Noêlle Ffrench Davies: A Transnational Irish Polymath

S Morgan

Dr Noêlle Ffrench Davies

Dr. Noēlle Davies (1889-1983), née Ffrench, of Mount Talbot, Co. Roscommon, was a 20th Century intellectual, educationist, litterateur and political activist across Ireland, Wales, Denmark and Europe. Her story is largely unexplored. Using transnational sources, we can trace and assemble her 50 years’ intellectual output. This has four strands: her life-long commitment to education that was both practical and national; seminal intellectual and political collaboration building a modern Welsh nationalism with her husband, Dr. D.J. (‘Dai’) Davies (1893-1956); her own transnational political writings; and Noëlle’s personal literary output. It is argued here that much was founded during her formative years in pre-1925 Ireland. This is revealed in her unpublished mémoire[1], DJD: Some Memories of Our Life Together;[2] sources in her National Library of Wales archive and others in Dublin and Roscommon which allow the framing of a biography of this ‘Irish university woman’ who became atypical through her transnationalism. Her pioneering work on the theory and practice of education is the direct result of personal experiences as an ecumenical, nationalist, Protestant, woman teacher challenged by the hegemony of denominational schooling in the Irish Free State. She attempted to build an alternative throughout her life. In Wales, she’s known as co-author with Dai of economic policy during the foundational years of the Welsh Nationalist Party.[3] New research reveals that she was in fact Dai’s co-collaborator, even co-author, of almost all ‘his’ works.[4] He had been appointed as the Party’s ‘Research Department’ in 1930, yet it was, in reality, a joint appointment. Dai confirmed this after writing ‘his’ first book for the Party in 1931, “She could lecture on Economics and almost any other of my subjects, if necessary, as we have largely studied them together”.[5] Her Irish nationalism – applied transnationally – permeated her own political writings along the broad themes of the freedom of small nations against imperial hegemony, international order, national heroes and the fusion of political, literary and ethical approaches.[6] The more literary of the couple, Noëlle wrote romantic and ‘country’ poetry from a young age. Many unpublished, her works, including literary criticism appeared in magazines across Great Britain and Ireland.[7] Her first collection appeared in the mid-1930s with more works later published by the Welsh Nationalist Party as part of its engagement with the new school of Anglo-Welsh writing.[8] Her return to Ireland after Dai’s death intensified her literary activity. Yet she is not included in the standard anthologies of Irish women writers.[9]


Her pre-1925 life prefigures most of her later activities. Born into a comfortably-off farming family at Mount Talbot, Co. Roscommon, as a typical female middle-class Protestant Episcopalian with the financial means to do so, she boarded at the French School in Bray, Co. Wicklow – which she later described as “rather prim and old-fashioned” – from 1914 to 1918, then attended Trinity College, Dublin, graduating with a double-first in Classics & Modern Languages in 1922 and gaining its diploma in education a year later. A gifted undergraduate, in addition to many term prizes and distinctions, she was awarded the title of Non-Foundation Scholar in 1922 and the Vice Chancellor’s Literary Prize. Noëlle was active in student affairs, holding office in the Elizabethan Society and Dublin University Student Christian Movement. The former, with all women students eligible for membership, was founded in reaction to TCD’s discriminatory exclusion of female students from its most prestigious student bodies, the University Philosophical Society and the College Historical Society. This institutional distinction was reinforced in other ways, notably by The Eliz having its separate “Reading and Writing room, a small library, and a Lunch and Tea Room”.[10] The Student Christian Movement divided female and male students, with the former’s Women’s Union founded in 1905. Perhaps more important than her societal activities, Miss Ffrench lived at Trinity Hall, the off-campus residence for unmarried female students not residing with parents or guardians. More than a hall, it was “an academic hub which placed a focus on learning”.[11]  Significantly, there she fell under the lifelong influence of the formidable Margaret Cunningham (1872-1940) – ‘’a good and inspiring friend” – its warden and, like Noelle, a modern linguist and nationalist. She lived in Dublin, throughout the Irish Revolution (1916-1922) but, though following it with “ardent enthusiasm . . took no active part in it”.[12] Her apparent distancing requires revision which is revealing of her character. TCD was a decidedly Unionist institution which resisted the Revolution. Miss Cunningham’s pro-independence stance had fallen foul of College authorities, which threatened her dismissal. As an undergraduate, Noëlle depended on their approval, not only in relation to her academic progress but for the myriad of awards that she gained virtually each term, many of which added to her income.[13] Financial security – family and personal – enabled her to pursue her lifelong intellectual goals. But while keeping a low political profile at TCD, off-campus she displayed her nationalism. It seems she met Michael Colllins (possibly in 1917), wrote three unpublished poems in his memory and visited his Glasnevin grave throughout her life.[14] With her sister she carved a commemoration of the founding of the Free State in Gaeilge on a tree at home. This evidence of her personal negotiability – practical realism – is another marked characteristic. After university, Noëlle faced a personal and political dilemma. She had “intended to teach in Ireland, but realised that I had only the vaguest idea of how to impart to Irish Protestant girls an education which would be inspired by a truly national spirit, like that imparted by Pearse at St. Enda’s, and which at the same time would foster the practical and constructive qualities so much needed in the new-born Irish Free State”.[15]  Her response was bold and proved life-changing. She’d read an article by T.J.O’Connell, general secretary of INTO, on Danish Folk High-Schools “which fostered both national culture and practical excellence”.[16] Through her Student Christian Movement contacts she obtained a lectureship at the International People’s College in Helsignör, Denmark to learn more, starting in January 1924. There she met Dai. Their relationship rapidly developed into a deep and abiding love – they became engaged on 1st May – and a symbiotic intellectual partnership, initially through their shared interest in the Danish Folk High-School system. Noëlle had published in Ireland a long essay celebrating the first four years of the International People’s College, emphasising its seemingly classless collegiality, internationalism, practical approach to education and the ‘place’ of men and women. a precursor to what would soon evolve into a campaign against the Free State’s denominational education structure.


