Sunday 12 January 2014

An Interview with Dr. Jenny Butler

Following on from the ten interviews conducted with scholars of all things that interest me last year, here at Albion Calling we’re kicking off the 2014 interviews by talking to Dr. Jenny Butler, an Irish folklorist currently based at University College Cork’s Department of Folklore and Ethnology, where she has lectured since 2002. Having attained her PhD in 2012 on the basis of research into contemporary Paganism in Ireland, she has published widely on the subject in various peer-reviewed journals and edited volumes. She is currently working on her first book and is engaged in a project exploring the fairy folklore of Ireland and Newfoundland. We discuss her pioneering research and the position of Paganism and fairy folklore in the country.

[EDW] As an initial question, I’d like to ask you about the path that you have taken to get to where you are today. You’re known on an international level for chapters in such edited volumes as Modern Paganism in World Cultures (2005), Handbook of New Age (2007), and Ireland’s New Religious Movements (2011), but it would be interesting to learn how and why you entered academia in the first place and how you proceeded through to the post-doctoral level you now occupy.

[JB] I have a longstanding interest in mythology and religion and that’s what I originally wanted to study at university. However, when I finished high school, there weren’t any courses on either of those subjects, not even as special-interest courses. All that existed at third level at that time was theology and seminary education. I decided to do Philosophy for my BA at University College Cork (UCC). The structure of the BA at UCC is that students take four subjects in first year and then continue on with two of them; one can choose to do a joint honours degree or to major in one subject and minor in the other. In first year, I took Philosophy, Archaeology, English and Psychology. Back then, it wasn’t possible to take Folklore in year one and I didn’t even know it existed as an academic subject. When it came time to choose my subjects to take to degree level, I selected Philosophy and in the brochure I saw “Folklore,” which stirred my curiosity, so I selected that as the second subject for my joint honours degree.

While I really enjoyed Philosophy, especially the courses on Philosophy of Religion and Philosophy of Animals and the Environment, I totally fell in love with the study of folklore as an academic endeavour! It might seem like an unusual combination, but I’ve always thought of Philosophy as the investigation of the meaning of life and different aspects of being, while folkloristics examines what ordinary people make of those same “big questions” about life through an understanding of their worldview (or belief system) and cosmology. I’ve always been interested in what people believe and why, especially in terms of religion and metaphysics, and so my subject combination was perfect really!

As part of the Folklore programme in second year, we had a research seminar in which we had to conduct a small-scale research project. For this, I researched Irish Paganism and interviewed a Druid, a Witch and a Shaman. After my BA, I decided to carry on my studies in folklore and ethnology, and I undertook an MPhil or Masters by research, that would last two years. I chose Irish Pagan culture as my topic because even the small project I did at undergraduate level gave me an inkling of what I could possibly do given the opportunity to conduct a bigger research project. I received a Government of Ireland Scholarship from the Irish Research Council for the Humanities and Social Sciences (IRCHSS) and in the second year of the MPhil, the academic council at UCC deemed my research progress to be good enough to convert to the status of PhD.

I am currently involved in the work of the Irish Society for the Academic Study of Religion (ISASR) and the Marginalised and Endangered Worldviews Study Centre (MEWSC) at University College Cork and I hope to embark on some postdoctoral research projects at the Department of Study of Religions at UCC. Established in 2007, this is the first university department in Ireland to offer an entirely non-confessional, academic approach to the study of religions. In a way, I have come full circle from my initial wish to studying religions at university level.

[EDW] In 2012, you completed your PhD thesis on the subject of “Irish Neo-Paganism: Worldview, Ritual and Identity,” which I understand is providing the basis for a forthcoming book. Could you tell us a little bit about this research project and the coming publication? Furthermore, in what ways do you see Irish Paganism as being distinct from the movements in nearby regions, such as Britain? 

[JB] Since my doctoral study was an ethnographic examination of Irish Paganism, and no prior large-scale qualitative research had been done on this topic, I did extensive fieldwork. My primary research included participant observation with different Pagan groups and solitary practitioners at festivals, rites of passage, and healing rituals as well as some other rituals. I conducted audio-recorded interviews with forty people for my doctoral study and some additional interviews for specific aspects of my research for publications outside of the dissertation. My research question was twofold: firstly I looked at what characterises the Irish Pagan worldview and secondly I looked at how that worldview is expressed through ritual and other activities. The broad scope was intentional, since no prior in-depth research had been carried out on Irish Pagan culture. This two-pronged question allowed me to cover quite a few different aspects of Pagan culture in my thesis.

