Omagh's hidden cultural 'heroine'

By Freya McClements
Radio Foyle

Image caption,
Omagh-born Alice Milligan was on first-name terms with many of the 1916 rebels

One of 13 children from a middle-class Protestant family in Omagh, Alice Milligan became an Irish nationalist and supporter of the 1916 Rising who was on first-name terms with WB Yeats, James Connolly and Roger Casement.

A political activist, human rights campaigner and writer, her legacy had been all but forgotten until her story was unearthed by a historian from Trinity College, Dublin.

An exhibition in Alice's honour is to open at the National Library of Ireland on Thursday, and will travel to Belfast and Omagh next year.

The cultural co-ordinator for Trinity College and the National Library of Ireland, Catherine Morris, spent 15 years researching Alice's remarkable story.

"I had never heard of her until I read a review by one of the 1916 rebels, Thomas MacDonagh, who described her as the best living Irish poet of his generation," she said.

"I thought, if that's the case, why haven't I heard of her, so I went to the library and found very little.

"Eventually I realised that she had published predominantly in newspapers, and that was why it took so long to figure her out."

'Cottage industry'

In fact Alice Milligan wrote for 60 Irish newspapers for 60 years, and was described as "the most successful producer of plays in Ireland".

Her magazines, plays, novels, short stories and poems were published across the world and she had readers in South Africa, America, Europe and South America.

She also founded numerous cultural, literary and feminist organisations from the late 19th century on, and travelled the country trying to bring the Irish language and culture to small communities - despite the restrictions of the time.

"There were times she turned up to meetings and she wasn't allowed in because she was a woman - even though she had founded the organisation," Dr Morris said.

Image caption,
Alice Milligan wrote many books, plays and newspaper articles

One of her greatest achievements was her promotion of Irish culture among Irish people abroad.

"From 1896-1899 she was the editor of a magazine published in Belfast, Shan Van Vocht, which had a readership even as far as South America," Dr Morris said.

"It was like a cottage industry - she licked every stamp and posted every issue out herself.

"She realised that to save the Irish language and Irish culture it was important to connect with the diaspora and reach the international community."

The daughter of a travelling salesman and educated at Methodist College in Belfast, Alice "put the north on the cultural map", according to the historian.

"Her idea of culture was radically inclusive," she added.

"People from a Northern, Protestant, Unionist background could be nationalists, and internationalists, and absolutely endowed with a sense of what Irish culture was.

"But she was very much written out of history - she was a woman, and after partition she was a northerner.

"In many ways, I think it took the peace process to make my research possible, because it created the right cultural conditions to uncover the story of a Northern, Protestant woman who was part of Irish culture."

Alice Milligan and the Irish Cultural Revival is on display at the National Library of Ireland in Dublin from Thursday until February 2011.

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