In Denmark, Dublin’s ten-year influence on Noëlle manifested itself in another way. In May, she represented the Irish National Council of Women at the International Council in Copenhagen and was a delegate to the conference of the International Federation of University Women in Oslo in July. On her return to Dublin, she reported to both the National Council and the Women’s Citizens Union on Folk High-Schools. Her connections with these suffragist and feminist movements and their faith in her to represent them reveals her strong ‘university women’ connections and, from this privileged position, offered her future potential at home, if she could find an outlet for her knowledge and skills as a progressive educationist. That was her plan. She returned to Dublin in August 1924 with Dai, both staying in Trinity Hall. With Miss Cunningham’s active support – they were effectively a triumvirate – and using the latter’s high-level contacts within Dublin society, they decided to campaign for the establishment of a Folk High-School in the city. Dai and Noëlle would marry then teach there. Their project would go through three phases between August 1924 and July 1925. First, after extensive personal lobbying by all three, a public committee was established that September “to investigate the proposal to establish in Ireland a school like the Danish Folk High-Schools and, if approved, to take the necessary steps to do so”.[17] Its membership was balanced between labour and business, academia and government, Catholic and Protestant; it was markedly consensual and powerful.[18] Using Miss Cunningham’s management expertise, the three drafted a timetable and curriculum. The latter included Irish History and Literature, Gaeilge and Irish Singing, Gymnastics, Economics, World History and Literature, Arithmetic and Geography, plus English, Civics and Carpentry for one hour apiece per week. In addition to Dai and Noëlle teaching, there would be a Catholic assistant lecturer, visiting lecturers and, if a farm were attached to the school, a farm manager instructing in Agricultural Science.[19] This broad range of subjects was in marked contrast to the narrowing curriculum of State-supported denominational schools. Under the influence of the Catholic hierarchy, the range of compulsory subjects, especially practical ones, was reduced.[20] Even Noëlle’s own Church of Ireland supported the denominational system, to smooth Protestant integration into the Free State and preserve its religious niche against Catholic hegemony.[21] Herein lay the seeds of failure. Nevertheless, by October, a vacant rectory in Co. Dublin was considered as the location. The campaign was further boosted by the arrival in Dublin of Noëlle’s former employer, Peter Manniche, Principal of the People’s College in Helsingör, at the invitation of the school committee. A high-profile meeting in the Mansion House was used to invite prominent people and raise funds. Manniche’s speech particularly addressed the self-interest of the farming community and the following day he met the Farmers Union national executive, the Minister of Agriculture and major Anglo-Irish figures. Despite these efforts, that same month the Committee decided to postpone any opening until Autumn 1925. Although ostensibly for financial reasons, the influence of the Church was being felt. In Noëlle’s own words, “Though some of the Catholic clergy . . had shown friendly interest in it, others were not so friendly; and it was anticipated . . . that objections would be raised if the school started with two people who did not belong to the Church of the majority of its Principals.[22] At the end of the month, “the Committee decided that . . they could not make themselves responsible for helping us in our attempt to start a High-School in concrete form.[23] A later letter from Miss Cunningham to the couple suggests another underlying factor. Expressing her bitter personal disappointment at the project’s failure, she refers to “a lot of us”, an enlivened “big fellowship”, part of a society which is ripe with need but not yet “ready”.[24] This cri de cœur encapsulates the disappointments of progressives, women in particular, with the anti-equality and educational policies of the Cumann na nGaedheal government. Despite being let down by the ‘great and good’ in October, Noëlle and Miss Cunningham persisted with their campaign for six more months. (Dai went to a Danish folk high-school to better equip himself). The National Council of Women arranged a four-day mission for her to Northern Ireland where she lectured to the Co-operative association in Belfast and the Women’s Citizens Association in Belfast and Derry. Back in Dublin, she addressed a joint meeting of the National Council and the Citizens Association on the practical, national and gender aspects of the schools. She wrote a pamphlet for public sale,[25] and two series of articles (thirteen in total) for provincial weekly newspapers. Miss Cunningham directed her efforts to the national press. Their hopes must have still be high because in March 1925, both visited Enniscorthy to view Kilgibbon, a spacious farmhouse, as a possible site. Even after that fell through, a third site was was inspected at Greystones. On Dai’s return in May 1925, “we had a thorough discussion of the various religious and other difficulties and . . finally decided that we had better give up the scheme and go to Wales”.


