University of Limerick
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Songs between worlds: enchantment and entrapment in the Irish otherworld song tradition

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posted on 2023-10-24, 14:09 authored by Mary Theresa Mc Laughlin

In this thesis I examine the portrayal of the Otherworld in Irish traditional song through the lenses of enchantment and entrapment. I focus on two songs which exemplify this theme from different angles: An Mhaighdean Mhara (the Mermaid) tells of an enchanted being who gets caught in the cycle of enchantment and entrapment when a human fisherman falls in love with her, and A Bhean Úd Thíos (Oh Woman Over Yonder) concerns the abduction of a human nursing mother who is enchanted into the fairy realm and entrapped there to tend a fairy infant.

My theoretical framework is drawn from folklore, ballad studies, literature and history. Employing a blended methodology that includes ethnographic fieldwork, narrative inquiry and archival research, I examine the transmission of each song from the mid 1800s when they were first collected, over the next 100 years. I also trace the history of each song within the context of the legends on which they are based, never forgetting that the Irish Otherworld is a conglomerate of beliefs that includes fairies, ancestors, mythological figures and ghosts. Certain themes arise in both songs: the role of scéal-amhráin (story-song); the connections between Irish and Scottish fairylore; the processes of transmission as an agent of Otherworld portrayal; and the affect of the Caoineadh Na Marbh (Keen For the Dead). The ritual aspects of these songs, and the challenges contained within them could be perceived as metaphors for human dilemmas and paradoxes and how to navigate them.

The songs portray the Otherworld as a mutable concept that reflects the fluctuations of societal beliefs and influence; one example being the incorporation of Christian imagery into what is essentially a pre-Christian belief-system. At the same time the practical and archetypal concepts at their centre transcend time and societal limitations, giving them a certain functionality within the traditional song corpus which has contributed to their longevity.



  • Faculty of Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences


  • Doctoral

First supervisor

Sandra Joyce

Department or School

  • Irish World Academy of Music & Dance

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