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  • The Shan Van Vocht: Women, Republicanism, and the Commemoration of the 1798 Rebellion
  • Virginia Crossman*

Ireland shall be free from the centre to the sea,

And hurrah for Liberty, says the Shan Van Vocht.

The motto adopted by the founders of the Shan Van Vocht neatly encapsulated the spirit of the monthly journal. Intended to operate as a “literary factor in the National cause,” 1 it was conceived as a source of inspiration and education for the Irish people. In print from 1896 until 1899, the journal commemorated the centenary of the 1798 rebellion. Its founders, Alice Milligan (editor) and Anna Johnston (secretary), took an active rôle in the planning of the commemoration, and used the journal to advertise the activities linked to the centenary and to recount the events of the rebellion and discuss its wider significance. Notwithstanding its short existence, the journal illuminates the character and aspirations of late nineteenth-century Irish republicanism and is crucial to an understanding of the rôle of women within that movement. The following discussion focuses on a number of related issues: first, the way in which republicanism was represented in the Shan Van Vocht, particularly in relation to 1798; second, the rôle envisaged for Irish women; and third, the impact of the commemoration on the Irish political scene.

The centenary presented nationalists with an opportunity to remind the Irish people of their history, and of the heroic efforts made by their forefathers to throw off the yoke of foreign oppression. By organizing demonstrations and meetings, nationalists aimed to demonstrate popular support for the movement, while also providing a rallying point at a time when organized political activity was characterized by division and demoralization. Maud Gonne was to express a common view when she declared in a speech in May 1898, reported in the Shan Van Vocht, that the commemoration would

prove to the world that the Irish race...are united in their undying determination to win national independence.... The United Irishmen did not sacrifice their lives in vain! Their unfinished work they have left to us as a sacred legacy to carry to completion.

(p. 80)

The example of the United Irishmen would, it was hoped, inspire the different sections of the nationalist movement to unite behind a common goal; but there was no common goal. Extreme nationalists desired to fuse the movement into a mass revolutionary body; others envisaged a union of the Irish people, both Catholic and Protestant, in a popular movement whose demand for self-government Britain would be unable to resist, thus making revolution unnecessary; and nationalist [End Page 128] MPs wished to reestablish the authority of constitutional nationalism lost in the aftermath of the Parnell split. In the short term, the centenary was to deepen rather than heal divisions, as members of each faction attempted to exploit the celebrations to further their own political, and, in many cases, personal, ends. 2 The commemoration had a special significance for Milligan and Johnston. Both were based in Belfast where the Society of United Irishmen had first come into existence. Milligan was a Protestant, Johnston a Catholic, and both identified with the United Irish aspiration of creating a nonsectarian union of Irish republicans. The beliefs and methods of the United Irishmen inform the content of the Shan Van Vocht both explicitly in the coverage of the commemoration, and also, it will be argued, implicitly in the attitudes reflected in its pages, from its optimistic view of impending change, to the strong emphasis placed on the rôle of popular entertainment in educating public opinion.

The press had long played a key rôle in the development and communication of revolutionary nationalism, and with the rise of cultural nationalism in the later decades of the nineteenth century the printed word acquired particular significance as one of the most potent weapons in the nationalist armory. This period saw the establishment of a number of journals aimed at participating in and promoting the literary and cultural revival of the nation. In one sense then, the Shan Van Vocht can be seen as a typical product of late nineteenth-century cultural nationalism. Its content was similar to that of many literary...

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