Featured Folklorist: Ceallaigh S. MacCath-Moran Shares Her Passion for Folklore Studies Through Audio Plays, Podcasts, and Writing Instruction

AFS News, Featured Folklorist
sketch of ceallaigh maccath-moran sitting down
Portrait of Ceallaigh S. MacCath-Moran by Sylvia Dove

Ceallaigh (“Kelly”) S. MacCath-Moran is a PhD candidate in Folklore at Memorial University of Newfoundland. Ceallaigh’s dissertation explores animal rights activism as a public performance of ethical belief through ethnographic interviews of activists and participant observation of animal rights demonstrations. Her passion for sharing folklore studies with scholars, storytellers, and the general public has found outlets in several digital media. 

Recently, Ceallaigh was commissioned to write “The Belt and the Necklace” for The Other Path podcast, a production of the Odyssey Theatre in Ottawa featuring original audio dramas that set traditional folk narratives in contemporary contexts. The play is an adaptation of a wonder tale by the same name collected by Franz Xaver von Schönwerth and printed in The Turnip Princess and Other Newly Discovered Fairy Tales. The collected tale gives us the story of Barbara, a princess “so ugly that everyone made fun of her,” a gnome who instructs her to petition the merfolk for an enchantment to make her beautiful, and the terrible consequences of that petition. However, the play follows the fat daughter of a fashion icon who finds herself ostracized in a beauty-obsessed world. Desperate for love, Barbara takes the advice of her family gnome and makes a heart-wrenching bargain for beauty with merfolk who have troubles of their own. In adapting the tale for a modern audience, Ceallaigh drew upon her folkloristic training to recontextualize the mockery visited upon Princess Barbara for her physical appearance. Because the Barbara of the play is fat-bodied, she draws the same sort of negative gaze and commentary fatness often does in modern society. The merfolk are capricious in the collected tale, but Ceallaigh recontextualized them as well, giving them agency and purpose in keeping with modern concerns. “The Belt and the Necklace” was released in November 2022 and is available on most streaming platforms.

Ceallaigh also produces a podcast titled Folklore & Fiction: Folklore Scholarship Meets the Storytelling Craft. Folklore & Fiction was the first public folklore project dedicated to creative applications of folkloristics for writers and other storytellers, launching in January 2019 as a monthly newsletter that taught writers how to incorporate folklore into their creative writing. In the two years that followed, she covered myth, ballad, tall tale, ritual, material culture, child lore and other genres by combining folklore scholarship, examples from traditional and contemporary sources, and writing instruction. In 2021 she launched the podcast and shifted her focus to the Aarne-Thompson-Uther Index, which allowed her to introduce traditional folk narrative plots and the ways they might be adapted or subverted. This series included a discussion of ATU 780 “The Singing Bone” and her own subversion of Child Ballad #10 “The Twa Sisters,” which she titled “Cruel Johnny” and later included on her first EP, Shatter and Rise. In 2022, her focus shifted to Motif-Index of Folk-Literature and other folk narrative indices with episodes produced at the request of readers and listeners, folkloristic discussions of world-building, fictional magic systems, and other components of the storytelling craft, and contributions from guests. In November 2022, Literatura Ludowa: Journal of Folklore and Popular Culture published “Contemporary Folklore and Podcast Culture: Towards Democratization of Knowledge and Re-Oralization of Culture,” a conversation with Dr. Aldona Kobus that features a discussion of the Folklore & Fiction podcast. Ultimately, Ceallaigh endeavors to encourage creative innovation with an accessible approach to folkloristics catered to storytellers and especially to writers of science fiction, fantasy, and other fantastical literature. The structures and tropes of narrative genres, plots, and motifs provide numerous and varied possibilities for writing about imagined pasts, presents, and futures in ways that resonate with readers on a subtle but powerful level. A basic knowledge of folkloristic topics in belief and performance can enrich storytelling as well because it can help storytellers bring nuance and context to the cultures they create. 

Ceallaigh also believes that folklorists have the capacity to play an important role at this moment in history, in which the narrative forms of the past can impact the politics of the present. This has recently been illustrated in the Fall 2018 issue of the Journal of American Folklore devoted to a discussion of fake news in which Tom Mould and others discuss the place of folklore scholarship in contemporary public discourse. Some years ago, Phillips Stevens Jr. did similar work, exploring the narrative relationship between the Satanic Panic of the 1990s and previous moral panics while encouraging folklorists to contribute their expertise to the discourse of the time. He writes that “Wherever they are, folklorists should get involved, NOW. This stuff is right up their alley” and later writes that “Folklorists have the knowledge about what is going on; most importantly, they have both a professional and a moral responsibility to share that knowledge” (Stevens Jr. 1996).  While the Satanic Panic is no longer a regular part of public discourse, Ceallaigh has taken his call to action seriously; in her ethnographic research of ethical belief in animal rights activism and in her folkloristic instruction for storytellers. 

In addition to completing her dissertation, Ceallaigh is working on The Storyteller’s Guide to Folklore, a book manuscript based on the Folklore & Fiction dispatches and podcasts, which she plans to release upon completing her PhD. 

Learn more about Ceallaigh’s work on the Folklore & Fiction website. 

Works Cited

Stevens Jr., Phillips. 1996. “Satanism: Where Are the Folklorists?” In Contemporary Legend: A Reader, edited by Gillian Bennett and Paul Smith, 341–62. Garland Reference Library of the Humanities. New York: Garland.

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