Before leaving, they married at St. Philip’s Church, Milltown with a wedding breakfast in Trinity Hall. Although a constant traveller across the Irish Sea, Noëlle would not live permanently in Ireland again for over thirty years. She retained an intellectual feminism, in keeping with the times but with unrelenting self-confidence in her own equality. While the history of women within Welsh nationalism is largely unwritten,[26] it can be claimed that Noëlle and many contemporaries practised proto-post feminism, who acted despite patriarchy. This was forged in Irish ‘alternative’ women’s networks in the face of Free State reaction. Despite her receiving a classic bourgeois woman’s education, Noëlle transcended typicality via liberating new networks, which also feature in her life in Wales. Although eschewing the Irish Revolution’s violence, she embraced its Romanticism, as evidenced in her literary works. Her full story is a work in progress.


[1] The French term is used by the author to allude to Noëlle competence as a Francophile

[2] National Library of Wales, Aberystwyth, Ref. Henceforth referred to as Memories.

[3] The Party was founded in 1926. The recognised joint works are Cymoedd Tan Gwmwl (1938), Can Wales Afford Self-Government? (1939, 1947, 1949), Wales: Land of Our Children? (1942), Is Monmouthshire In Wales? (1943). These generated additional newspaper articles, presentations, debates and a prolific output of letters to the press.

[4] The Economics of Welsh Self-Government (1931), The Economy of South Wales Before 1800 (1933), Deddf Uno 1536 (nd) WA Bebb (ed.), Monmouthshire: The Case for Wales (1938) (ed. Dafydd Jenkins), Diwydiant A Masnach (1945), Memorandum: Welsh Coal Industry (nd) (with HP Richards), The Welsh Coal Industry (1948) (with HP Richards), Towards An Economic Democracy (1949).

[5] Handwritten copy of note written to Saunders Lewis, June 1931. NLW Ref.99/36.

[6] Typical are her works Grundtvig of Denmark (1944), Æ (1945), Connolly of Ireland (1946)

[7] These include Voices in the Wind (London), Focus: A Monthly Review (Dublin). This bibliography is substantially incomplete at present.

[8] Middle Country (1936).

[9] Examples include Irish Women Writers: An A-to-Z Guide (2006), (ed.) Alexander G. Gonzalez, Westport: Greenwood Press; The Field Day Anthology of Irish Writing, Vols. 4 & 5 (2002), (Eds. Angela Bourke et. al.), Cork: CUP.

[10] University Calendar, 1919-1920, Vol. 1, p.57.

