“Which is Kit?”: Discovering Kathleen Blake Coleman

By Tara Giddens, University of Limerick


“Which is Kit?” The Daily Mail and Empire, 2 Aug. 1890. Torontoist, 23 Nov. 2013, torontoist.com/2013/11/historicist-kits-kingdom/.

I was first introduced to Kathleen Blake Coleman (1856-1915) by my supervisor when discussing PhD topics. Coleman was an eminent journalist in Canada and the United States at the end of the nineteenth and early twentieth century.  She wrote the column “Woman’s Kingdom” for The Toronto Daily Mail, which later became The Daily Mail and Empire, from 1889 to 1911. After leaving the paper, Coleman became a freelancer until her death in 1915. While reading her column, I was drawn into the world of the “Woman’s Kingdom,” and instantly intrigued by Coleman’s voice and her use of both her national identity and gender to attract readers and gain popularity. One of her biggest achievements was becoming the first accredited woman war correspondent in the Spanish-American War in 1898. She was also well-known for her travels, covering the United States, Canada, and Europe as a journalist; even publishing a collection of her articles on Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee in 1897. However, what makes Coleman so fascinating is how she used both her Irish/British identity to authenticate her international authority and her androgynous pen name “Kit” that allowed her to write on various topics, which were not always common for women, including politics, economics, and other social issues. In my thesis, I write about Coleman’s gender performance through Kit as well as her use of her Irish/United Kingdom heritage in Canada. While Coleman is generally known as a Canadian journalist, I argue that her Irish upbringing (she was born in the west of Ireland and migrated around the age of 28) should not be forgotten as she held on to and used it throughout her career.


Unfortunately, Coleman destroyed most of her letters and personal papers. So, in order to better understand the woman behind the pen name, we must not only look at Coleman’s journalism and public persona Kit, but also the few personal letters that survived, Coleman’s short stories and fiction, and accounts of Coleman’s grandchildren interviewed by journalist and researcher Dr. Barbara Freeman. While attempting to piece together who Coleman was, it is important to differentiate her from the public persona of Kit. This is because Kit did not necessarily represent Coleman’s real beliefs and could either voice more controversial opinions or simultaneously be reserved in other topics, as Kit herself claims she would “much rather sit on a fence …with my feet tucked decorously beneath my skirts, than jump down into the mud and get wet and draggle-tailed and vilified” (Coleman, 28 Feb. 1891, 5). Kit often embellished stories about herself but then created fictional figures or anecdotes that were closer representations of Coleman’s personal life. For example, Kit describes the somewhat sad life of a travelling salesman, his wife, and their two children, which closely resembled Coleman’s second husband Edward Watkins, (whom she had already separated from) and their two children. Yet, these stories give us a glimpse at the real woman behind the column as Coleman hints at her upbringing, personal life, and struggles. Furthermore, it is through the androgynous Kit that Coleman is allowed to cross boundaries in a socially restrictive Canadian/Victorian culture.


Writing under a pen name was not unique for journalists, especially for women journalists who struggled to maintain a respectable social standing and a career. Ruth Y. Jenkins describes how Victorian women “were faced with the twin desires to remain ‘appropriate’ and still enact their ‘inappropriate’ desires” and therefore, “felt compelled to masquerade their intentions or deflect criticism by maintaining a rigorous code of propriety” (17). Using a pseudonym also allowed Coleman the distance to maintain a proper motherly role in society, while still discussing “masculine” topics as Kit. However, that maternal role soon found its way in Coleman’s column as it acted as a protection when voicing the more controversial topics. Her motherly masquerade helped to conciliate both editors and readers, as Freeman explains, “The maternal aspect of the Kit persona was her saving grace in that it blunted the edge of her more forthright characteristics and helped to allay criticism of her as a woman writer. To be a success in journalism, it was necessary for her to attract and hold an audience without threatening their perceptions of women’s proper role” (40).  Coleman performed a feminine, maternal role so as not to appear threatening while continuing to discuss current affairs and social issues.


While I explore these issues in more depth in my thesis, using theorists such as Judith Butler and Jack Halberstam, I want to focus more on Kit’s interaction with readers here. Kit moves back and forth between claiming she was a woman and then, usually after getting angry with readers for continuing to question her gender, declares she might as well call herself a man. One reader, known as “Yankee Girl,” claimed she could not figure out if Kit was an old lady, a married woman with numerous children, a young girl, or even a man, saying, “Now, which are you anyway?” (Coleman, 30 May, 1891, 11). To which Kit coyly responds, “Asked with Yankee directness, answered with Irish adaptability. ‘Whichever you like best, my dear’” (Coleman 11).


Another example of a perplexed reader occurred after Kit described going on a fox hunt in Ireland. Near the end of the hunt, the mare Kit was riding refused a jump causing Kit to miss the end of the hunt and, consequently, curse at her horse. A few weeks later, a reader by the name “Resedas” responds to the story arguing that there was no way a woman would have cursed at her horse which proves Kit must be a man, saying, “I think you very talented, but the role you have assumed is rather transparent” (Coleman, 12 April 1890, 5; her emphasis). Kit replies first by declaring “all I can say is I had a good deal more satisfaction in using the forcible language I did than I would have had in calling my horse ‘a nasty horrid beast.’ That may be more womanlike, and ladylike, and proper, but one doesn’t feel very proper and ladylike when one has a sulky, bucking brute of a mare to manage” (Coleman 5). The tone then becomes flirtatious as Kit tells Resedas they are “too smart”. This type of response was common in Coleman’s columns as she seemed to enjoy flirting with some of her readers, when she was either not too annoyed with them, or not taking on a maternal tone.


Even the editor and cartoonist for The Toronto Daily Mail took part by creating a cartoon showing the faces of various people with the title reading “Which is Kit?” (1890) encouraging readers to guess who was behind the name. The uncertainty helped Coleman’s popularity and successes as readers continued to discuss and guess Kit’s gender. Gradually, though, readers seemed to accept that Kit was a woman and she began to call them her “paper children” while her tone became less flirtatious and more maternal. Kit also slowly began mentioning her own children within her column which helped to back the maternal persona. As I said earlier, Coleman had to appease her editors by writing on more feminine topics such as fashion and beauty despite her own desire to write more travel or controversial pieces.


