Celtic Twilight’s forgotten star

Alice Milligan - a leading light in the Irish cultural revival.
Alice Milligan - a leading light in the Irish cultural revival.
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In a recent article in this paper, I suggested that John Mitchel, the famous Young Irelander, may in his very early years have been a student at Foyle College. For this feature, there was no need for detective work since it is a well-documented, if little known, fact, that Alice Milligan - the forgotten star of the Celtic Twilight - taught in The Ladies Collegiate school run by the Misses McKillop, one of the forerunners of the Londonderry High School and, therefore, by association the current Foyle College. But who was Alice Milligan?

In this feature, KEN THATCHER reveals that poet Alice Milligan - a leading light in Ireland’s literary revival who was on first name terms with the likes of WB Yeats, James Connolly and Sir Roger Casement - taught at a Derry school which was a forerunner to Foyle College.

Nobel laureate WB Yeats.

Nobel laureate WB Yeats.

In a recent article in this paper, I suggested that John Mitchel, the famous Young Irelander, may in his very early years have been a student at Foyle College. For this feature, there was no need for detective work since it is a well-documented, if little known, fact, that Alice Milligan - the forgotten star of the Celtic Twilight - taught in The Ladies Collegiate school run by the Misses McKillop, one of the forerunners of the Londonderry High School and, therefore, by association the current Foyle College. But who was Alice Milligan?

She was born near Omagh in 1865, the daughter of Seaton F Milligan, a wealthy businessman and antiquary.

She received her education at Methodist College, Belfast, Magee College, Derry, and King’s College, London.

On graduation, her father tried to persuade her to go abroad to learn German but she much preferred to go to Dublin to learn Irish, a language which she first encountered when she accompanied her great-uncle on visits to his extensive farms where he used Irish to communicate with his farm labourers, hired no doubt from the Rosses or other Gaelic speaking areas of west Donegal.

This early interest in Irish nationalism is reflected in the poem, ‘When I Was a Little Girl’. In it, the voice is that of her nanny who warns her:

‘Come in for it is growing late

And the grass will wet ye!

Come in! or when it’s dark

The Fenians will get ye.’

To which the young Alice replies:

‘But one little rebel there,

Watching all with laughter,

Though, ‘When the Fenians come

I’ll rise and go after.’

In 1887, Alice found a position as governess at the Ladies Collegiate. By governess, we assume that she was, in fact, a teacher as we know that she quickly befriended the other two governesses, Mademoiselle Cazalong - who taught French and whom Alice called ‘La Marseillaise’ and who, in turn, nicknamed Alice ‘Meeligano’ - and a young music teacher called Marjorie Arthur, given the soubriquet ‘The Highland Lassie’ as her mother’s people came from Skye.

As the Irishwoman amongst them, Alice felt it her duty to show them the wonders of the local countryside and they would cheerily set off to visit Corrody Hill, take a walk along the Faughan side, watch the shadows shift along Lough Swilly or climb to the summit of her most favoured spot, Grianan of Aileach.

This stronghold inspired the poem that she wrote later, ‘The Horsemen of Aileach:

’Tis told in tales of wonder how Aileach’s palace under

Kings in countless numbers lie still as carven stone;

And steeds with them in hiding are reined for warriors’ riding

To the last of Erin’s battles from that cave Inish Owen.

And once in summer’s shining on Fahan’s shore reclining,

The hissing of the heather and the droning of the sea.

And the lisp of wavelets creeping, they lulled my brain to sleeping

And the glory of that story in a vision burst on me.

Alice left few tangible reflections of the time she spent teaching in Derry nor have we discovered in the school archive any reference by pupils to her stay amongst them.

However, Sheila Turner Johnston, in her biography of Alice, suggests that her boundless energy was one of the things about her that the pupils remembered. She also claims that her memories of her stay in Derry ‘haunt the best poetry that she ever wrote.’

Late in 1888, Alice wrote in her diary ‘I’m off to Dublin’. And so began, perhaps, the most formative years of her life.

In Dublin, she met Michael Davitt and did her utmost to meet Charles Stewart Parnell and finally did - although from a distance - in June 1891. As she stood waving from the top deck of a tram, he passed by on a wagonette from which he doffed his hat to the still unknown Alice.

After three years, Alice’s study in Dublin drew to a close and she returned to her family home which by now had transferred from Omagh to Bangor.

Not long after her return, her teaching friends from Derry, Mademoiselle Cazalong and Marjorie Arthur, came to stay. Alice obviously cherished these friendships from her days at the Collegiate school.

Indeed, she was grief-stricken when, in early 1892, her friend Marjorie died of an unknown illness. So bereft was Alice that she created a shrine to her dear friend in her bedroom, arranging a garland of violets, daisies and moss around her photograph.

She made an attempt to return to teach at the McKillop school in the mid 1890s.

Why she was unsuccessful, I do not know nor have we as yet discovered any evidence in the archive but, spurred on by this setback, she made a conscious decision to devote herself to writing, completing a novel, ‘The Royal Democrat’, and beginning a play.

The Milligans once again moved house setting up home in the shadow of the Cave Hill. It was here that Alice fell into the company of Anna Johnston (who wrote under the name of Ethna Carbery), Bulmer Hobson and, most important of all, Francis Joseph Biggar whose house, ‘Ardrigh’, was a major centre for Irish culture enthusiasts. Sir Roger Casement was also a regular at ‘Ardrigh’ but Alice did not meet him there. However, later that year she was to encounter WB Yeats in the library of the Royal Irish Academy and, then, in the National Library.

When she submitted some of her poetry to Yeats, she was a little taken aback when he encouraged her to try drama. It is interesting to note that the first time Irish was heard in a stage presentation was in Letterkenny in November 1898 and she was one of the actors.

Her own play, ‘Naomh Padraig ag an Teamhair (St Patrick at Tara)’ was staged in Saint Columb’s Hall on April 3, 1899. Alice produced it and played the part of the Lady in Waiting to the Queen.

In 1895, Alice and her friend Anna Johnston became co-editors of a newly-formed paper entitled ‘The Northern Patriot’ but for one reason or another they fell out of favour with the publishers and were either sacked or resigned - it is unclear which.

Alice was soon to be back in print as the author of ‘The Life of Wolfe Tone’ and as editor of the literary periodical ‘The Shan Van Vocht’ - a transliteration of the Irish Sean-Bhean Bhocht (‘Poor Old Woman’ - one of many alternative names for Ireland.)

Alice was also at this point the organising secretary for the centenary celebrations in Ulster of the ’98 Rising and was very much regarded as one of the shining lights of the Gaelic movement.

Alice’s life became a little complex at this time as being the unmarried daughter she was obliged to spend long periods of time caring for a series of relatives.

She nevertheless spent some time in the company of Roger Casement as he gave a series of lectures in North Antrim. She was well acquainted with many of the leaders of the 1916 Rising but was totally unaware of its planning and preparation.

Her response, in its aftermath, was to become a prison visitor - a role she would play when her friend Roger Casement was imprisoned in London.

Alice took the consequences of the Rising badly and was similarly affected by the Civil War and partition. She continued to contribute to a wide range of publications but, as time passed, she faded from the public conscious and only in her latter years was she honoured by the National University of Ireland. She died in Omagh in 1953.

In conclusion, we might just wonder how life might have turned out for Alice had she been re-employed by the Misses McKillop in the Londonderry Collegiate those many years ago.