[11] Aislinn McCann, A Relic of the Times, in TCD’s University Times’ In Focus, 4th February 2017.

[12] Memories, p.20.

[13] In addition to the Non-Foundational Scholarship in 1921, she gained awards every academic year which enhanced her income.

[14] D. Hywel Davies (2017), DJ and Noëlle: Shaping the Blaid, Cymdeithas Hanes Plaid Cymru, 14pp.

[15] Memories, p.20.

[16] Ibid.

[17] Memories, p.25.

[18] Chaired by TJ O’Connell, the members were Miss Cunningham, Mr. Cormac Walsh, Thomas Johnson TD, Professor Joseph Johnson, Mr. E.M. Stephens, Mr. Séan O’Cuiv and Mr. M.F. O’Hanlon.

[19] Memories, p.26.

[20] Antonia McManus (2014), Irish Education: The Ministerial Legacy, 1919-1999, Dublin: The History Press, p.21.

[21] Ibid, p.34.

[22] Memories, p.26.

[23] Ibid.

[24] Margaret Cunningham to Dai and Noëlle, 10th November 1924, Memories, pp.27-28.

[25] Noëlle Ffrench (1925), Folk High-Schools: How Denmark Faced Her Reconstruction Problem: A Suggestion For Ireland.

[26] See Charlotte Aull Davies, (1994), Women, nationalism and feminism in Our Sisters’ Land: The Changing Identities of Women in Wales, (eds,), Jane Aaron et. al., Cardiff: University of Wales Press, pp.242-255.

S Morgan researches identity studies in Swansea University’s Morgan Academy and is a PhD candidate exploring the relationship between Fianna Fáil and the Welsh Nationalist Party, 1925-1951. This transnational history necessarily examines the rôle of mediators (key figures) in enabling the parties’ interrelationship. Noëlle Ffrench Davies is one such person who is of particular interest as an ‘invisible’ woman. Morgan is writing a biographical chapter of this polymath as a personal agent within formal party relations


If you wish to submit a blogpost please contact Dr Deirdre Flynn

IASIL 2018: Reimaging Traditions

Dr Lindsay Janssen

Marguérite Corporaal opening the PhD forum at IASIL 2018

This year’s IASIL (International Association for the Study of Irish Literature) conference, ‘Reimaging Traditions’ was held at Radboud University, Nijmegen (the Netherlands; RU). RU is my alma mater and although I do not work there anymore, I was asked to co-organise the conference. A great opportunity to work together with my former colleagues: Marguérite Corporaal (main organiser), Christopher Cusack, Ruud van den Beuken and Chris Louttit, among others. The conference team also included a life-saving team of student assistants. Although I greatly appreciate their hard work and good company, I am not going to mention everybody involved; this blog post is not my personal Oscar speech. And besides, the full team (and programme) can be found at My apologies if this piece is going to sound bit laudatory: truth be told, of course we had the usual bumps in the road in preparing for the conference, but in contrast to previous ones we organised, this conference itself was relatively stress-free and thus even more enjoyable.


The conference took place from 22 until 27 July and judging by the weather, you would think Radboud has a second campus somewhere in the south of Spain (if only!). The Netherlands had been experiencing exceptionally good weather for about a month and a half, but this specific week it just became ridiculous, reaching temperatures of 37 degrees celsius on the final day. Nevertheless, that did not deter our participants, and we had steady attendance for our panels, keynotes, readings and events.


Claire Connolly, UCC

Our keynotes all gave fascinating and entertaining lectures and made the audience reconsider their preconceived ideas and modes of work. Focusing on the Irish Romanticism, Claire Connolly argued eloquently for reconsidering literary history by focusing on new – well, new to us 21st-century scholars – connections between different cultural figures. Paige Reynolds discussed sex, shame, stereotyping and activism in contemporary literature and theatre and pleaded a strong case for us academics to create a climate of critical openness in our classrooms. I think Reynolds is absolutely right, but do wonder whether our educational institutions, students and their caretakers are ready for this. This does not negate Reynold’s view; rather, it adds force and urgency to her argument. Guy Beiner showed the impressive scope of his knowledge – as always – and looked at the “less-noticeable dynamics of memory” formation and explained how cultural groups also practice “social forgetting”, by focusing on Betsy Gray, a heroine from 1798 who is alive in vernacular history but conspicuously absent from official historiography. (I wish I could say more about his lecture, but was called away on organising business.) Joep Leerssen – I could draw parallels between how Beiner and Leerssen’s brains function – argued for placing more emphasis on the process of reading rather than production when doing literary history. Discussing Irish poets and the Irish bardic tradition, Leerssen made the audience reconsider their set ways while getting regular laughs from the audience in response to his witticisms on freeloading bards and the “hip cool cats” among Ireland’s poets.