Kathleen Coleman. Canada Archives
“Kathleen Blake Coleman.” The Carbon Studio, Library and Archives Canada, PA-164916, collectionscanada.gc.ca/pam_archives/index.php?fuseaction=genitem.displayItem&rec_nbr=3229235&lang=eng.

Nevertheless, there are various examples throughout Coleman’s career of her fighting the restrictive social constraints including creating a masculine character, “Autolycus” (a name with connections to Shakespeare) who wrote the section titled “Letters from the Pedlar” in the “Woman’s Kingdom.”. However, as Freeman tells us, this character did not last long due to being too similar to Kit’s voice (90).  Another insight into Coleman’s struggle with editors and escaping constraints is found in a poem within the column where the narrator (Coleman) grieves that they are no longer allowed to travel but instead forced to stay inside at their desk, “Ye have tied me down to the desk and the pen. The hurrying pen all day: But my heart is in the tents of the men, Who are roving far away…” (Coleman, 1 Feb. 1896, 5). After the paper merged into the Mail and Empire in 1895, Freeman explains that Coleman “skirmished with the new management … over the contents of her women’s page, with Kit insisting on keeping its intellectual content” (90). Coleman’s struggle with the editors of her paper seemed to have lasted throughout her time there as she was denied equal pay to her male peers and complains about her intense workload. Curiously, according to Freeman, when Coleman became a freelancer, she brought back “the Pedlar” for features in Canada Monthly where she continued to write about politics and crime (150). It is interesting that Coleman dropped the maternal performance once she left the Mail and Empire, but also, that she still felt the need to bring back the masculine persona “The Pedlar” to write about certain contentious or “masculine” topics.


While I am still in the process of researching Coleman’s writing, there is much to be said about her use of gender and voice and how they were perceived by her readers. But it is also important to remember the limitations surrounding Coleman in a much more conservative and restrictive culture. Coleman reshaped traditional gender roles in both her writing and her life. She continues to intrigue and confuse her readers as we attempt to understand her and her writing through more modern theories and analyse who Kit really is. Researching Coleman has been a captivating, enjoyable adventure. That being said, I feel obligated to warn anyone interested in researching Coleman. Her column is like a potato chip, it is not easy to read just one. However, what I can say is, while I might regret eating a whole bag of crisps, I have never regretted spending hours within the “Woman’s Kingdom”.

Works Cited

Coleman, Kathleen. “Woman’s Kingdom.” The Toronto Daily Mail, April 12, 1890, pp.5. Google News Archive

— “Woman’s Kingdom.” The Toronto Daily Mail, 28 Feb., 1891, pp. 5. Google News Archive

— “Woman’s Kingdom.” The Toronto Daily Mail, May 30, 1891, pp 5,11. Google News Archive

Coleman, Kathleen. “Woman’s Kingdom” The Daily Mail and Empire, 1 Feb. 1896, pp 5-6.         Google News Archive

Freeman, Barbara M. Kit’s Kingdom: The Journalism of Kathleen Blake Coleman. Carleton UP, 1989.

Jenkins, Ruth Y. “The Gaze of the Victorian Woman Traveler: Spectacles and Phenomena.” Siegel, Kristi, editor. Gender, Genre, & Identity in Women’s Travel Writing. Peter Lang Publishing, Inc., 2011.

Tara Giddens

Tara Giddens is a PhD candidate with the School of English, Irish, and Communication at the University of Limerick. Tara’s thesis, “Investigating the Irish New Woman: Tracing Journalists in Media and Fiction” compares the Irish New Woman journalist with her fictional counterpart between the 1880s and 1920s. Currently, she is focusing on Irish-Canadian journalist Kathleen “Kit” Coleman who performed her national and gender identity, to maintain readership, in her popular column the “Woman’s Kingdom”.
Tara received her BA in English, with an emphasis in Creative Writing, at Western Washington University, (Bellingham, WA) in 2009. In 2015, she completed her MA in Irish Literature at Maynooth University. After receiving the AHSS (Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences) Faculty PhD Teaching Fellowship in 2016, she started her PhD under the supervision of Dr Tina O’Toole.

Interested in submitting something to our blog? Email Dr Deirdre Flynn


Mary Ann Allingham: An Introduction

by Dr. Niamh Hamill


Will any one read my preface? (thought I to myself, as I sat down one evening with my Crow quill dipped in Indian ink in my fingers ready to begin an introductory page to my Friends . . . Will any one think it worthwhile to read a preface; not by an UNKNOWN AUTHOR (that would be, to be well known) but by an humble County Donegal Female. It was a stupefying thought, and the ink remained in the pen so long, that when my vanity decided that someone would read it: I was forced to clear the point of the congealed ink by my pen knife; and taking that as a lucky omen; here said I, “Female vanity, that sharp and never rusty knife, has cleared away those doubts and fears, Which ever buzz about poor authors’ ears.

—Mary Ann Allingham, Ballyshannon, 1833. [1]

Mary Ann Allingham was the aunt of Irish poet William Allingham. Part V coverTwo volumes of her poetry and travel writing were discovered in an archive in Norway and were the subject of my dissertation in 2015.

Some of Mary Ann’s material was published under a pseudonym, and much of it deals with her happiness and unhappiness as a woman and as an aspiring writer living in Donegal, and as a middle-class Protestant. Her sense of authority and confidence is unusual for women’s writing at that time, – and her sources of happiness and unhappiness lie, respectively, in her ambition to be a writer, and the obstacles that were inherent in her gender and position.

Mary Ann’s texts might be said to belong primarily to two literary genres, that of travel narrative, and poetry. However, it is more accurate to say that she has produced texts that share a central theme of a desire to locate herself more securely in a literary and physical landscape that is barely accessible. There is a constant tension between her impulse to investigate, learn, and share her experience of her world, and an understanding that she is to be betrayed by time and circumstances, irrespective of all her discoveries. Consciously or subconsciously, Mary Ann is consistently wandering through cultural spaces, trying to grasp a foothold. The travel narratives are a literal expression of this limited mobility, the poems and verses are the metaphorical version. There is much overlap and intertwining, but the negotiation is consistent and urgent.

