Alice Milligan

1866-1953 [pseud. ‘“Iris Olkyrn” in the Northern Patriot]; b. 14 Sept., Omagh [town], Co. Tyrone;, dg., and second child of 9 surviving children, to the Irish antiquarian Seaton F[orrest] Milligan (1836-1916; MRIA); ed. Methodist College, Belfast, Magee College, Derry, and King’s Coll., London; introduced to Irish through great uncle Armour Alcorn, who spoke to farm labourers in Irish; went to Dublin to learn Irish; taught at women’s college in Derry, moved to Belfast; contrib. Sinn Féin, United Irishman (from 1893), and United Ireland; collaborated with her father on Glimpses of Erin (1890); met Michael Davitt, 7 May 1891; issued a novel, A Royal Democrat (1892);
contrib. verse to Belfast Naturalists’ Field Club Report and Proceedings (1894); published Life of Theobald Wolfe Tone (1898); Beltaine (Feb. 1900); Uladh (Feb. 1905); with Ethna Carbery fnd. & ed. of Northern Patriot, organ of Henry Joy McCracken Lit. Soc., Oct. 1895 [var. 1894-95], contributing non-sectarian and nationalist feature-articles such as ‘This Month’s Martyrs’; finally ousted by board; with Ethna Carbery fnd. and ed. The Shan Van Vocht, Jan 1896-April 1899, enlisting James Connolly among the contributors and ceasing publication when Wm. Rooney and Arthur Griffith commenced editing the United Irishman;
wrote letter to Daily Express opposing J. P. Mahaffy’s views on the exclusion of Gaelic instruction from the Intermediate syllabus, Feb. 1899; her drama The Last Feast of the Fianna (1900), performed in Dublin on the festival of Lughnasa, 1900, with Maud Gonne in strikingly majestic pose; gave some hundreds of lectures on Irish history throughout the country for Gaelic League [driving force throughout Ulster]; contributed to United Irishman and other journals; involved in production of poss. first Irish-language play in Letterkenny, 1898, acting a part herself; Pres. of Belfast branch of Irish Women’s Associations; vice-pres. of Henry Joy McCracken Lit. Soc.;
admired by Bulmer Hobson and Roger Casement, George (“Æ”) Russell, and J. F. Bigger; she brought W. B. Yeats up Cave Hill; wrote a play The Last of the Fianna (1900); her Red Hugh, staged by the Fay brothers, was seen by Yeats, Aug. 1901; The Daughter of Donagh (Abbey 1902), a historical melodrama of Cromwellian days, published serially in United Irishmen, 1909, but dismissed in Lady Gregory’s diary as ‘a tawdry little piece’; contrib. poetry and prose to Uladh (1905); issued Hero Lays (1908); collaborated with her br. on Sons of the Sea Kings (1914), based on the Scandanavian saga Burnt Njal; witnessed applause of crowds outside Pentonville when Casement was hanged; acted as messenger between Dublin republicans and men in Frongoch after 1916;
