Obituaries : Elaine O'Beirne-Ranelagh

From folklore to feminism, from music to Mussolini, from American music to Irish nationalism and rugby jokes, Elaine O'Beirne-Ranelagh had a richly varied life, in which her strong individualism and perceptive intellect enabled her to make contributions well ahead of her time.

Born Elaine Lambert Lewis in New York in 1914, she took a degree in Classics at Vassar before moving to the University of Indiana to study folklore. In 1933 she won a Guggenheim Fellowship to Rome to study Italian fairy tales. She met Mussolini at a reception and spent much of the rest of her stay in Italy fighting off his advances.

Returning to America, she developed a strong interest in native music, particularly negro spirituals and slave music, and was one of the first to record and broadcast authentic jazz. Her radio programme Folksongs for the Seven Million on WNYC brought the music of Leadbelly (Huddy Leadbetter) to a wide audience for the first time. Equally at home with academics or poor black musicians, she was appreciated for her perfect manners and total indifference to class and social divisions. Those qualities must have been indispensable in the early years of her romance, marriage and transplantation to the wilds of Ireland.

Elaine Lambert Lewis met James O'Beirne-Ranelagh - the O'Beirne Ranelagh to anyone with respect for the Irish clans - through a shared passion for Irish folklore. When he gathered some Irish friends together to perform on her special St Patrick's Day radio programme, they even added authenticity by wrecking the studio with a genuine Irish brawl. When Elaine was James's guest at a special dinner of an Irish-American society, admiration was expressed for the calmness with which she picked broken glass from her plate and continued with the meal after a rival Irish-American group had brought the chandelier crashing down on to the table.

They married and he took her back to Ireland. She told the story of how an urban, educated, sophisticated American woman found herself landed in the outback, with no electricity or running water, and with four children to bring up, in Himself and I (published in 1957 under the pseudonym of Anne O'Neill-Barna). "I heard references to his being a member of the IRA," she wrote, "and hadn't the remotest idea what it meant - I mean folk-tales never went into that."

The book, a hilarious account of naivety, Irishness and inspired improvisation, might perhaps have been more widely read had it not been banned by the Catholic Church - though its author was never quite sure whether that was because of disparaging remarks made about a local priest, or the detailed description it contained of how turkeys mate.

Economic circumstances, and a desire to secure a good education for her children, forced a move to England, where she worked for the US Air Force lecturing at a base near Cambridge on Classics, English and folklore. She also tried her hand at romantic fiction, with a novel, Wentworth Hall, appearing in 1974. She always admitted to finding the Mills & Boon style difficult to master "because the characters keep getting away from me". What she found so taxing was the need to make intelligent women characters act stupidly.

Perhaps that experience sowed the seeds for Men on Women (1985), a historical survey of men's assumptions about women, showing that male attitudes - consistent at different periods of history and in diverse cultures - are apparently inescapable. Her views on this subject, however, both pre- dated and enhanced conventional feminism. She never saw the need to fight for feminine equality, having been one of the first wave of women who genuinely believed, and demonstrated, that they were equal.

That book and the earlier The Past We Share (1979) - a study of the part of our culture we owe to the Arab world - form her major academic publications, though she did also write a successful series of paperbacks in the 1970s and 1980s including Rugby Jokes, Son of Rugby Jokes, What Rugby Jokes Did Next and eight similar titles. She researched these with her customary rigour, using a wide string of contacts to gather material. The best, Rugby Jokes in the Office (1989), broke new ground in sociological research by collecting amusing items that office workers photocopy and stick on notice-boards.

The Rugby Joke series as a whole, however, caused consternation among her children, who found the jokes neither dirty nor funny, and led them to suspect their mother understood neither sex nor humour. Mussolini, and many others who had been captivated by her wit, would not have agreed.

Elaine Lambert Lewis, writer and broadcaster: born New York 6 July 1914; married 1946 James O'Beirne-Ranelagh (died 1982; one son, three daughters); died London 5 April 1996.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs People

Ashdown Group: HR Manager Shared Services - Uxbridge, - 1 Year contract

£50000 per annum: Ashdown Group: HR Manager Shared Services - Uxbridge, Stock...

Recruitment Genius: Graduate Human Resource Officer and Executive Assistant

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: This is an exciting opportunity to join one of...

Ashdown Group: HR Assistant (Events business) - Central Manchester - £20K

£18000 - £20000 per annum + Benefits: Ashdown Group: HR Assistant (Events busi...

Recruitment Genius: Project Engineer

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: This privately-owned company designs and manuf...

Day In a Page

General Election 2015: Chuka Umunna on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband

Chuka Umunna: A virus of racism runs through Ukip

The shadow business secretary on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband
Yemen crisis: This exotic war will soon become Europe's problem

Yemen's exotic war will soon affect Europe

Terrorism and boatloads of desperate migrants will be the outcome of the Saudi air campaign, says Patrick Cockburn
Marginal Streets project aims to document voters in the run-up to the General Election

Marginal Streets project documents voters

Independent photographers Joseph Fox and Orlando Gili are uploading two portraits of constituents to their website for each day of the campaign
Game of Thrones: Visit the real-life kingdom of Westeros to see where violent history ends and telly tourism begins

The real-life kingdom of Westeros

Is there something a little uncomfortable about Game of Thrones shooting in Northern Ireland?
How to survive a social-media mauling, by the tough women of Twitter

How to survive a Twitter mauling

Mary Beard, Caroline Criado-Perez, Louise Mensch, Bunny La Roche and Courtney Barrasford reveal how to trounce the trolls
Gallipoli centenary: At dawn, the young remember the young who perished in one of the First World War's bloodiest battles

At dawn, the young remember the young

A century ago, soldiers of the Empire – many no more than boys – spilt on to Gallipoli’s beaches. On this 100th Anzac Day, there are personal, poetic tributes to their sacrifice
Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves

Follow the money as never before

Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves, reports Rupert Cornwell
Samuel West interview: The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents

Samuel West interview

The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents
General Election 2015: Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

Fashion editor, Alexander Fury, on what the leaders' appearances tell us about them
Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

The architect of the HeForShe movement and head of UN Women on the world's failure to combat domestic violence
Public relations as 'art'? Surely not

Confessions of a former PR man

The 'art' of public relations is being celebrated by the V&A museum, triggering some happy memories for DJ Taylor
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef succumbs to his sugar cravings with super-luxurious sweet treats

Bill Granger's luxurious sweet treats

Our chef loves to stop for 30 minutes to catch up on the day's gossip, while nibbling on something sweet
London Marathon 2015: Paula Radcliffe and the mother of all goodbyes

The mother of all goodbyes

Paula Radcliffe's farewell to the London Marathon will be a family affair
Everton vs Manchester United: Steven Naismith demands 'better' if Toffees are to upset the odds against United

Steven Naismith: 'We know we must do better'

The Everton forward explains the reasons behind club's decline this season
Arsenal vs Chelsea: Praise to Arsene Wenger for having the courage of his convictions

Michael Calvin's Last Word

Praise to Wenger for having the courage of his convictions