SEEKING A FEMININE TOUCH’: RESEARCHING ALICE MILLIGAN AND EVA GORE-BOOTH IN BELFAST
Yasmine Radjabi (Institute of Irish Studies, Liverpool) discusses her research trip to archives in Belfast.
‘Fear not to fall for the land ye love,
Irish earth beneath you, Irish sky above,
Beat the standard onward down the sacred glen,
All the saints in Ireland once were Irish men.
O’er the Wicklow Mountains, through the plains of Meath,
Irish skies above you, Irish earth beneath!’
(Donegal News, 9 January 1909)
At the end of my second year of PhD I found myself in need of some funds to carry on my archival research. My PhD project seeks to explore the role of six Irish women writers in the fight for independence from the British rule and, therefore, the sources to consult are abundant and diversified. Dublin and Belfast could seem rather easy to reach from Liverpool, where I live, but frequent research trips are often too rich for a student’s blood.
The invaluable help I received from the BAIS bursary allowed me to spend a week in Belfast to consult manuscripts and press material on two women writers: Alice Milligan and Eva Gore-Booth. The old-fashioned atmosphere of Belfast Central Library provided me with the perfect context for a full immersion into Francis Joseph Bigger Papers, which contain more than thirty letters written by Belfast poet and playwright Alice Milligan. My research on Milligan started in Dublin some months ago and the visit to Belfast Central Library was essential to retrieve enough data to enrich my analysis on this author. Francis Joseph Bigger was a key figure in Milligan’s career. Together with Milligan’s father and the other members of the Belfast Naturalists’ Field Club, he nurtured the young poet’s intellect and gave her the advice and support she needed while editing the Shan Van Vocht, a nationalist magazine. As I intend to focus on Milligan’s final years of literary production, these letters will have a tremendous impact on my research and will be used to validate the hypothesis that Alice Milligan was an active nationalist writer throughout her entire life, even during her forced alienation from Dublin and Belfast cultural and literary environment.
The second part of my research trip focused on the material held PRONI Records, more specifically the Lissadell Papers. I was surprised by the modern look of these records and the supporting and helpful staff surely made my research a most enjoyable one. The material consulted dealt mostly with Eva Gore-Booth family letters and liaisons with the Irish intelligentsia. Also, I had the opportunity to consult all the 26 diaries that PRONI holds, as well as Countess Markievicz’s prison letters which highlight the strong and unique bond between the two sisters. This manuscript material was also essential to deepen my research on the writer’s interest for mysticism and transmutation, two aspects I would like to implement in a chapter on Eva Gore Booth. Before visiting PRONI I was not a hundred percent sure of Gore-Booth’s political interests and relevance to the topic of my project. Indeed, she was known to be a pacifist and she was somehow cut off from the Irish nationalist propaganda and the Irish Literary Revival despite her thorough knowledge on Celtic mythology and early interest for drama. However, these papers have yielded a number of important ideas for my research and the findings will be used to highlight Gore-Booth’s strong involvement into Irish politics and into the fight for independence.
The week spent wandering around Belfast archives was a great opportunity to explore the life and relationships of two women writers who surely deserve more attention by the critique. Thanks to the BAIS bursary I was able to strengthen my research and clear up some difficult aspects of Milligan and Gore-Booth’s lives. Last but not least, I had the opportunity to experience the windy and cold days of August in Belfast and to find out more about the past of this troubled but fascinating city. I have still got some funds left which I intend to use to finance a short trip to Dublin to end my research on Eva Gore-Booth.