As is customary for an IASIL Conference, we had a very broad selection of topics for the panels. That, in preparation at times made assigning titles to the panels a sort of hit and miss process, but during the conference also made possible many interdisciplinary and pleasantly surprising connections. I have been to several IASIL conferences and it strikes me that the IASIL crowd is genuinely open and enthusiastic, and this was the case this year as well. Delegates came from all continents save Antarctica, and spoke on all matters Irish literature, theatre, historiography and art. Moreover, many papers treated transcultural connections and exchanges, tying Ireland and its cultural productions not only to its own diasporic locations, but also to French literature, Persian influences and Asian art, to name a few. I also attended the DH workshop by Suzan Leavey and Cormac O’Brien from UCD, who presented the innovative project ‘Contagion’. On the whole, female authors, poets and artists were well represented in the papers and keynotes, and I could not pass up the opportunity to present on special correspondent, journalist and author Margaret Dixon McDougall, about whom I contributed a blog to the IWWN (‘Tracking “Norah”’). I chaired a few panels and sat in at several papers. I saw many good papers; while giving a rundown of all would make for a long-winded and not particularly interesting blog, I would like to mention a few specifically. Melanie Strating spoke about female Irish migrants who came over to New York because of the great Irish Famine. Strating is new to the field – in fact, her paper was based on her ongoing work for her master’s thesis – but gave a thorough and well thought-out paper in which she innovatively combined literary close readings with economical historical data. Raphaël Ingelbien presented on translator Louise Swanton Belloc, and showed how this fascinating nineteenth-century woman was French, but also self-identified with an Irish Catholic identity. Through an in-depth engagement with her translations and metatextual information – Swanton Belloc intervened in her source texts, at time quite profusely – Ingelbien gave us an original case study of translation, adaptation and cross-cultural identification.


Frederik van Dam and Anne Enright at IASIL 2018

We had a packed cultural schedule as well. The opening reception was combined with the launch of two G. B. Shaw exhibitions, currently on display in the Radboud University Library. Not one but two ambassadors were present at the event – the Irish Ambassadors to Belgium and the Netherlands. Ambassador Kevin Kenny (Ambassador to the Netherlands) opened the exhibition with an engaged speech, and he and his team were kind enough to bring Guinness and Irish whisky. Donning his bartender’s hat for a moment, Ambassador Kenny even gave the catering staff a quick lesson into pouring Guinness. Other conference events consisted of excursions to museums and a city walk, lively readings by authors Anne Enright and Claire Kilroy, a musical performance by Lillis Ó Loaire, a film screening of Song of the Sea (Cartoon Saloon, 2014) and Q&A with filmmaker and co-founder of Cartoon Saloon, Tomm Moore. I had the honour of doing the Q&A with Tomm; being a lover of animation, I just hope that the audience did not tire of my geeky remarks and references. It was wonderful to see how a filmmaker reinvents traditions and provides ways to restore the connections between past and present, humans and their environment, life and legend.


Both organising and presenting at a conference is quite intensive, as many of you will know. In all, it was an inspiring week, well worth its long run-up and last-minute behind the scenes little hiccups. IASIL is always a great event to see old acquaintances and meet new faces, to continue traditions and establish new connections (to make the cheesy but obligatory link to the conference theme). Next year’s event will be at Trinity College Dublin: I look forward to continuing the tradition there.iasil-header_4.jpg

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 wish to submit a post for our blog contact Dr Deirdre Flynn.

“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,

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,

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 – 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 (, accessed 23 Feb. 2018; the site’s temporary location is

[ii] See 119–28. A freely accessible digital version van be found at the Radboud Repository:

[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:

[vi] J. G. Snell, ‘DOUGALL, JOHN,’ in Dictionary of Canadian Bibliography Vol 11 (Toronto: University of Toronto/ Université Laval, 2003–). <;, 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] and