‘Oh woman down there by the stream’: figurative language and ritual process in a traditional lullaby from the Muskerry Gaeltacht

Tríona Ní Shíocháin


This paper discusses the concept of Bean an Leasa, or the woman of the fairy fort, as represented in a traditional lullaby from the Muskerry Gaeltacht beginning ‘Oh woman down there by the stream’. The lullaby form is closely associated with the domestic sphere and constitutes an every-day and elusive creative practice that might well escape notice. It is argued here, however, that the lullaby form was an important medium through which Irish-speaking women could negotiate existential challenges in their personal lives. Key to this was the liminality of song which combined with discourses of the fairy realm in the lullaby to create a world of its own outside of ordinary life, a place of veiled communication and contestation. Drawing on the work of Máire Ní Annracháin on figurative language in the Irish tradition, and on the work of Angela Bourke on fairy legend, the connections between metaphor, the otherworld, and the ritual function of the lullaby form is explored. The traditional lullaby contains strong overtones of magic and ritual (Ó Madagáin 1989, 1992), and is here theorised as a liminal experience that punctuates ordinary domestic life, allowing the subject to create meaning out of marginality, thus passing safely through difficulty or crisis. It is argued that the embodiment through song of the woman in the fairy fort generates bonds of communitas between women, both real and imagined, that enabled female resilience and resistance within the world of men. Thus, this beautiful yet unassuming song can be understood as part of a conceptual world integral to Irish-speaking women’s traditions of thought.

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© Comhar Teoranta, 2020.
ISSN: 2009-8626