prevented by Dublin Castle from travelling to America to carry home funds raised there by de Valera; forced with her brother William to leave Ireland under 24-hr. threat of execution by loyalists, 1920; she lived at the Belfast home of a brother Seton during the 1920s; contrib. to Irish Review (25 Nov. 1922); became a fnd-member of Ulster Anti-Partition Council; elected to Irish Academy of Letters; hon. degree of NUI, presented by Eamon de Valera, 1941; passed her final years in lonely and straightened circumstances at Tyrcur, nr. Omagh; she was the object of an attempt to collect her poems and afterwards a “presentation” [of funds], Aug. 1942; d. 13 April 1953;
a pencil portrait of 1942 by Seán O’Sullivan is held in the National Gallery of Ireland; a diary for 1891-93 is in the possession of her niece Mrs. F. Turner; some letters are in Trinity College, Library, others in the National Library of Ireland; a multimedia exhibition was opened by Fiona Shaw at the National Library of Ireland on 18 Nov. 2010, curated by Dr. Catherine Morris and opened by Fiona Shaw; Morris’s monograph Alice Milligan and the Irish Cultural Revival was launched by Declan Kiberd in Jan. 2012. PI IF JMC DIW DIB DIH DIL/2 DBIV MAX ATT APPL DUB OCIL
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Plays (in order of journal publication)
  • “The Last Feast of the Fianna”, in Daily Express (1899);
  • “Brian of Banba”, in United Irishman (1904);
  • “Oisin in Tir-nan-Og”, in (Daily Express (1899); also as “Oisín in Tír nan Og, in a trans. by Tadgh Ua Donnchadha, in Sinn Féin (23 Jan. 1909);
  • “The Daughter of Donagh”, in United Irishman (5-26 Dec. 1903) [weekly];
  • “Oisin and Padraic: One-Act Play”, in Sinn Féin (20 Feb. 1909).
Plays (book publication)
  • The Last Feast of the Fianna: A One-Act Play (London: David Nutt 1900), 29pp., and Do. [rep. edn.] (Chicago: De Paul Univ. 1967) [first printed in Dublin Daily Express, 1899];
  • The Daughter of Donagh: A Cromwellian Drama in Four Acts (Dublin: Martin Lester 1920) [first printed in United Irishman, 5-26 Dec. 1903];
  • with W. H. Milligan, Sons of the Sea Kings (Dublin: Gill 1914), xi+404pp., 10 ills. by J. Carey.
  • with Seaton F. Milligan, Glimpses of Erin (London: Marcus Ward 1890);
  • The Dynamite Drummer [n.d.];
  • Hero Lays (Dublin: Maunsel 1908), 80pp.;
  • Two Poems (Dublin: Three Candles 1943);
Also with Ethna Carbery & Seumus MacManus, We Sang for Ireland (Dublin: Gill 1950).
Poetry (rep.)
  • Poems by Alice Milligan, ed. with biographical introduction by Henry Mangan (Dublin: Gill 1954), 195pp. [ports.];
  • Sheila Turner Johnston, ed., The Harper of the Only God: A Selection of Poetry by Alice Milligan (Omagh: Colourpoint 1993).
  • A Royal Democrat (London: Simpkin, Marshall/Dublin: Gill 1892).
  • The Life of Theobald Wolfe Tone (Belfast: J. W. Boyd 1898) [126pp; see pre-1923 rep. edn. digitised by BiblioBazaar 2009 - online);
  • Tribute to AE [George Russell], in Dublin Magazine (Oct. 1935);

