Alice Milligan was born and brought up as a Methodist in Gortmore, near Omagh, Co Tyrone. Alice was one of eleven children and from 1877 to 1887 attended Methodist College, Belfast, after which she completed a teacher-training course. Together with her father she wrote a political travelogue of the north of Ireland in 1888, Glimpses of Erin. She wrote her first novel, A Royal Democrat, in 1890.
Milligan found her true self while training to be a teacher in Dublin in 1891. There she was drawn to Parnellism and entered into a process of re-education, rejecting many of the cultural values of her upbringing and immersing herself in the history, folklore and customs of ancient Ireland.
After the death of Parnell she became an ardent nationalist. In 1894 with Jenny Armour she founded branches of the Irish Women’s Association in Belfast and other places, and became its first president. With Ethna Carbery she founded two nationalist publications in the 1890s, The Northern Patriot, and later The Shan Van Vocht, a monthly literary magazine published in Belfast from 1896 to 1899. She was also a key organiser behind the centenary commemoration of 1798; she believed that the ideals of civic republicanism espoused by the United Irishmen had a meaningful, contemporary relevance.
Through her energy she contributed to the reconceptualising of modern Ireland. Her intellectual circle in Belfast included the antiquarian Francis Joseph Bigger, the founder of Fianna Éireann Bulmer Hobson, the scholar revolutionary Eoin MacNeill, and other noted language scholars. Roger Casement, too, was a close friend; she shaped his beliefs and shared his resolve to build cultural connections between Protestant and Catholic communities and to prevent the politics of partition and cultural fragmentation from destroying the Ireland of their dreams.
She was a figure of the Irish literary revival, and a close associate of Douglas Hyde. She was also ‘on first-name terms’ with W. B. Yeats and James Connolly. Tomas MacDonagh, writing in the Irish Review in September 1914, described her as ‘the best Irish poet of his generation’.
After Roger Casement’s execution her anti-colonial views were strengthened and she involved herself in campaigning for political prisoners, in anti-partition leagues and humanitarian relief. In 1921, forced to flee Dublin owing to her brother’s links to the British army, she settled in a village near Omagh, where she lived out the last 30 years of her life.
Alice Milligan began her journey from being a dutiful daughter to becoming an Irish-speaking nationalist who was friends with many of the signatories to the Proclamation in 1916, she was the first person to publish the work of James Connolly (in monthly political and cultural magazine The Shan Van Vocht which she edited) and she stood outside Pentonville Prison when Roger Casement was hanged.
The English inscription on Milligan’s gravestone reads “Alice L. Milligan She loved no other place but Ireland Born Omagh September 1866 Died Omagh April 1953”.