Travel writing and poetry were probably the two most masculine provinces of nineteenth century literature. [2] Elizabeth Bohls defines the implied subject of mainstream aesthetic discourse as “a gentleman: a privileged man, educated and leisured, an actual or potential property owner.”[3] Nineteenth century women writers who took on the discourse of aesthetics in travel narratives had to devise strategies of expression. In the case of a Protestant women writer such as Mary Ann, she was entitled by class, but limited by gender, to the authority of the aesthetic subject. Her texts reflect these contradictions and restrictions.

A feature of women’s poetry, notable in the work of Dorothy Wordsworth, was the omission of “a central or prominent self” from texts.[4] Mary Ann Allingham does not absent herself from her poetry; in fact, her concerns are frequently emphasised over those of others.[5] Unlike many nineteenth century women writers, Mary Ann makes herself the subject of many poems. Mary Ann is not an introvert, and frequently counterpoints self-deprecation with surprisingly assertive alliances with great writers of the time.[6] Her texts were not meant to be private- she courted not just readership, but publication. To borrow from Levin, Mary Ann not only was a woman “passionately concerned with putting words together”, but equally ardent that her words would be read.[7] Perhaps her authority in her domestic situation, combined with her sense of Anglican superiority, and the absence of a father, or spouse (until 1833), allowed her a kind of freedom that was unavailable to other women. In any case, there is an undeniable sense of conviction, of needing to express her world in words and verse.

Nature is a force in Mary Ann’s poetry; she uses it to illustrate the passing of time and the transience of human experiences. She rarely locates her poems indoors; social interaction and the contemplation of relationships consistently takes place in a setting filled with the dynamic energy of the ocean, the river or the weather. [8]The coastal landscapes and volatile weather of Donegal are usually present to some degree. Her own domestic and artistic concerns are frequently verbalized in terms of chaotic movement, and an absence of control.

An impressive feature of Mary Ann’s writing is her ability to cast off the brittle and sensitive self of her personal poems and to appropriate an antithetic voice; one of strident authority and, frequently, a sense of humour and irony, absent from those just considered. As Mary Ann strays into the domain of traditional male concerns, she appropriates the male voice and seizes a narrative jurisdiction not normally associated with nineteenth century women. [9]Mary Ann appropriates this voice to a certain extent in the travel narratives, adopting the scientific tone typical of antiquarian investigation, but then frequently disrupting the male authoritative voice with digressions of dramatic reconstruction. Her single-themed poems that are not part of larger narratives are more tightly formed and self-contained, and demonstrate a competent reworking of cultural prerogatives reserved for men.

Some of Mary Ann’s poetry is clumsy and derivative, some of it is varied and contradictory, but as Elizabeth Bohls points out, “sustaining and expressing contradictions in writing was a strategy for female psychic survival.”[10] The poems are not a literary treasure-trove, but they are a find for the cultural historian, and for the scholar of nineteenth century women’s writing.

The poems are her pitch for a rooted place from which to write, but her literary peripateticism emphasizes her instability. Her plaintive pleas not to be forgotten are more than the loneliness of a Ballyshannon woman; they reflect a desperate desire to find an alternative to the surrendering of her writer-self.[11] The most explicit articulation of this theme is a poem titled ‘I’m Lonely! I’m Lonely’.[12]

Mary Ann introduces the poem as follows:

These lines were written on the removal of the last of Four Friends; the companions of my childhood: now all scattered away like thistle down, leaving the stem, still in the ground, lonely and desolate looking.

Each verse opens with the title phrase, so explicit in its forlornness, that it is uncomfortable to read.

I'm lonely! – I'm lonely!No Friends of Youth are nearThe music of their voicesComes not now upon mine ear'Tis but the falling water,And the sighing wind I hear.I'm lonely – I'm lonel


Her nostalgia is also a metaphor for the condition of Irish identity; Ulster, always the fault-line of the British-Irish relationship, is, like Mary Ann’s childhood, a landscape of remnants and flashes of a past that cannot be recaptured. She, (as many future Irish poets will do), ignores the ugly present and takes solace in the things that have remained constant; the flowing River Erne, the sunsets, and the ebb and flow of the ocean.

Mary Ann Allingham wrote without the benefit of a female literary tradition. The only “grandmothers” were legendary figures like Grace O’Malley or Walter Scott’s heroines.[13]  Her search for female models to legitimize “her own rebellious endeavors” was fruitless; there were few, if any, literary precursors and her bitter disappointment in the failure of her contemporaries to test the boundaries of social behavior is evident throughout her work. [14]

In her travel narratives, she refocuses the gaze of her literary predecessors by replacing the language of utility with imaginative and dramatic reconstructions. She recognizes that the Irish architectural ruin is the absorption of history into nature, and she recovers history for the reader by repopulating the deserted castles, caves and coves with heroes and heroines from the Irish past.[15] In doing so, she pushes beyond a discourse of imperialistic calculation to a more romantic contemplation of “the days that are gone.” [16] In  her ‘Excursion to Donegal’, published in 1829, she writes;

an excursion to donegalThe castle of Donegal is a very beautiful, and if I may say so, perfect ruin of large extent. Through a gloomy vault you ascend, by a dark and spiral flight of steps, to a large room, lighted by three or four Gothic windows, commanding a noble view of Donegal bay, and the Killybegs Mountains. In this room are two fire-places, one of which has a curious mantle-piece of stone, of great breadth and height, carved with the O’Donnell arms and various other figures. The castle has evidently been much higher than it is now, as there is a range of windows and fire places above this room; but the flooring is quite gone, and the roof also…

She interrupts the narrative for some of her own verses, reflecting on the history of this place;

A dull, yet pretty place,
Where stands the ancient ruined hall
Of the O’Donnell race
But time’s destroying hand rude falls
Upon the castle old;
And black and silent are its walls,
Once graced by heroes bold,
Oh! Who could climb its rude staircase
Or from its window gaze,
Or see its sculptured chimney-place,
Where once bright fires did blaze,
And think not of the busy feet
That scaled the steps so high;
To look upon the prospect sweet
Of ocean, mountain, sky.
Nor think of winter’s merry night,
How laugh and song went round;
How beam’d the eye with rapture bright,
With harps and bagpipes sound.
Now in the dust unknown they lie,
Gone is their once proud fame,
And wandering strangers, such as I,
Sigh oe’r O’Donnell’s name.[17]