Note: British Library lists M. Ní Nocaighoill agus Mac [?] (Dublin 1944); an appreciation in Hugh Art O’Grady, Standish James O’Grady: The Man and His Work [...] (Dublin: Talbot Press 1929) [q.pp.]

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Go to the National Library of Ireland's “Discover Alice Milligan” [online], announcing a multimedia exhibition curated by Catherine Morris and opened by Fiona Shaw at the NLI (‘Alice Milligan and the Literary Revival’, from 18 Nov. 2010) - with internet access via the new Discovery touch-table online

  • Catherine Morris, Alice Milligan and the Irish Cultural Revival (Dublin: Four Courts Press, 2012), 368pp., ill. [some col.].
Articles, &c.
  • Thomas MacDonagh, ‘The Best Living Irish Poet’, Irish Review, 4 (Sept-Nov. 1914), pp.287-93;
  • Benedict Kiely, ‘The Whores on the Half Doors: An Image of the Irish Writer, in A Raid into Dark Corners’, in Conor Cruise O’Brien Introduces Ireland, ed., Owen Dudley Edwards (London: Deutsch 1969), rep. in Raid into Dark Corners (1999), pp.134-49, p.137 [see extract];
  • Terence Brown, Northern Voices, Poets from Ulster [chap. 4, ‘Of Heroes, Gods and Peasants’] (Dublin: Gill & Macmillan 1975), pp.59-64;
  • Richard Harp, ‘The Shan Van Vocht and Irish Nationalism’, in Éire-Ireland, 24, 3 (Fall 1989), pp.42-52;
  • C. L. Innes, ‘“A Voice in Directing the Affairs of Ireland”’, in L’Irlande libre, The Shan Van Vocht, and Bean na h-Eireann’, in Paul Hyland & Neil Sammells, eds., Irish Writing, Subversion and Exile (London: Macmillan 1991), pp.146-58;
  • Carl Racine, ‘Alice Milligan and Irish Nationalism’, in Harvard Library Bulletin, 3 (Spring 1992), pp.47-52;
  • Sheila Turner Johnston, Alice: A Life of Alice Milligan (Omagh: Colourpoint Press 1994), 159pp.;
  • Medbh McGuckian, review of Sheila Turner Johnston, ed., The Harp of God, Selected Poems of Alice Milligan, in Fortnight Review, 328 (May 1994), [see extract];
  • Florence Mary Wilson, ‘A Memoir of Alice Milligan’, in Sophia Hillan King & Sean MacMahon, eds., Hope and History: Eyewitness Accounts of Life in Twentieth-Century Ulster (Belfast: Friar’s Bush 1996), pp.16-18;
  • Richard Harp, ‘No Other Place But Ireland: Alice Milligan’s Diary and Letters’, in New Hibernian Review, 4, 1 (Spring 2000), p.79-87;
  • Robbie Meredith, ‘The Shan Van Vocht: Notes from the North’, in Aaron Kelly & Alan Gillis, eds., Critical Ireland: New Essays in Literature and Culture (Dublin: Four Courts Press 2001), pp.173-79;
  • Catherine Morris, ‘Alice Milligan and Fin-de-siècle Belfast’, in The Cities of Belfast, ed. Nicholas Allen & Aaron Kelly (Dublin: Four Courts Press 2003), [q.pp.].
  • Mark Phelan, ‘Beyond the Pale: Neglected Northern Irish Women Playwrights - Alice Milligan, Helen Waddell & Patricia O’Connor’, in Women in Irish Drama: A Century of Authorship and Representation, ed. Melissa Sihra (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan 2007) [q.pp.]
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See also Karen Steele, Women, Press and Politics During the Irish Revival (Syracuse UP 2007).

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W. B. Yeats (1): “Autobiography”, in Memoir, ed. Denis Donoghue (London: Macmillan 1972) [in connection with T. W. Rolleston’s resignation from the Irish National Alliance]: ‘A young poetess, a Miss Alice Milligan, had dreamed one night that he was in danger of arrest - no doubt his handsome face had set her dreaming.’ (p.83.)

W. B. Yeats (2): In Sept. 1894 Alice Milligan requested a copy of the poem “Kathleen Ny Houlihan” from Yeats, and was told that his only copy was with the publishers but received an oft-quoted letter: ‘My experience of Ireland, during the last three years ... to convert the educated class ...; &c.’ (See Yeats, Letters 1865-1895, ed. John Kelly & Eric Domville, Vol. I, Oxford 1986, p.399.) [See further under Yeats, Quotations, infra.]

W. B. Yeats (3) called Alice Milligan’s prose ‘very effective’ [q. source], while George “AE” Russell wrote that ‘You could get an idea of her quality from a little play the Last Feast of the Fianna … Yeats thinks as highly as I do of its beauty’ (Letters, ed. Alan Denson, Abelard-Schuman 1961, p.50).

W. B. Yeats (4): In W. B. Yeats, A New Biography (London: Hutchinson 1988), A. N. Jeffares calls her early dramas, produced by the Fay brothers along with an Irish play by P. T. MacFhionnlaoich, ‘tableaux vivants’ and remarks that Yeats was deeply impressed by their immobile style of acting. (Jeffares, op. cit., p.118.)


