Who was “Norah”?

Captain Boycott on the Road to Claremorris Railway Station
Captain Boycott on the Road to Claremorris Railway Station

If ever there was a bulky title, it must be “The Letters of ‘Norah’ on Her Tour Through Ireland“. Though it is an extraordinary document. Not only because it describes Ireland around 1880, the time of the Land League and the infamous Captain Charles Cunningham Boycott, but also because it was written by an early female reporter. But who was this “Norah”? Well, first of all, she was not named Norah …

Captain Boycott on the Road to Claremorris Railway Station
Captain Boycott on the Road to Claremorris Railway Station – Boycott and the station are mentioned in “Norah”‘s book.

Born on Christmas Day in the year 1828, Margaret Moran Dixon was the daughter of Englishman William Henry Dixon and his wife Eleanor West. But she was born in Ireland. In Belfast, to be precise. Catholic or Protestant? Well, strictly speaking neither, at least in the normal state of religious things in Ireland … as a Baptist Margaret belonged to none of the principal sectarian fractions, Roman Catholic, Church of Ireland, or Presbyterian. Her father died soon after her birth, her mother remarried and around 1850 the family emigrated to Canada, taking Margaret and two step-sisters over the water.

Settling in Ontario, Margaret embarked upon a fairly typical career path – marrying the lumberman Alexander Dougald McDougall (spellings include the most common McDougall, but also MacDougall, and MacDougal) in 1852, she gave birth to six children, and also taught in her own school. But already a new part-time career beckoned: writing. Margaret supplied newspapers with articles and became a freelance correspondent of a number of publications. In this endeavour she used pen names, variously “Nora”, “Norah”, or “Nora Pembroke” (she lived in Pembroke, Ontario, off and on).

Finally, in 1882, “Norah” came to fame – as a correspondent for the “Montreal Witness” and “New York Witness” she travelled back to Ireland, at the height of Charles Stewart Parnell’s fight for Home Rule and land reform (through the medium of the Land League). Writing letter upon letter back to North America, “Norah” tried to explain the issues at stake and to convey her impressions and feelings. She saw injustice in the lot of the Irish peasantry and supported a sweeping land reform as the best way to bring a lasting peace (through justice) to the island. On the other hand … Home Rule did not feature high on her agenda.

“The Letters of ‘Norah’ on Her Tour Through Ireland” were later collected in book form – not only was this an immense success for a female journalist, it was also made possible by an pre-cursor of modern “crowdfunding”. A list of subscribers (including some clergymen and women) is proudly displayed in the first edition, each giving between fifty Cents and ten Dollars towards to costs of production. Many from Montreal’s English-speaking population, many with names that at least hint at an Irish background.

When McDougall died in 1887, Margaret dedicated her life to the church … she became an active member of the Baptist Home Missionary Society in Michigan. Later she moved to Montesano (Washington) and again pursued church activities, dying suddenly during a visit to Seattle in 1899. Her obituary in the “Seattle Post-Intelligence” hinted at yet another career she had embarked upon – lecturing in the southern states to further the education of freed slaves:

Mrs. Margaret Moran Dixon MacDougal, the foster mother of Mrs. W. C. Gibson, wife of Dr. W. C. Gibson, died suddenly Sunday evening in this city. Mrs. MacDougal, who was apprently in perfect health, went to Church at the Second Presbyterian Church. When the services were well begun she complained to a friend who was with her of a feeling of illness, and was conducted from the church to the house of an acquaintance across the street, where she was made confortable. Dr. Gibson was immediately called and reached the bedside just before death came.
Mrs. MacDougal was born in Belfast, Ireland, in 1828, and came to Ottawa, Canada, when about 30 years old, where she engaged in literary work and teaching for some time, and then moved to Michigan, where she made her home for a quarter of a century. About six years ago she came to Montesano, in this state, and has lived there since.
Mrs. MacDougal devoted her life to the service of God, and taught by example as well as by precept. She lectured through the southern states shortly after the rebellion in the interest of the education of the freed-man, and, without giving offense to any one of the former slave owners, in addition to much mission work, Mrs. MacDougal found time to write a number of books, among them: ” Life in Glenshie”, “Days of a Life”, “A Tour Through Ireland”, “Verses and Rhymes by the Way.”
Four children, three sons and one daughter, survive her. Rev. George MacDougal of Vernon Center, Minn.; W.H. MacDougal of White River, Ont.; and John MacDougal and Mrs. John G. Guppy of Mattawa, Canada.
At the time of her death Mrs. MacDougal was visiting Dr. and Mrs. Gibson in this city.

Was “Norah”, or Margaret Moran Dixon McDougall, a great writer? I’d say not, but that may be prejudiced by the re-publication of her letters in book form, which makes for a rather clumsy work. The style is typical for the period, neither too florid nor too dry. But the subject matter is the real reason why her “Letters” should still be read … and her observations and opinions certainly give an insight into Ireland in 1882 (even though seen through the eyes of a god-fearing visitor, not a revolutionary native firebrand).

So yes, yes by all means – the “The Letters of ‘Norah’ on Her Tour Through Ireland” deserve to be read even today. Though they seem to be all but forgotten. As is her author … with Wikipedia in a fleeting entry under “Hungry Grass” even confusing her with Labour MSP Margaret McDougall.

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