Her poetry is uneven in quality and often frustratingly forced. This may not be simply because of a lack of natural talent. Terence Brown describes much of late eighteenth-century Ulster writing as “frozen in statuesque Augustan impotence”[18] Some of the awkward phrasing may be due to the influence of folksongs and balladry.[19]

The texts of Mary Ann Allingham are also important for the insight they provides into social and historical conditions of the early nineteenth century. Her texts contradict a current polemical cultural interpretation of the Protestant-Catholic relationship in Ulster. She demonstrates that antiquarianism was not only the pursuit of the intellectual. She presents, in her epigraphs and footnotes, proof that writing was not a solitary project, and that she identified with other poets, “with a tradition or knowable community.” [20]

She never seems timid about her vocation; she addresses publishers, correspondents and friends as a woman writer, and with a degree of confidence that is, at the very least, an impressive attempt to confront whatever anxieties lurked under the surface. Mary Ann ’s texts verify many feminist assumptions of the nineteenth century poetess, but some of her work challenges these concepts. This in itself is a good reason for reading her.

References and further reading

She was a poetess : the world of Mary Ann Allingham 1820-1836

by Niamh Hamill PhD


Allingham, Hugh. Ballyshannon, Its History and Antiquities with Some Account of the the Surrounding Neighbourhood. Ballyshannon: Donegal Democrat Ltd, 1937.

Allingham, William. William Allingham: A Diary. London: Macmillan and Co. Ltd, 1907

Blain, Virginia. “Women Poets and the Challenge of Genre.” In Women and Literature in Britain 1800-1900, 162-188. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001

Bohls, Elizabeth A. Women Travel Writers and the Language of Aesthetics, 1716-1818. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004.

Campbell, Matthew. Irish Poetry under the Union, 1801-1924. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2013.

Gilbert, Sandra M.and Gubar, Susan.  The Madwoman in the Attic: The Woman Writer and the Nineteenth-Century Literary Imagination. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2000).

Haberstroh, Patricia Boyle. Opening the Field: Irish Women: Texts and Contexts. Cork, Ireland: Cork University Press, 2007.

Hagan, Linda M. “The Ulster-Scots and the ‘Greening’ of Ireland: A PrecariousBelonging?” In Affecting Irishness: Negotiating Cultural Identity within and Beyond the Nation, 2, 71-88. Oxford: Peter Lang, 2009.

Hill, M and D Hempton. “Women and Protestant Minorities in Eighteenth-Century Ireland.” In Women in Early Modern Ireland, 160-178. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1991.

Homans, Margaret Womn Writers and Poetic Identity Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1980.

Horner, Avril and Sue Zlosnik. Landscapes of Desire: Metaphors in Modern Women’s Fiction. London: Harvester, 1990.

Jackson, Virginia. “The Poet as Poetess.” In The Cambridge Companion to Nineteenth Century American Poetry, 54-75. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2011.

Levin, Susan M. Dorothy Wordsworth and Romanticism. Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland and Company, Inc., 2009.

Romanticism and Feminism, Edited by Anne K. Mellor. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1988.

Sage, Lorna, Germaine Greer and Elaine Showalter. The Cambridge Guide to Women’s Writing in English. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999.

Vincent, Patrick H. The Romantic Poetess: European Culture, Politics, and Gender, 1820-1840 (Lebanon: University of New Hampshire, 2004),

Niamh Hamill

Dr. Niamh Hamill is a lecturer in Irish history and literature. In 2015, her work She was a poetess- the world of Mary Ann Allingham 1820-1836 was awarded the Drew University prize for best interdisciplinary doctoral dissertation. Niamh is the Director of the Institute of Study Abroad Ireland, an organization that provides educational study trips for American schools, colleges and universities in Donegal. Niamh is also the director of the Drew University Transatlantic Connections Conference, which takes place in Bundoran each January. Her work is focused on promoting the history and culture of Donegal to a global audience.

If you would like to feature your research on our blog please email Dr Deirdre Flynn.


[1] Forward to Songbook V.

[2] Elizabeth A. Bohls, Women Travel Writers and the Language of Aesthetics, 1716-1818 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004), 3.

[3] Ibid, 18.

[4] Margaret Homans, Women Writers and Poetic Identity (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1980),   71-73

[5] Margaret Crawford’s wedding, for example, ‘Verses to Margaret Crawford IV3).

[6] See Homans, 73.

[7] Susan M. Levin, Dorothy Wordsworth and Romanticism (Jefferson, North Carolina, and London: McFarland and Company, Inc., 2009), 9.

[8] Stuart Curran draws attention to the association of the term ‘poetess’ with indoor space and domestic preoccupation. British poet Alfred Lord Tennyson was criticised for his ‘feminine’ tendencies; – “Tennyson, we cannot live in art”. Curran explains, “He was, in essence, demanding that his friend forsake the female space of enclosure, fantasy and long-past ages for a contemporary and necessarily masculine outdoors.” Stuart Curran, “Women Readers, Woman Writers,” in The Cambridge Companion to British Romanticism, ed. Stuart Curran(Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993), 182.

[9] There are few comparisons of political writing like this by early nineteenth century women.  Helen Maria Williams (c1761-1827) writes about the French Revolution in A narrative of the Events Which have Taken Place in France (1815). See Nineteenth Century Women Poets (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1998), 74.

[10] Bohls, 21.

[11] Patricia Howell Michaelson, Speaking Volumes : Women, Reading, and Speech in the Age of Austen (Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 2002), 29.

[12] Part IV LEGENDS – STORIES – POEMS no.24

[13] Karen O’Brien writes that the work of Walter Scott, among others, nurtured an idea of womanly affinity with tradition and cultural heritage. Karen O’Brien, Women and Enlightenment in Eighteenth-Century Britain (Cambridge, UK; New York: Cambridge University Press, 2009), 203.

[14] See Sandra M. Gilbert and Susan Gubar, The Madwoman in the Attic : The Woman Writer and the Nineteenth-Century Literary Imagination (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2000), 48-50.

[15] Hugh O’ Donnell IV22, Grace O’ Malley (Granna Uille) V8, Fin Mc Cool IV1.

[16] Mary Ann Allingham, ‘The Days that are gone’ published in The Ballyshannon Herald, 1831.

[17] From ‘An Excursion to Donegal’, Dublin Family Magazine, September 1829.