Maud Gonne remarks on Milligan that she was ‘small, aggressive and full of observant curiosity’, in A Servant of the Queen (Suffolk, Woodbridge: Boydell Press 1983), p.176; cited in Richard Harp, ‘No Other Place But Ireland: Alice Milligan’s Diary and Letters’, in New Hibernian Review/Iris Éireannach Nua, 4, 1 (Spring 2000), p.79-80.

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John Metcalf, ‘North Down’s Literary Associations’, in Educational Supplement to Fortnight [Belfast] (Sept. 1993), notes that Alice’s younger brother was Mayor of Bangor where she mostly lived in the 1960s; with her sister she edited Bunting Collection of Irish folk songs; she was present at Casement’s trial and wrote poem eulogising him; awarded hon. degree of NUI; Poems, ed. Henry Morgan (Dublin 1954).

Declan Kiberd launches Catherine Morris, Alice Milligan and the Irish Literary Revival (Jan. 2012) - on Youtube [link]. See also illustrations on Facebook [link].

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Benedict Kiely, ‘Whores on the Half Doors: An Image of the Irish Writer, in A Raid into Dark Corners’ (Cork UP 1991), gives account of late meeting with Milligan noting that Robert Burns was her favourite poet; ‘The aged poets of “the Fenians” and the Abbey playwright of “the Last feast of the Fianna” was then living among unkempt laws and shrubbery in the old rectory on the fringe of the mountain village of Mountfield, County Tyrone./ “not much she ever made,” old Father Paul said, “hobnobbing with Yeats and that crew. She dresses like Maggy the Rag […]”. [… /] To door opened and the dear lad appeared in wreaths of smoke. There was a jackdaw in the chimney for whose invasion and occupancy she courteously apologised. We sat in the musty drawingroom and listened to her telling us how she had once spent a wonderful day with Miss Gonne and Mr. Bulfin (Mr. Yeats couldn’t make the trip), studying druidic remains in Glencolmcille. The smoke thickened until she could be seen only fitfully, and we were set free to imagine visions of the woman Homer sung of, or of that statuesque thought from Propertius, going with the walk of a queen along the most colourful of western glens. Yet it was saddening to think that to be poor, lonely, smoke-dried should be the lot of a poet in the end of all. / Later it might have occurred to one that there was some connection between an old woman abandoned in a smoky corner and that cracked looking-glass of the servant mentioned by a bitter young Dubliner as the symbol of Irish art. but that is not to say that the old poetess was every anybody’s servant: even in the smoke she was proud and noble.’ (p.137.)

Benedict Kiely, Drink to the Bird (London: Methuen 1991), gives a further account of being brought on a visit to Alice Milligan at Mountfield by a Fr. Paul, with incidental remarks: ‘The country people said that if you met her on the raod you’d give her a penny, mistaking her, perhaps, for Padraic Colum’s Old Woman of the Roads [...] But unlike the old woman of Padraic’s poem she had a house of her [129] own, nor was it, by any means, a little house. It has once been a rectory and she lived there by some special arrangement with the Church of Ireland which still owned the property. [...] she had a drawing-room to which she led us. About such drawing-rooms I had at that time, or up to that time, heard something from Dickens and Thackeray [...; compares room with film set of Great Expectations at Denham studios] The drawing-room in Mountfield, and the appearance of the aged poet, Alice Milligan, were not nlike the Denham drawing-room or conservatory, and the appearance of Miss Haversham: and I was old enough in 1940 to spare a thought on how well Ireland would reward you for a life of patriotism and poetry. / As we sat down across the heartrug form the poet, she did ask us, in themost considerate and ladylike fashion, if we objected to the smoke. She didn’t mean smoking. She didn’t mean tobacco: as she talked to us the clouds from the chimney rooled and roled around us until, although I could hear her, we could no longer see her. Not because of any constrctional fault in the chimney nor because of the angle ofr the wind. But because of the nesting jackdaws. Their screams we could hear now and then, and she paused in her talk to listen. / But paused only briefly. Then talked on and on about Mr Yeats (W. B.) and Lady Gregory, and about the early days of the Abbey Theatre, where her verse-play, The Feast of the Fianna, had been produced: about Patrick Pearse and [130] Thomas MacDonagh [...] and about some wonderful days long ago that Alice had spent in Glencolumbcille in Southwest Donegal with Miss Gonne, not then old and grey and full of sleep, but with that proud head as though she had gaez into the burning sun. ...] Dear Alice Milligan in the smoke was a prime discover for an ignorant young fellow with literary notions, and just emerged from a Jesuit novitiate and an orthopaedic hospital [...]’ (pp.129-31.)

