Read her Dictionary of Irish Biography entry which will feature in our upcoming book Ulster Political Lives 1886-1921.

Alice Leticia Milligan

1866–1953

Alice Leticia Milligan, novelist, playwright, and political activist, was born in Gortmore, Co. Tyrone, one of eleven children of Charlotte (née Burns) and Seaton Milligan (1836–1916), writer and antiquary. From 1877 to 1887 she attended Methodist College, Belfast, where she wrote short stories for the school magazine, Eos. From 1887 to 1888 she studied English history and literature at King’s College, London, and completed a teacher-training course in Belfast and Derry (1888–91). Alice Milligan and her father (an executive of the Bank Buildings, Belfast, antiquary, and member of the RIA) published a political travelogue of Ulster and Sligo, Glimpses of Erin, in 1888. Continuing the theme of travel, her first novel, A royal democrat (1890), tells of a disguised English king who ventures across Ireland to win home rule for the Irish while securing a greater English monarchical presence in Ireland. From January to August 1891 Milligan lived in Dublin, where she met the architects of the Irish cultural revival. After the unexpected death of Parnell in October 1891, she became an ardent nationalist and began a lifelong career writing for the Irish nationalist papers. In 1892 she formed a women’s branch of the Irish Industries Association in Derry and contributed a series of tableaux vivants to Lady Aberdeen’s ‘Irish village’ at the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair.

Milligan’s nationalist politics became more overt and radicalised when in November 1894 she and Jenny Armour founded branches of the Irish Women’s Association in Belfast, Moneyreagh, and Portadown. As the IWA’s first president, Milligan promoted the organisation as the northern voice of Irish female nationalism. In February 1895 she helped to establish the Henry Joy McCracken Literary Society in Belfast and was elected its first vice-president. In October of the same year the McCracken Society founded its own Belfast-based journal, the Northern Patriot. Under the editorship of Alice Milligan and Anna Johnston (‘Ethna Carbery’) the paper was defined by a strongly regionalist agenda. The editors were dismissed in December 1895 after the paper’s sponsors discovered that Anna Johnston’s father, Robert, was an active Fenian. In the midst of great controversy, the women launched their own ‘national’ literary journal, the Shan Van Vocht (1896–9). The paper supported Irish nationalist initiatives such as the ’98 centenary, the amnesty movement, and the Gaelic League. In September 1897 Milligan was elected to three of the five subcommittees set up to bolster the effectiveness of the ’98 centenary. While serving on the Dublin-based executive, she continued as secretary of the Belfast centenary committee, and was also elected the representative for Letterkenny’s ’98 centenary association.

A pioneer in the formation of Irish National Theatre, she ‘began to have premonitions of a dramatic movement’ as early as 1897 when she started to bring theatre to diverse communities across Ireland and its diaspora, in places that lacked resources and dedicated venues. She staged plays and tableaux vivants with groups in theatre venues, school halls, on city streets and in fields (where people watched sitting on benches carved out of felled trees.) Milligan always worked collaboratively, never alone. On a break from his human rights work in the Congo, her close friend Roger Casement joined her in Antrim where they cleared fields and constructed stage sets for local Irish tableaux and drama shows. Audiences attending her performances were not passive, ticketbuying, anonymous consumers, but active participants in the creation of national theatre and cultural independence. Those who built the stages made the costumes; those who performed the shows sourced the props and invented stage effects out of local materials. Looking back during the civil war at the intervention that Alice Milligan made in imagining a cultural republic, Susan Mitchell reflected that she was ‘the most successful producer of plays before the Abbey Theatre started on its triumphant way’.

From 1898 Milligan’s interests in the amateur theatre movement developed and she wrote eleven plays that were staged by the Irish Literary Theatre, Inghinidhe na hÉireann, and the Gaelic League (these included ‘The green upon the cape’ (1898), the ‘Ossianic trilogy’ (1899), and ‘The escape of Red Hugh’ (1901)). In November 1904 Milligan was appointed by the Gaelic League as a full-time travelling lecturer. She toured the ‘English-speaking districts of Ireland’ raising funds by staging plays, magic-lantern shows, and tableaux vivants until 1909, when the care of her aging parents took priority. Along with Francis Joseph Bigger, Milligan organised the 1910 Samuel Ferguson centenary in Belfast.

She was in London during the 1916 Easter rising—a year that also brought the death of her parents and her sister Charlotte Milligan Fox (1865–1916), founder of the Irish Folk Song Society. After attending the trial of Roger Casement, she joined the fundraising campaign in support of Irish political prisoners and their families. During this time she ran an Irish book shop in Dawson Street, Dublin, and her poems relating the plight of Irish prisoners appeared in New Ireland. Milligan supported Éamon de Valera in his opposition to the treaty—a decision she believed was supernaturally made for her by the automatic writings of her brothers Ernest and William. After 1921 she and William (a member of the British army) went to live with relatives in Bath, England, later settling in the north with his wife and son. The family eventually settled at the rectory in Mountfield, Omagh, Co. Tyrone. Despite Milligan’s social and political isolation (she complained in letters to friends that she was ‘an interned prisoner’, existing among family who opposed her views) she remained politically active and continued to write. In the 1930s she became a founding member of the Anti-Partition League and published articles and poetry in the Derry Journal and other northern nationalist and American newspapers. She died 13 April 1953 at the age of 87 in Tyrcur, Co. Tyrone.

Milligan’s literary and political career was excluded from all major accounts of the Irish cultural renaissance, and her papers remained scattered and uncollected. Until the 1990s very little had been written about her. However, the publication of Alice Milligan and the Irish cultural revival (2012), based on a fifteen-year project by Catherine Morris, has considerably heightened awareness of Milligan and led to television documentaries based on her life, and to exhibitions featuring her work, notably at the NLI (2010) and IMMA (2015). In 2012 Catherine Morris gifted her entire research archive on Alice Milligan to Omagh Public Library. Milligan’s descendants have since gifted her diary to the NLI. Other important Milligan archives can be found in the Francis Joseph Bigger papers, Belfast Central Library, and the Brother Allen Library, O’Connell Schools, Dublin.

Catherine Morris

Sources

Henry Mangan, introduction to Poems by Alice Milligan (1954); Sheila Turner Johnston, Alice: a life (1994); Brighid Mhic Sheain, ‘Glimpses of Erin. Alice Milligan: poet, protestant, patriot’, supplement to Fortnight (April 1994); Catherine Morris, ‘In the enemy’s camp: Alice Milligan and fin de siècle Belfast’, in Nicholas Allen and Aaron Kelly (ed.), Cities of Belfast (2003), 62–73; Catherine Morris, ‘Becoming Irish? Alice Milligan and the revival’, Irish University Review, xxxiii, no. 1 (2003), 79–98; Catherine Morris, ‘Alice Milligan: republican tableaux and the revival’, Field Day Review, vi (2010), 132–65; Catherine Morris, Alice Milligan and the Irish cultural revival (NLI, 2010); Catherine Morris, Alice Milligan and the Irish cultural revival (2012); El Lissitzky, The artist and the state (IMMA, 2015)

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