[18] Terence Brown quoted in Frank Ferguson, “The Third Character: The Articulation of Scottish Identities in Two Irish Writers,” in Across the Water: Ireland and Scotland in the Nineteenth Centrury, ed. Frank Ferguson and James McConnell (Dublin: Four Courts Press, 2010), 65.

[19] Andrew Carpenter notes that pamphlets and broad sheets of the 1700s also often used the Irish ‘amhrán’ or song meter “which meant that they would sometimes choose a word more for its sound or metrical value than for its meaning.” Andrew Carpenter, “Poetry in English, 1690-1800,” in The Cambridge History of Irish Literature, ed. Margaret Kelleher and Philip O’ Leary (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006), 305.

[20] Patrick H. Vincent, The Romantic Poetess: European Culture, Politics, and Gender, 1820-1840 (Lebanon: University of New Hampshire, 2004), 191.

Tracking ‘Norah’

Dr Lindsay Janssen

20180227_091918.jpgAt various occasions during the past few years, people have asked me why a Dutch Indonesian like myself is working in the field of Irish studies; where is the connection? Where does the appeal come from? Indeed, until ten years ago, I had virtually no bond to Ireland, its history, or its literature. However, that all changed when I was a graduate student: through courses on cultural memory and identity theory, I found my way to a course on Irish literature of the Great Irish Famine, wrote my MA thesis about Irish and Irish-American literature and did a Ph.D. on literary representations of the Great Irish Famine. What already fascinated me as a student and continues to captivate my attention, is how the Irish-diasporic community serves as an exemplary case for the workings of cultural identity formation under duress and for the fluidity and resourceful adaptability often considered typical to diasporic communities.

Today, I am an Irish Research-Council funded postdoctoral fellow at University College Dublin studying the Irish and Irish North-American periodical markets from the mid-nineteenth until the early twentieth centuries. When considering those markets there is so much left to excavate, that it can feel as if you are constantly digging for treasure. As with pirates and beach combers, the hunt is not always successful; sometimes you spend days leafing through pages and pages of questionable fiction (swooning damsels, badly rendered brogue, convoluted plotlines and beastly borrowings), bad jokes (why did lousy humour so often find its way onto the pages of the periodical?) and vehement letters to the editor, without finding any interesting material, or even just some good reading. However, at other times, you find little gems – and the exciting thing is that, if you are navigating the more obscure corners of the vast terrain of Anglophone periodicals, it is often the case that no other academic has gotten their hands on it yet.

My quest for Margaret Dixon McDougall’s newspaper writings fits in that line. My engagement with her work happened in reverse order and started some seven years ago when I first read her The Days of A Life (Almonte: W. Templeman, 1883), a novel about the smaller famine and contemporaneous Land War. In it, “Norah” (McDougall’s pen name) draws several parallels between the Ireland of the late 1870s and early 1880s, and the time of the Great Irish Famine. The book itself – considered from the perspective of a scholar who has read too much popular fiction by those who strove to be the next Charles Dickens, Rosa Mulholland or (even) Mary Anne Sadlier, but would never rise to those heights – is not especially noteworthy. Do not get me wrong: The Days of a Life is not a bad novel, it simply fits many literary conventions of its time a bit too well. If you love your entangled plotlines, endless exaltations of the Irish landscape, and heartfelt but melodramatic interjections by the young main character, this is certainly the book for you.

However, before this blog sounds like a bashing of McDougall, I have to stress that I respect her work as a journalist and a writer. For me, studying The Days of a Life as a Ph.D candidate signified the inroads into McDougall’s fascinating work that inspired the novel. McDougall was born into a conservative Hiberno-Scotch family in Belfast 1826. She emigrated to Canada and also lived in the U.S., where she died in Seattle in 1899.[i] She was a school teacher for some time, and also worked as a journalist. In 1881, The Montreal Witness sent McDougall to Ireland to act as a special correspondent. Over the course of the year, the paper published close to sixty letters penned by McDougall. In 1882, sufficient money was raised by public subscription to combine the letters into a collection, which was published through The Witness’ office as The Letters of “Norah” on her Tour Through Ireland. Being a Series of Letters to the Montreal “Witness” as Special Correspondent to Ireland. After this, McDougall reworked the letters into her work of fiction, the aforementioned The Days of a Life. In contrast to the later novel, the letters show a more personal and experimental approach, in line with the contemporary New Journalism or Literary Journalism. The sentimentalism and romanticism of the novel are as yet largely absent in the letters, and alternations between fact and invention, between direct, indirect and free indirect discourse grace McDougall’s writing. From a narratological perspective, this makes the letters more innovative, generically diffuse, and, I dare say, more interesting than the conventional work of fiction they would later spawn.

In the capacity of correspondent, McDougall joined a longer line of illustrious commentators – Asenath Nicholson, James Hack Tuke, William O’Brien, James Redpath and John Millington Synge – who traversed Ireland and explored its people’s predicament for both a home and larger audience. The reports of American, British and Irish provenance and their authors enumerated above have been studied in quite some detail by scholars such as John McKivigan, Christopher Morash and Maureen Murphy. By contrast, McDougall’s work as a special correspondent for a Canadian publication has not found its way to the academic limelight yet, save the odd remark I made about it in my dissertation ‘Famine Traces’ (Radboud University, 2016)[ii], and an insightful discussion by Cecilia Morgan in her book A Happy Holiday: English-Canadians and Transatlantic Tourism, 1870–1930 (U of Toronto P, 2008), where McDougall’s collected letters are the focus of a chapter section. As Andrew Griffiths argues in The New Journalism, the New Imperialism and the Fiction of Empire, 1870–1900 (Palgrave Macmillan, 2015), the special correspondent was considered a journalist of relatively high standing at the time.[iii] This suggests that McDougall’s (journalistic) writings had inspired admiration before she would become the travelling correspondent. This awareness coupled with the worth of her Letters as social documentary, provides a case for additional scholarly attention.

Although McDougall was hired by a Montreal paper (her collection was published by that same paper), and her novel was published by Ontario-based William Templeman, her work had a wider reach, beyond Canada’s borders, as the letters were also printed in The New York Witness. Additionally, the collected Letters contains a list of public subscribers; the majority are from Canada, but the list also mentions a subscriber from Paris (France), and from Nebraska (U.S.), suggesting that issues of The Montreal Witness, at least some of those containing McDougall’s letters, were read outside of Canada.