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Medbh McGuckian, review of Sheila Turner Johnston, ed., The Harp of God, Selected Poems of Alice Milligan, in Fortnight Review, 328 (May 1994), [q.p.]: ‘the near-miraculous resurrection of Alice Milligan, one of the dozens of worthwhile Irish women poets, long out of print ...’; cites among other poems “Grania Speaks”; “Ode to Parnell” [envisages Ireland as a beloved woman]; “The White Flower” [intensity too erotic to be that of girlish friendship]; “The Valiant Hearted Girl” [‘wishes she had been a boy’].

Roy Foster, Vivid Faces (2016): ‘Pioneer journalist and dramatic impresario, suffered through her Northern connections in the War of Independence; she and her brother (an alcoholic ex-British Army officer) were driven out of their Dublin flat under threats from the IRA in 1921, and she lived out the rest of her long life unhappily in Northern Ireland, caring for relatives, and always in need of money. During the revolutionary period she continued to write poems, in a florid Victorian mode which looked increasingly archaic; publication proved more and more difficult, and she took refuge in various forms of psychic activity, convinced that her gift for divination would help Ireland to evade Partition.’ (Quoted in Denis Donoghue, review of Vivid Faces, in New York Review of Books, 7 April 2016 - as attached.)

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The Patriot (1st Editorial): ‘[...] the North will be put in touch with the other provinces, and a bond of lvoe and union will cement all in pushing forward the good old cause that has braved unceasing persecution for seven centuries.’ (Cited in Damian Smyth, review of Sheila Turner Johnston, Alice, A Life 1994). Further, ‘Ireland dear! through the length of my childhood lonely, / throughout the toilsome hours of my schooling days, / No mention of thee was made unto me, save only / By speakers in heedless corn or in harsh dispraise. / No word was told me at all of thy burdening sorrow, / No tale of thine ancient warfare yet was heard,, / No whispered hope of the dawn of a brighter morrow, / Nor any news how the fight for freedom fared; / And yet in a way beyond reach of mortal knowing / To guess how ever this wonder could come to be, / As a wild flower out of a seed of God’s own sowing, / grew in my hear this flower of my love for thee.’ (Ode for 6 Oct., ded. to dead Parnell; cited in Terence Brown, Northern Voices, 1975, p.59; together with a prose account of her first alerting to Home Rule and nationalist feeling, as a child, at the hands of the small boy Rory who held the reins of her girlhood pony in Omagh (‘... History began to be made even in the sleeping town of Omagh in a couple of years when Parnell himself came there and aroused the people ...’).

Fenians: ‘When I was a little girl, / In a garden playing, / a thing was often said / To chide us delaying ... // When after sunny hours, / At twilight’s falling, / Down through the garden walks / Came our old nurse calling - // “Come in! for it’s growing late, / And the grass will wet ye" / Come in when it’s dark / The Fenians will get ye.” [..] But God, (Who our nurse declared) / Guards British Dominions) / Sent down a deep fall of snow / And scattered the Fenians.’ (Quoted in Benedict Kiely, Sing to the Bird, London: Methuen 1991, 131, p.131).

