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Nurse of the Infant Nation

Nicola Gordon Bowe

Alice Milligan and the Irish Cultural Revival, by Catherine Morris, Four Courts Press, 342 pp, 56 black and white figures, 29 colour plates, €44.55, ISBN: 978-1846823138

This persuasively argued book originated in a Ph D thesis for the University of Aberdeen in 1999, and was subsequently encapsulated in a booklet designed to accompany an exhibition at the National Library of Ireland in 2010. It represents the author’s quest to reclaim “an unjustly forgotten Irish cultural and political activist”, a woman who, she argues, should be seen as “a key figure in the formation of the anti-colonial movement from the 1890s” as well as “a founding member of the Anti-Partition Council from the 1930s” in her native Ireland. Backed up by an array of research awards, Catherine Morris has determinedly sought out primary sources, Milligan family archives, correspondence, interviews, broadcasts, newspapers, pamphlets, the testimonies of those who knew and admired her subject, as well as contemporary references, in order to track and contextualise the “radical cultural practice” of an unashamedly Northern Irish Protestant nationalist “rarely mentioned in histories of Ireland”. The reputation of the no less determined and committed Alice Milligan (1866-1953) has found a fitting biographer.

Morris eschews the intimate, narrative approach of Milligan’s fellow Omagh-born local biographer, Sheila Turner Johnston, in her much slighter, yet beguiling 1994 life, with its wonderfully revealing portraits of her subject painted by Estella Solomons (in 1918) and drawn by Sean O’Sullivan (in 1942). Instead, she sets out to chronicle Milligan’s achievements within a much broader political, cultural and historical canvas as part of an extensive, fresh “recontextualisation” of the post-colonial nation state whose cultural identity was uppermost on the agenda of the Irish Revival. Terming Milligan a “tireless political activist and journalist” over six decades, her aim has been to discover why her “four novels, eleven plays, a political travelogue, a biography, numerous articles, short stories and poetical works”, not to mention her other editorial, educational, community and ephemeral literary work in the popular press, have been “virtually eclipsed”. Why was she considered by Susan Mitchell as a heroic figure in the shaping of modern Ireland (“the infant nurse who looked after [the biggest political movement of today] while it was yet inarticulate and who expressed its wants”; by Thomas MacDonagh as “the most Irish of living poets and therefore the best”, who as a northeast Ulsterwoman challenged the sectarian divides that impeded a fully inclusive nationalism; by George “AE” Russell as “a girl of genius” who “wrote little plays to help the infant Gaelic League ... an elfish stage manager”, “the first architect of Ireland’s national theatre movement” who created “the illusion of a richly robed ancient Irish romance”; and by WB Yeats as the inspiration for his own plays with her Irish historically-inspired yet strategically conceived theatrical productions? Yet when she died in poverty in Co Tyrone, having devoted years to caring not only for her own family but also others not even related to her, unmarried, without children, without possessions, her family grave was desecrated by both loyalists and republicans because of her family’s complex political affiliations.

In a not always readily graspable conceptually driven structure, and after an introduction which would have profited from stricter editing, Morris offers us “the first ever complete biographical overview of Milligan’s life story” in her first chapter. This allows her to dispense with details not central to her argument that “the personal and the political, the public and the private” continued to be inseparably integrated during her subject’s lifelong “interventions into the Irish independence movement”.  Milligan’s enlightened Methodist upbringing in a merchant family of thirteen children, first in Omagh, then Belfast, led to studies in London, followed by the seminal influence of the Belfast Naturalist Field Club and a youthful publication (Glimpses of Erin, 1888) with her impressively self-educated father, Seaton Milligan, whose library was to lead her to her commitment to the Irish language and the Gaelic League. A political epiphany in 1891 after Parnell’s death found her in Dublin, although her feminist and nationalist interests in Belfast resulted in her joint editorship with the Republican poet Anna Johnston (alias Ethna Carbery) of first The Northern Patriot (1895) and then, in 1896, of their influential monthly cultural journal entitled The Shan Van Vocht (The Poor Old Woman). The two women’s “global vision” encouraged an “impressive array of new writing … commissioned from emerging voices of the Revival”, and constructive links with “other cultural and political activists, emerging organizations and new initiatives” in both Belfast and Dublin. Inspired by the centenary of the 1798 Volunteer Rising of the United Irishmen, Milligan began to develop a popular way of bringing to life Ireland’s heroic mythological episodes by writing and then staging what she termed tableaux vivants, comprising “staged pictures, pageant[s], magic lantern slides, live music and off-stage (often bi-lingual) narration)”. Her construction of these imaginatively costumed and conceived productions with colleagues such as Rosamond Praeger and the Morrow brothers, at the Belfast College of Art, at the Irish Literary Theatre, and in Maud Gonne's Inginidhe na hEireann, allowed the ideas of the cultural revival to be widely disseminated in town and country, regardless of the audience’s ages and political proclivities. Initially perceived as fundraisers, they offered pioneeringly successful ways of “linking disparate localities” and “helped to unify an Irish consciousness”.