Morgan explores McDougall’s letters from the perspective of travel writing and social commentary, and uses the collected letters as a solitary document; a valid approach, as the author and publisher consciously made the decision to republish the letters as a stand-alone work. (And the Letters can be found on Archive.org – a facile, but candid acknowledgement on my part. It is at least where I first found her novel and collection years ago.) As part of my current research project, I focus on how McDougall represents Ireland’s past and its long shadow in the 1880s; as her narrator would comment while contemplating the cyclical pattern of hardship inherent to rural Ireland in The Days of a Life: “It is strange how history repeats itself”.[iv] I read McDougall’s letters in the context of the larger publication in which they first appeared – The Montreal Witness. That the newspaper considered the letters as important material is evident: in both the daily and weekly editions, they appeared on the early pages of each issue, amidst national and international telegraph messages and news reports. The Witness was not an ethnic-Irish newspaper, and was not very tolerant of the Catholic religion. In fact, while in the prospectus of its first issue, the (ardently Protestant) editor John Dougall would profess a non-sectarian and pan-religious intent,[v] antipathy towards French and Irish Catholics in Canada was incorporated in The Witness’ pages to such an extent that Bishop of Montreal Ignace Bourget even placed an ecclesiastical ban on the paper in 1875.[vi] Despite the newspaper’s religious convictions, The Witness did incorporate Irish material (both fiction and non-fiction) on a daily basis in the early 1880s. The Witness was pro-Empire, in favour of (existing) individual property rights and critical of the Land League and its key players, including IPP leader Charles Stewart Parnell. In that respect, the inclusion of McDougall’s letters in the paper demonstrates an act of editorial broad-mindedness – or, perhaps (when seen from the perspective of readership numbers), business acumen. While McDougall was also pro-Empire and believed in the improvement of the Irish labourer’s lot through legislative reform, in her letters, the self-professed “enthusiastic Irishwoman”[vii] does not hide her admiration for the Parnells (she proudly writes that people repeatedly mistake her for Anna Parnell, leader of the Ladies Land League, Irish nationalist and sister of the more famous Charles Stewart[viii]) and sides with the Irish poor rather than the land-holding upper classes.

Exploring the Irish transatlantic publication market, I find myself very thankful for research libraries and archives with open digitisation policies, of which the Canadian digital archives of the Bibliothèque et Archives Nationales du Québec (BAnQ) and Canadiana’s Early Canadiana Online (ECO) are prime examples.[ix] These databases have proven invaluable sources, bringing a wealth of Canadian source material to my desk, and providing it at a high quality at that. Nevertheless, amidst this abundance there is a hitch: the pages of The Witness have been digitised as image rather than text files. With the risk of sounding like a bellyacher in an age when you can go through obscure materials from across the globe at your heart’s content and “Control+F” is the academic’s way of speed-dialling your research data, working with image files means that you still have to go through full newspapers in search of useful material. In other words, you end up with the digital version of squint-eyed, old-school archival research, but, granted, in the comfort of your own office or study. While these remarks are of course made with the necessary dose of jest, it does mean that in my individual case, it still is not possible to do what Franco Moretti termed “distant reading”, or to process enormous amounts of data by yourself, and consequently pair that distant view with the “close reading” in which we literary scholars have all been trained.

Through my current research, I hope to give more prominence to McDougall’s journalistic work, which can be considered a typical but also revealing attempt at instilling readerly engagement with a cultural group’s current conditions through deploying its fraught past – a parallel with the larger workings of cultural memory formation. Moreover, her work is exemplary of the balancing act between journalistic (supposedly factual) and creative (supposedly fictional) representations common to the then very popular medium of the periodical. And luckily, despite my previous complaints, I have no qualms with going through digital archives, getting my hands on as much material as I humanly can, and, in the case of my digging through McDougall’s work, to explore my digital finds with the traditional tools of the literary scholar’s trade.

Dr Lindsay Janssen is affiliated to University College Dublin’s School of English, Drama and Film, where she is working on her two-year project ‘Nodes of Memory: A Study of the Uses of Famine Recollections in Irish Transatlantic Periodical Culture, 1860–1923’. Her research is funded by a Government of Ireland Postdoctoral Fellowship (GOIPD) from the Irish Research Council. She also teaches classes on literature and cultural theory from the nineteenth century until the present at Emerson College’s European Centre (Well, the Netherlands). Her article ‘Diasporic identifications: exile, nostalgia and the Famine past in Irish and Irish North-American popular fiction, 1871–1891’ will be published in Irish Studies Review in 2018.

If you would like to submit a blog post contact Dr Deirdre Flynn

[i] ‘McDougall, Margaret Dixon’, author entry, in Rolf Loeber and Magda Loeber, with Anne Mullin Burnham, eds, A Guide to Irish Fiction 1650–1900 (Dublin: Four Courts Press, 2004); electronic version created by An Foras Feasa, 2012 (http://www.lgif.ie, accessed 23 Feb. 2018; the site’s temporary location is http://lgif1.ucd.ie/).

[ii] See 119–28. A freely accessible digital version van be found at the Radboud Repository: http://repository.ubn.ru.nl/handle/2066/155659.

[iii] See Griffith’s chapter 1, ‘Most Extraordinary Careers: Special Correspondents and the News Narrative’.

[iv] 418.

[v] The Montreal Witness, Weekly Review and Family Newspaper (15 dec. 1845), 1. All material from The Witness has been accessed through the BAnQ Númerique website: http://numerique.banq.qc.ca/.

[vi] J. G. Snell, ‘DOUGALL, JOHN,’ in Dictionary of Canadian Bibliography Vol 11 (Toronto: University of Toronto/ Université Laval, 2003–). <http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/dougall_john_11E.html&gt;, accessed 7 Febr. 2018.

[vii] ‘A Tour Through Ireland’, The Montreal Daily Witness (14 May, 1881), 2.

[viii] ‘A Tour Through Ireland’, The Montreal Daily Witness (16 May, 1881), 2.

[ix] http://www.banq.qc.ca/ and http://eco.canadiana.ca/.

