Ranelagh, Elaine Lambert Lewis O'Beirne- (1914–96), writer and folklorist, was born 6 July 1914 in Brooklyn, New York, USA, the only child of Josephine Lambert Lewis and Harry Lewis, who worked in real estate. She studied classics at Vassar College and majored in Greek. Her interest in mythology later extended to folklore, and after graduating from Vassar she went to the University of Indiana to pursue postgraduate studies in folkore. In 1935 she won a Guggenheim fellowship and went to Rome the following year, where she studied Italian fairy tales. She was warned by the Guggenheim chaperone that Mussolini often made passes at the fellowship girls, but her vivid memory of one glittering reception was the way Mussolini, a squat man in black, attracted all the attention.
On her return to America, she immersed herself in the study of African-American spirituals and slave music and made pioneering broadcasts of these on her radio programme ‘Folksongs for the seven million’ on station WNYC. This also brought the music of Leadbelly (Huddie Ledbetter) to a wider audience. Leadbelly, who was born on a Lousiana plantation, was serving a sentence for attempted murder in the Louisiana state penitentiary when he was discovered in 1933 by folklorist John Lomax and his son Alan. They were touring the American southern states, collecting songs and ballads for the Library of Congress. Leadbelly was pardoned the following year and made his way north to New York City, where he appeared regularly on Elaine Lewis's radio programme. She considered Leadbelly to be completely authentic, possessing the best examples of slave songs. She particularly liked his work with the Golden Gate Quartet after 1940, and later looked after his wife Martha.
Near the end of the second world war she met James O'Beirne at Columbia University Library, and as he had a good repertoire of Irish songs she recorded him. O'Beirne was born in Charleville, Co. Cork, in 1901, and had become involved with revolutionary nationalism from an early age, attracting the attention of the DMP. He fought in the 1916 rising with The O'Rahilly (qv) and later with the Cork No. 1 Brigade during the war of independence. He took the republican side during the civil war and was interned. After his release (1923) he went to America, where he completed the engineering degree he had started at UCC.
He and Elaine Lewis were married (July 1946) in Rathnew, Co. Wicklow. It was often assumed in Ireland that Elaine was responsible for the change in the family name, from O'Beirne to O'Beirne-Ranelagh. But this was inspired by her husband's fascination with the Irish literary revival and the ‘Celtic twilight’. She described the next decade of her life in Ireland, during which she had four children, in her book Himself and I. It was also the story of her translation from cosmopolitan New York to rural Kildare in a house without electricity and running water: ‘we wound up in the Irish countryside, surrounded by propriety and the past’. She soon came to the view that the ‘good old days’ in Ireland meant illiteracy, Jansenism, and the suppression of women. When the book was published in New York (1957), it attracted hostile comment in Ireland because of its criticisms of the catholic church's control of education, censorship, birth control, and the sexual immaturity of the Irish. She was advised for legal reasons to publish it under a pseudonym, ‘Anne O'Neill Barna’, although the identity of the author was widely known in Dublin.
She continued to collect folklore and ballads in Ireland and made some broadcasts for Radio Éireann. She also served on the Irish Fulbright commission, but by the end of the 1950s her husband's various business and farming ventures were failing. In 1959 she and her children moved to Cambridge, where she took up an appointment as educational director for the University of Maryland. This was one of the first American universities to establish a European campus after the war, and it had the contract to run university courses for the US Air Force at its bases in East Anglia. Her husband remained in Ireland, and although after this they lived separate lives, they never divorced, and when suffering from terminal cancer James spent his last months with her and the family in Cambridge, where he died in May 1979.
She worked for the University of Maryland in East Anglia over the next twenty-five years but, stimulated by access to the great research libraries in Cambridge, she resumed her folklore researches, which resulted in two major academic studies, The past we share (1979) and Men on women (1985). The former, ahead of its time, looked at the debt which western culture owed to the Arab world, while the latter was a survey of the persistence of certain male attitudes to women throughout history. Her folklore studies also informed a decidedly lighter series of books, the compendia of Rugby jokes which began in 1987 and continued with Son of rugby jokes and Hands up for rugby jokes (both in 1988); Rugby jokes in the office (1989); Rugby jokes score again and Even more rugby jokes (both in 1990); and finally More rugby jokes (1992). Elaine Ranelagh had no interest in rugby but approached her subject through the lens of a dedicated folklorist, in a spirit of rigorous academic inquiry. Connoisseurs of the series, which did not include her children, considered Rugby jokes in the office the best.
Elaine O'Beirne Ranelagh died 5 April 1996 in London and was survived by her daughters Bawn, Elizabeth, and Fionn and by her son John, historian and television executive.