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The Poor Old Woman left a very rich legacy

By Liam Murphy

Having been relieved of the editorship of The Northern Patriot after just three issues in December 1895, it might have been expected that Alice Milligan and Anna Johnston would concentrate on their own writing as both were accomplished poets and Milligan also a talented playwright.

Instead, they immediately set themselves to work to produce their own journal. Encouraged and financed by Anna’s father, Robert, they founded The Shan van Vocht (The Poor Old Woman) and worked from Robert Johnston’s office at 65 Great George’s Street where he had a timber import business.

Aided and abetted by Anna’s sister Margaret, they wrote most of the material, gathered subscriptions, attracted advertising and organised distribution. They succeeded in publishing the first edition on January 15, 1896. As a result of their sudden departure from The Northern Patriot they made sure that they had complete control over this venture. The name of the magazine showed their political and cultural identity: Ireland was identified as a woman colonised, a hag – but a hag who would be transformed into “a girl with the walk of a queen” when Ireland was finally set free.

As both travelled throughout Ireland on lecture tours for the Nationalist Association of Irishwomen, they were able to promote the magazine and they established agents in Belfast, Dublin, Derry, Glasgow and New York. Within a year contributions were coming in from readers in South Africa, Canada, Argentina and Australia. Because they were activists, Milligan and Johnston were able to comment knowledgably on the issues of the day and were able to draw articles, poems and other contributions from leading activists.

Over the next three years contributions were made by leading writers such as James Connolly, Alice and Mary Furlong, Barry Delaney, PJ McCall, Kathleen Tynan, James Clarence Mangan, WB Yeats, PT McGinley, Douglas Hyde, Maud Gonne, Glengormley-based Margaret Pender, who regularly lectured for the Young Ireland Society, and Anna’s future husband, Seumas McManus.

Maud Gonne gave her opinion of the journal: “We were full of almost envious admiration of some numbers of The Shan Vocht, the daring little paper Anna and Alice were editing. I thought Dublin would have to look to its laurels if it were not to be outdone in literary journalism by Belfast…”

The editorials of The Shan Van Vocht expressed the belief that Irish freedom could only be achieved by popular and unified protest. The paper served to promote Irish nationalism and counter the apathy and disunity that had characterised the independence movement after the death of Charles Stuart Parnell. The establishment of home reading circles was encouraged, with Alice Milligan giving advice on suitable reading material.



The paper promoted the activities of the Amnesty Movement, which worked for the release of Fenian sympathisers from English jails. The paper carried reports on the Gaelic League, which was now beginning to flourish. It also publicised the work of the National Association of Irishwomen. In its central Belfast branch, the study of Irish history, literature, art, music and language were all encouraged in order to foster nationalist sympathies in the city. Alice Milligan wrote, “to create a taste for literary developments, and thereby sustain the prestige of Belfast in the national and literary efforts of the future… spreading some national ideas among the women of Belfast.” The GAA was then a fledgling body and articles were contributed by its secretary, Michael Cusack.

In particular, the paper promoted the celebration of the centenary of the United Irishmen’s Rising in 1798. They organised an amalgamated committee from the National Association of Irishwomen, the Amnesty Association and the Charles J Kickham Literary Society to raise funds for wreaths which were made in the office in Great George’s Street. As a result of this impetus, the practice of patriot grave decoration became increasingly popular during the ’98 centennial celebrations.

Alice Milligan believed in sparest politics. She was anti-parliamentarian and saw no merit in the attendance of Irish MPs at Westminster. When James Connolly put forward the view that republicans should stand for parliament she wrote: “Mr Connolly and his supporters can do good work for Ireland in preaching the gospel of democracy and spreading nationalist principles. In advocating the formation of a democratic party in Parliament they are taking the broad road to destruction, as such a party would inevitably be in alliance with the English Labour party.”



The Shan Van Vocht’s non-party stance was one of the reasons for its success. However, lack of funding from any political party or nationalist grouping led to the closure of the paper in April 1899. Another factor was fatigue. Seumas McManus wrote: “For three and a half years these two girls edited the magazine and managed it. They themselves wrote all of the magazine. They read the proofs. They kept the books. They sent the bills. They wrote the letters. With their own hands they folded and addressed every copy that was to go out and licked every stamp. Many and many a weary day they spent drudging in the office and on many and many a weary evening they trudged home to Ethna Carbery’s father’s house in Donegall Park, there to swallow their supper and sit down on opposite ends of the table turning out story and poem for the next issue.”

By this time the Irish-Ireland revival and the Gaelic League were in full working order and Irish nationalism was flourishing. An Phoblacht recognised the paper’s significance in re-awakening nationalist demands for Irish independence.

“The unperishable spirit of freedom which lay dormant owing to centuries of oppression and despondency caused by the Fenian failure of 1867 was once more revived… This was largely due to the publication of a stirring little organ known by the appropriate name of An Sean Bhean Bhocht [of which Shan Van Vocht was a phonetic rendition]. This little paper voiced the gospel of nationality fearlessly and unmistakably.”

Alice Milligan and Anna Johnston had one last contribution to make. They sent the subscription list to Arthur Griffith in Dublin who was editor of The United Irishman.

Should any of our readers wish to explore the journal a bound copy of The Shan Van Vocht is held in the Linenhall Library in Belfast city centre. It is a most enjoyable experience.

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