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

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