Single Lives 2017 – Single Feminisms

By Katinka Wilmink, University College Dublin

Overview of Conference:

singlellivesposterThe Single Lives Conference was held at the Humanities Institute at University College Dublin in October 2017. The two-day conference gathered a broad range of international academics and explored the evolving phenomenon of the single women from the 19th century until the present-day. Literature and popular media by, about, and for single women were analyzed to discuss a variety of principal themes, such as race, sexuality, class, family, political movements, and labor. In recent years, there has been an increasing interest in singlehood, particularly in terms of what it means to be a socially, politically, and sexually active single person. As Singleness Studies take a firm hold in the academic field, this conference provided academics the opportunity to collaborate and exchange multiple disciplinary perspectives on single women.

“The Single Feminisms” panel focused on the recovery and revival of independent women in history, acknowledging and detailing their accomplishments. Panelists introduced individual single women, or previously overshadowed single women, in order to draw them into contemporary critical conversations, concentrating specifically on the contemporary circumstances of their (voluntary) singlehood and their cultural and political accomplishments. It is important to mark the plurality of feminism in this panel, as a range of critical approaches (literature, historical, psychological) were utilised.  


“Troubled Houses: Rosamond Jacob and the Birth of Modern Ireland”

Emma Radley, assistant professor at University College Dublin, opened the panel with her talk on Rosamond Jacob, a woman who is often relegated to the status of a footnote in the history of Frank Ryan, an Irish socialist republican. Radley makes clear that Jacob was in fact much more than Ryan’s mistress; Jacob was an activist in her own right. In her diaries we see a struggle with the ideal of femininity, a writer conflicted with a tension between art and intellect, proper and improper. Jacob never married but confidently embraces her sexuality, describing Ryan “like a lovely big black cat” in a diary entry. Jacob documents this sexualized form of femininity and womanhood as “Other’ to the traditional Irish mammy in her 1938 novel The Troubled House. Radley further expands Irish history by tying in the oppressive nature of women’s experience in history to that in Irish mythology, specifically the Morrigan. A female warrior and liminal figure, the Morrigan is often overshadowed by her male peers such as Culcullan. Radley, however, is reshaping and expanding Irish history by justly bringing single women’s experiences into the picture. This is relevant to the Irish Women’s Writing Network, which aims to recover the lives and work of Irish women between 1880 and 1910.


“Singleness as a Choice: The Case of the First Estonian Feminist Lilli Suburg (1841-1923)”

Eve Annuk of the Estonian Literary Museum brings another feminist to the foreground, writer and journalist Lilli Suburg. Single by choice, Suburg made a series of very unusual choices in mid-nineteenth century Estonia. Annuk has come to understand Suburg’s character through her diary, which she kept for 30 years. In addition to the school Suburg established for free-minded young girls, she founded Linda magazine. This was the first feminist magazine in Estonia. It covered critical accounts of everything Suburg read, including the vast differences in progress for women between Estonia and America. In an 1891 essay titled “Marriage,” Suburg defended marriage based on mutual love, promoting equal partnership in which the binary gender spheres are deconstructed. Suburg also defended women like herself, who chose to remain single, noting the importance of their work in households and schools. Annuk comments on how Suburg was deeply criticized and mocked for her single feminism, gaining recognition for her actions at a much older age. The evolution of her social reception is clearly exemplified in Annuk’s discussion as Estonia’s public view of Suburg shifted from that of contempt to commemoration.


“Sister Spinster: Placing Catharine Sedgwick in Contemporary Conversations about Singlehood”

Deborah Gussman from Stockton University chose to focus her talk on Catherine Sedgwick, novelist, spinster, and observer of single womanhood. Gussman remarked on the significance of Sedgwick’s work to locate other values and roles for single women in order to deconstruct the stigma of singlehood. Sedgewick particularly achieved this through her 1857 novel about women outside marriage, Married or Single. Two of the primary female characters are Martha, an old maid who serves as a symbol of the cult of single blessedness, and Julia, a young singleton who dedicates her life to charity work. Gussman turns to the absence of race when discussing feminism as she tells of how Harriet Wilson specifically responded to Sedgwick’s work in 1859 with her own text, “Our Nig: Sketches from the Life of a Free Black.” Wilson conveys an abandonment storyline in which fallen women are devoid of any support and the only resolution posited is escape through death. Gussman clearly stressed the importance of intersectionality when discussing single feminisms.


“Single and African American in Antebellum America: Being an Activist without the Shield of Motherhood”

Susan Stanfield from the University of Texas, El Paso, highlighted the significance of African-American writers during the antebellum period, focusing on black women. She focused on the ways in which their work advanced and celebrated black womanhood, which challenged the notion of womanhood being associated with white middle-class women. Stanfield concentrated on two women: Sarah Forten and Sarah Douglas. Both women were leading figures in the African-American community as abolitionist activists and writers, publishing their work in various newspapers and magazines. Douglas also founded a girls’ school, offering higher branches of knowledge for young women. Both women amplified the black women’s voices, which contemporary scholars continue to do.

For more information on the new Single Lives Research Cluster click here.singlelives

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Teaching Charlotte Riddell’s Irish Gothic Fiction

Dr Dara Downey


23201684_10156865648819546_1044169512_nAbout a year ago, I found myself (in a situation that will be familiar to many scholars) teaching far outside my comfort zone. I am first and foremost an Americanist, and, rightly or wrongly, have spent much of my career carefully avoiding what often seems to me to be the ideologically and emotionally fraught terrain of Irish literature in general, and of the Anglo-Irish Revival in particular. This time around, however, it was unavoidable, though thankfully, the system then in place where I was working meant that the second-year seminars I was teaching needed only a very broad association with the accompanying lectures.


In addition to focusing on American literature, I am also a gothicist, and with Halloween looming, this struck me as an ideal opportunity to gain a better understanding of the gothic fiction of my native land. Some of the choices for a course on fin-de-siècle Irish gothic were reasonably obvious – Oscar Wilde, J. Sheridan Le Fanu, Bram Stoker (though, worrying that the course might not seem Irish enough, I set The Snake’s Pass rather than Dracula, with rather mixed results), Elizabeth Bowen, and a few poems by William Allingham and W.B. Yeats (in an effort to integrate the darker aspects of the folklore revival – in other words, I wanted some scary fairies). My students responded well to many of the texts, and even to my efforts to steer them towards issues relating to national and transnational identities, mythologies, and conflicts, though they found the Stoker interminably dull, and I can’t say I blamed them. While the class politics and religious dynamics in The Snake’s Pass are interesting in places, the conjunction of long passages on land surveying, cringe-inducing stage Irishness, and sickly sentimentality makes Stoker’s early novel rather hard going.