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Stephen Brown
, Ireland in Fiction [Pt. I] (Dublin: Maunsel 1919), b. Omagh, dg. Seton [sic] F. Milligan of Belfast; ed. Methodist Coll., Belfast, and King’s Coll., Lon.; contrib. United Ireland, The United Irishman, Sinn Féin, etc; fnd. The Shan Van Vocht, Belfast; plays and poetry (Hero Lays). A Royal Democrat (Dublin: Gill [1892]), 288pp [forecast of Irish politics, 1892-1948 in which Davitt, Dillon, Parnell, and O’Brien are killed on action or executed after a “rebellion” of 1895, while Cormac, King of Ireland is shipwrecked in Donegal and arrested trying to turn an agrarian society into mere cattle-rustlers, saved by his cousin, Queen Frederika]; with W. H. Milligan, Sons of the Sea Kings (Dublin: Gill 1914), 10 ills. by J. Carey and based on Scandanavian sagas of Burnt Njal, &c.

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Desmond Clarke, Ireland in Fiction [Pt II] (Cork: Royal Carbery 1985) lists calls her an active republican and editor of Shan Van Vocht with Ethna Carbery; lists The Dynamite Drummer (Dublin n.d.).

Stephen Brown, The Press in Ireland (1937), ‘Historical Sketch: III - The Modern Literary Revival’, cites Thomas MacDonagh’s eulogy of Milligan printed in the final issue of the Irish Review as ‘the Best Living Irish Poet’ (Brown, pp.87.)]

D. E. S. Maxwell, A Critical History of Modern Irish Drama, 1891-1980 (Cambridge UP 1984), lists The Last Feast of the Fianna (Daily Express, 1899; rep. Chicago 1967); Brian of Banba (United Irishman, 1904); and Oisin in Tir-nan-Og (Daily Express, 1899).

Brian M Walker, et al. eds, Faces of Ireland (Belfast: Appletree 1992), selects “A Song of Freedom”, from Henry Morgan, ed., Poems by Alice Milligan (Dublin 1954).

John Cooke, ed., The Dublin Book of Irish Verse (Dublin: Hodges Figgis 1909), selects her poems as Nos. 471-74.

Justin McCarthy, ed., Irish Literature (Washington: Catholic Univ. of America 1904), gives extract from The Shan Van Vocht, and some other pieces incl. “Fionnuala”.

Belfast Central Public Library holds The Dynamite Drummer (n.d.); Hero Lays (1908); Last Feast of the Fiana (1900); Poems (1954); Sons of the Sea Kings [fict] (1914); Daughter of Donagh [820] (n.d.); A Royal Democrat (fict. n.d.); Theobald Wolfe Tone (1898).

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The Last Feast of the Fianna, billed with Martyn’s Maeve (Feb. 1900), described by James W Flannery as a ‘vacuous Celtic play’ (Yeats and the Idea of a Theatre, 1976, p.161). Flannery further notes that Yeats first saw Fay’s National Dramatic Society performing an old-fashioned play by Alice Milligan [unnamed] in Aug. 1901, and this is identified by Yeats as ‘an historical play in two scenes in the style of Walter Scott’ (Autobiographies p.449) [see further under Fay, supra].

Kith & Kin: Her father, and also a brother with whom she was dwelling in Belfast in 1920 for want of sufficient funds of her own were both called Seton [query, Seaton in q.source?]

War poets: As Benedict Kiely recounts (op. cit., supra, p.134), Milligan knew the Englsh poets Sidney Keyes and Alun Lewis, both of whom were posted in Northern Ireland during the Second World War.

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Timire: Tomás Ó Concheanainn was “The Man on the Wheel” in Alice Milligan’s poem celebrating the Gaelic League timire [Ir. ‘organiser’].

Presentation: Alice Milligan was the object of an attempt to collect her poems and afterwards a subscription (or “presentation”) aimed at alleviating her poverty (Aug. 1942; see attached.)

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