Some of the topics I examined were cosmology, or the underlying philosophy of Paganism, how Pagans view the world holistically. As part of this, I examined how Pagans conceptualise the divine and the supernatural and I also looked at gender and sexuality within Paganism. I also examined magical worldview, how Pagans define magic and what kind of magical practices form part of their spirituality. I looked at Pagan material culture, which is the objects used in the ritual context and their symbolic significance, the items created by ritual craftspeople, and ritual dress and adornment.

I analysed the different kinds of rituals practiced by Pagans: life-cycle rituals, which include baby blessings (as most readers here know, a welcoming ritual and not an initiation into the religion), handfastings (or weddings) and funerals. I also looked at the initiation rituals of Wiccan Covens and Druidic Groves. Another type of ritual I examined is healing, so this includes healing rituals for people and what’s called “Earth Healing” for the planet. I also examined the ritual year or Pagan festivals and the relationship of the Pagan celebrations to the traditional Irish celebrations of Samhain, Imbolc, Beltaine and Lughnasadh. I also examined Pagan art, including painting, sculpture, ritual drama and crafts. Included in this was body modification – the tattoos and piercings that Pagans get for spiritual reasons and the kind of symbols that people get tattooed.

I analysed Pagan beliefs about the natural world, such as animistic beliefs, and how they view the landscape. As part of this I looked at the kinds of sacred sites that Pagans use for ritual practice as well as Pagan involvement in the protection of sacred sites, using the M3 Motorway and the Hill of Tara, Co. Meath as a case study. Tara is one of the most important sacred sites for Irish Pagans and the motorway damaged the site so this is a contentious issue. I also discussed Pagan involvement in environmental conservation. So, they are the main topics covered in my research.

I hope to publish a book on Irish Paganism as soon as possible. The topics covered would be the same as in my thesis, and while a scholarly book, stylistically it would more accessible to the general reader. Also there are a few areas I would like to expound on that I couldn’t include in much depth in my thesis due to the word count constraint and time limitations.

I think there are many similarities between Irish Paganism and the Paganism of other nations, but also many differences. In a general sense, the distinctions between Irish Paganism and that found in Britain rest on the use of cultural resources. In Irish Paganism, there is much emphasis on the landscape, mythology, language, and pre-Christian heritage of Ireland. Obviously, for British Pagans, these kinds of cultural factors would be very significant too, but in Ireland there are cultural dynamics at play in relation to identity, history and colonisation that make the expression of Pagan spirituality unique to this context. I should add that I haven’t done any comparative research as yet between Irish Paganism and British Paganism, or Paganism elsewhere, but from my reading of the work of Jenny Blain, Susan Greenwood, Graham Harvey and others, the points I mentioned above seem to be the most apparent differences I can see between Paganism in both regions. Much work is being done on the interconnections between Pagan identities, ethnicity and politics, such as Kathryn Rountree’s forthcoming edited collection from Berghahn Books titled Modern Pagan and Native Faith Movements in Europe: Colonial and Nationalist Impulses. In my chapter in this collection, I analyse the creation of Irish Pagan identities with regard to the kinds of cultural resources that are drawn upon as well as the socio-cultural impulses, such as romantic nationalism, that inform the movement as it exists in Ireland. This is in marked contrast to the form Paganism takes in some other nations and regional settings, particularly Eastern European ones, where it can be quite militant, overtly political and nationalistic.

[EDW] Contemporary Paganism and New Age phenomena clearly stand out as very prominent research interests of yours, and I’m sure that many of my readers would be interested in learning where this fascination stemmed from. Were you actively involved in the Irish Pagan and/or New Age scene prior to entering academia, or are you much more of an outsider to these religious and spiritual movements? 

[JB] The research interests stemmed from my general interests in magic, mythology, nature, the supernatural and religion itself. I wasn’t part of the Pagan or New Age community before I started my research and in fact, I didn’t meet any Pagans until I was at university. I read quite a few books about Wicca and Druidry as a teenager but I read widely on spiritual subjects in any case, ranging from Buddhism to Near Death Experiences.

[EDW] As far as I am aware, no one prior to yourself had undertaken any academic research into contemporary Irish Paganism, and that being the case, I wondered what your experience of being a pioneer in this field was like. Did you face any hostility from academics on the basis of this research? On the flip side of the coin, what was your reception as an academic researcher like among Ireland’s Pagan community?

[JB] To my knowledge, I am the only academic thus far to have done a study specifically on Irish Paganism. I find it surprising in many ways that nobody had done it prior to me and I hope that my study will open the door for other researchers and inspire academic interest in Irish Pagan culture. There were a few hurdles to overcome, not least that of getting my MPhil proposal accepted by University College Cork, where the academic council evaluating proposals, to their credit, were open-minded enough to see the value of scholarship in this area. Subsequently, the Irish Research Council, the funding body who supported my research, had the foresight to understand the cultural value of such a project. I’d like to acknowledge both institutions because Pagan Studies is even now a peripheral field within academia and back when I proposed the project, might have seemed rather “out there” as an idea. All staff members of the Folklore and Ethnology Department in UCC were extremely encouraging and supportive throughout my studies and departmental backing is an important factor in any postgraduate’s research experience.