Far more enjoyable and successful, both as a pedagogical experience and as part of my own ongoing research into neglected women writers, was the week we spent on Charlotte Riddell’s ghost stories. Again, feeling a bit self-conscious about my lack of expertise on Irish writing, I made sure that the stories we focused on (“Hertford O’Donnell’s Warning” (1874), “The Uninhabited House” (1875), and “The Last of Squire Ennismore” (1888)) were as explicitly related to the overall module concerns as possible. Nonetheless, Riddell’s own biography seemed to be a source of concern to my students, who I suspect were as anxious as I was to ensure that these stories were “really” Irish. Riddell was born Charlotte Cowen in Carrigfergus in 1832; the family were quite well off, until her father suffered a breakdown of some kind and left them penniless during his lifetime, and even worse off after his death. Charlotte and her mother moved to London, where her mother died shortly after, and where Charlotte married Joseph Hadley Riddell, an unsuccessful businessman. Like many women authors in the nineteenth century (and indeed since), Charlotte Riddell effectively kept the family afloat with her writing during the mid-1800s, and indeed her work proved reasonably popular. On her husband’s death in 1880, however, Riddell was again left penniless, a situation exacerbated by the fact that her writing failed to keep pace with rapidly changing tastes and manners.


Her life was therefore characterised by two major themes – the need to provide for her 23146151_10156865652199546_681954074_nfamily through writing when the men in her life proved unable to do so, and the loss of close family members. The combination of sharply felt grief and the need to make money in a hurry is perhaps one reason for the fact that so many women writers in the second half of the nineteenth century turned to a genre that has enduring commercial appeal and that often deals closely and explicitly with loss and mourning – the ghost story. Mary Elizabeth Braddon and Margaret Oliphant both turned to uncanny tales as a means of financial support, as did many of Riddell’s contemporaries in America, including Louisa May Alcott, Elia W. Peattie, and Charlotte Perkins Gilman, and later, Shirley Jackson. At the same time, these writers also employ the genre as a vehicle for expressing a range of emotions in the face of death, decay, and the unpredictability of life, as well as for critiquing the status quo and its deleterious effects on women’s lives.


Interestingly, however, despite Riddell’s place within this tradition of women’s writing acting as a means of supporting less successful men who, according to social dictates, should be the main earners in the family, the stories I chose to focus on for class by Riddell all in fact filtered through male viewpoints – though this does not mean that her stories aren’t critical of hegemonic masculinity. This is particularly evident in “Hertford O’Donnell’s Warning,” which is, in many respects, a tale of male loss and grief. The eponymous protagonist is an Irishman who has been living in London, where he works as a surgeon. A series of strange noises and disturbing dreams drive him to the hospital in the middle of the night, where we learn that he had a lover in Ireland who he was forced to abandon, while she was pregnant, as the result of a family feud. The wail of the banshee has, somehow, reunited him with his son just as the latter is dying from a terrible fall, but rather than finding some way to comfort (or apologies to!) the mother, who is clearly poor and destitute, and now also bereaved, O’Donnell leaves her once again and marries an heiress to whom he confesses everything, and who seems to heal his troubled soul. This denouement both troubles and clarifies the earlier sections of the story, which dwell on the Irishman’s attractive appearance, solitary manner, dissolute ways, and universal popularity at the hospital. While the narration is succinct and merely reports, rather than commenting on, these somewhat incompatible descriptions, the train of events would suggest that Riddell’s tale carefully balances a desire to arouse readerly sympathy for this man and his regrets with a strident critique of the behaviour of privileged men in London, and its repercussions for Irish womanhood.


Despite my best efforts, my students were reluctant to be drawn into a discussion on toxic masculinity, and instead latched on to issues around hybrid, emigrant Irish identities, and that was that. Even less successful was our discussion of “The Last of Squire Ennismore,” which began and ended with brief assertions from the classes about Irish Catholic superstition and bad landlords. The economic aspects, however, seemed to grip their imaginations far more firmly when we came to the somewhat longer piece “The Uninhabited House,” my personal favourite of the three (perhaps I was unconsciously influencing them here). They eagerly picked up on the concerns with money and legal matters throughout the stories, and I tried my best to steer them towards thinking about how these are worked into gothic plots in the stories, and particularly in “The Uninhabited House.” The novella revolves around a court case relating to a house in London that its owners – an elderly, unmarried, comically haughty Irish woman with a strained English accent, and her beautiful young niece – claim is haunted, and that gives the lawyers who manage it no end of headaches. This, at any rate, seems to be the reason why tenants repeatedly run out of the place, leaving the two women penniless. A young clerk, one of the few “nice guys” in these stories, sets out to discover the truth of what’s going on in the place, and ultimately, dark deeds are brought to light.


For my classes, this was what they had been after – a reasonably clear allegory for the relationship between Britain and Ireland at the end of the nineteenth century. Ireland, my students asserted confidently, was the uninhabited house, an awkward, troublesome, slightly embarrassing asset, riddled with the ghosts of past violence and neglect, something the English didn’t quite know what to do with. It also helped that, like Wilde’s “The Canterville Ghost,” “The Uninhabited House” provided them with a feisty young heroine who knows her own mind, and a satisfying marriage plot to round things off. Of course, there is far more to the text than this, but for one fifty-minute class, it worked beautifully, and everyone was happy.


If I had the opportunity to do this again, I would cover the short stories one week and the novella the next, and maybe even organise an entire course on women writers with connections to Ireland from the middle of the nineteenth century to the middle of the twentieth – Braddon as well as Daphne du Maurier and Dorothy Macardle would seem to be ideal for something along these lines, and I’m sure there are many more I haven’t come across yet. What I really learnt from the experience, though, is that, while there may be some resistance to new things, students can respond well to moving beyond the Wilde-Stoker-Yeats monopoly on Irish writing, and that the overtly “feminine” concerns often dealt with by women writers – from marriage and family matters to abandonment, poverty, and grief – can be just as useful (if not more so) for helping students engage with Ireland’s troubled past and present.

Dr Dara Downey

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