Rather than adopt what might have been a clearer overall chronological approach, Morris divides her main six chapters into the principal areas she wants to explore in terms of her perception of Milligan’s lasting importance. Thus her second chapter,”'Revival”, considers the early writings of this northern Protestant woman between 1888 and 1893 in three carefully partitioned thematic sections, as Milligan develops “her own cultural position within the emerging national movement” and finds a voice to represent her nationhood. Chapter Three, entitled “Identity”, pertinently sets Milligan’s cultural achievement within the context of her native Ulster, in particular Belfast, conventionally much less associated with the Irish Revival than Dublin. Here, her role in the championing of the Irish language through the Gaelic League is assessed. Her conviction that non-Irish speakers and Protestants should not be automatically ostracised from the league’s seminal work in the North was borne out in her parallel foundation of the no less culturally and educationally active Irish Women’s Association ‑ “the first public formalized articulation of a feminism that was at the heart of Milligan’s career”. The following year, 1895, her establishment of the non-sectarian Henry Joy McCracken Literary Society in Belfast “strove to make Ireland ‘national in literature, art, language and song’” while holding lectures on Irish art and antiquities. Supporters included Francis Joseph Bigger, Roger Casement and Maud Gonne. The next two chapters focus on “Memory and commemoration: 1798 in 1898” and “Drama” respectively. They are backed up by an assortment of contemporary photographs (one, preparing for the performance of a mythological masque, mistakenly captioned as having taken place in Co Antrim in 1904), documentary, manuscript and archival images, Milligan’s own surprisingly weak if informative sketches for her costumed tableaux and much stronger line illustrations by Johnston’s cousin, John Campbell.

The book concludes with a chapter on “Republican tableaux and the Revival”, the “living pictures” which brought history to life throughout Ireland and beyond, as part of what Morris terms “the latent visual community dynamic” sustained by traditional rural life. Thus, by using magic lantern glass slides, scenes could be reenacted and configured on the stage and bring to life the “‘illustrated history’ of a people whose contested past was not officially recorded or taught”. Here it would be interesting to learn more of the visual appearance of early productions from 1898, where the influential Belfast artist Rosamond Praeger was involved, right up to the 1923 tableaux staged by women political prisoners on hunger strike in Kilmainham.

Despite a tendency to favour fashionable contemporary jargon and to use insistent, sometimes convoluted repetition to labour salient points ‑ which closer editing would have resolved – this book represents a constructive, thoroughly researched and cross-referenced vindication of a pioneering figure in the formative years of the Irish Revival.

Nicola Gordon Bowe is Associate Fellow at the Faculty of Visual Culture, NCAD (NUI) Ireland. She has lectured and published extensively on nineteenth, twentieth century and contemporary applied arts and design, especially on aspects of the Arts and Crafts movement and the Celtic Revival in Ireland and Central Europe. Her publications include Harry Clarke (Douglas Hyde Gallery), Harry Clarke: His Graphic Art (Dolmen Press), and Harry Clarke: The Life and Work (2012).