Moira O’Neill (Agnes Higginson Skrine) (1864-1955)
b. Mauritus. d. Wexford
OH would ye hear and would ye hear
Of the windy wide North West?
Faith tis a land as green as the sea
That rolls as far and rolls as free,
With drifts of flowers so many there be,
Where the cattle roam and rest “The North-West—Canada”
Life on Alberta homesteads was strenuous for both women and men. Irishwomen who worked on farms and ranches contributed to the economy by caring for family members, feeding work crews, caring for livestock and gardens, and often pitching in to help with tasks that had traditionally been relegated to men. It was commonly perceived as no life for a “lady,” and yet many upper-class emigrants were attracted to ranching life in Southwestern Alberta. Brought up in picturesque Cushendall, Co. Antrim, Agnes Skrine was happy to dispel English and Irish impressions that “an English lady on a ranche is…a household drudge, to be regarded with respectful admiration and compassion.” She and her husband Walter came to Alberta with enough capital to build a fine ranch house near High River with lumber hauled from Calgary. She could also hire help, meaning that after completing a few hours of light housework, she was free to ride, collect wildflowers, and—most importantly—write poetry about her old home in Ireland and her new home in Canada.
As “Moira O’Neill,” Skrine was already a successful author when she and Walter arrived in Alberta in 1895. The highly-respected Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine published her poems about the Glens of Antrim as well as her prose impressions of life in Canada, and while she was still living in Alberta, she published Songs of the Glens of Antrim (1901).It was a success, apparently outselling the poetry of William Butler Yeats.Included in her collection were poems extolling prairie life, and she genuinely believed that “a good deal of sympathy” existed “between Ireland and the North West.”Through character sketches in her articles and descriptions of prairie mornings and mountain sunsets, she portrayed a warm, down-to earth and cooperative culture that characterized early Alberta society.Unlike some ranchers, the Skrines encouraged farming in the area as well.In 1902, the Skrines sold their land and returned to Ireland, but their ranch still operates today, and their name lives on in Skrine Creek. While “Moira O’Neill’s” dialect poetry has gone out of fashion, she left exquisite portraits of prairie life, which brought Alberta to the attention of readers in Ireland. Perhaps her poetry, as much as the many nineteenth-century promotional pamphlets and posters, helped encourage emigration.Certainly her literary portraits may have presented Alberta as beautiful and free, promising a happy new life and prosperity to would-be emigrants.
Agnes Higginson Skrine published Songs of the Glens of Antrim (London: W. Blackwood and Sons, 1901), More Songs of the Glens of Antrim (Edinburgh, W. Blackwood, 1921), and Collected Poems (London: William Blackwood and Sons, 1933) under the pen name Moira O’Neill. “A Lady’s Life on a Ranche,” her account of life in Alberta, was published in Blackwoods Edinburgh Magazine, January 1898.
Froggatt, Richard. “Agnes Nesta Shakespeare Higginson Skrine (1864 - 1955): Poet And Writer.” Dictionary of Ulster Biography.
Leland, Mary. “My Mother, Molly Keane, Caustic Chronicler of the Lost Anglo-Irish World." Irish Times 7 January 2017.
Linde Lunney & Bridget Hourican: “Agnes Skrine,” Dictionary of Irish Biography, Royal Irish Academy, 2009
Manke, Brett. “Local Creek Named for Skrines.” High River Online 5 July 2011
Sanderson, Kay. 200 Remarkable Alberta Women. Calgary: Famous Five Foundation, 1999.
“Taking Stock: 100 Years of Growing Alberta” Calgary Herald "30 July 2005: 25.