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.

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