It spurred me on to be the one to break new ground, as I like a challenge! It was only when I went to the Belief Beyond Boundaries conferences at The Open University in Milton Keynes and the Alternative Spiritualities and New Age Studies (ASANAS) conferences in 2003/2004 that I could see the value of such research beyond Ireland. It was nice to have some opportunities to discuss my research with others doing similar research in other countries and to network with scholars in Pagan Studies. There wasn’t a comparable conference in Ireland until 2009, with the Alternative Spiritualities, the New Age and New Religious Movements in Ireland, held at NUI Maynooth.

I have encountered academics who feel that modern-day magic and Paganism are not fit subjects for academic enquiry, but that is their personal opinion and not of any relevance to academia. I believe that fierce and vitriolic attacks from academics on this matter are not really about academic enquiry but about the personal beliefs of those academics. Usually those kinds of vituperative attacks are based in fear, as people find something threatening, for whatever reason. An area that I have taught about in my classes on Urban Ethnology and Popular Culture is cultural difference, using the example of specific subcultures as one kind of difference encountered in society. It is very interesting to me to find the same dynamics at play when certain academics encounter a research topic that is culturally marginal. Some academics behave badly toward other academics who choose to research a particular culture or demographic. I believe this behaviour in the academic world is worthy of research in itself!

I have the additional problem of encountering academics who don’t feel that the study of folklore has any merit and can’t see the sense in studies that provide insight into the lives of ordinary people. Typically, these deprecating attitudes are found among stuffy old professors who like to stay in the safety of their ivory towers where they won’t be bothered by cultural change and the unpredictability of real life. The ethnological disciplines claim to study human life and cultural expressions and it isn’t acceptable any longer to be an “armchair ethnographer”: if ethnologists want to truly understand their “human subjects” they need to turn their attention to what is actually happening in the world around them. In order to understand contemporary society, we must be aware of the changing belief-systems and interpretations of the world. Paganism and magical practices are one aspect of life that warrants such attention; there are of course many more.

In regard to the reception I got among the Pagan community, I’m glad to say it has been overwhelmingly positive. Coming to the Pagan cultural scene as an outsider attempting to conduct research was, admittedly, rather daunting. I did encounter some reluctance among Pagans at the outset of my research and it took some time before I could get the ball rolling. I think this was mainly due to the negative stereotypes that abound in the media and in public perception and so people were wary of any enquiry into their spiritual lives. In Ireland, the general public don’t really know what “Pagan” means and there are many misconceptions, some of them having to do with the Catholic clergy’s use of the word “pagan” to mean someone who has no religion or even to denote someone who is anti-Christian. The progression of the research was initially slow, as I had to wait until I was better acquainted with people before I could ask for permission to take part in rituals or other gatherings. However, I persevered and once people could see that I was conducting serious research and had a genuine interest, things became easier and more people did interviews with me and invited me to take part in their rituals. It’s not easy to be a researcher where you’re asking about a very personal spiritual dimension of people’s lives. I think it’s asking a lot to expect someone to talk about their spirituality, which is a very private thing, with a researcher who is going to analyse this material. 

[EDW] Another of your key research interests has been in the contemporary fairy beliefs of Ireland and Newfoundland, and since 2010 you have been engaged in a project titled “Comparative ethnographic analysis of supernatural folklore of Ireland and Newfoundland”, and are also involved in the production of an ethnographic documentary film on the subject. These both sound fascinating; could you tell us a little bit more about them?

[JB] Bearing in mind that my study is an ethnography, a description of the lived experiences of Pagans, I was dependent on the Pagan community for access to information on their beliefs and practices. Without this, there could be no ethnography! I am eternally grateful to my research participants for sharing their spiritual experiences and what were sometimes very personal stories with me, as well as allowing me to take part in their rituals and festival celebrations and bringing me to places that are sacred to them. The Irish Pagan community have had to put up with my incessant questions and clarifications for many years!

I was awarded a Dobbin Scholarship by the Ireland Canada University Foundation (ICUF) in 2010 in support of my ongoing project to compare the supernatural folklore of Ireland and Newfoundland. I made a research trip to Newfoundland in 2011 in order to collect archival data and library material. My research results will be published in the form of two journal articles, the first titled “Fairy legends and landscape: a comparative analysis between Ireland and Newfoundland” and the second, “Ireland and Newfoundland fairy folklore: migratory legends and identity politics.” I am also producing a 40-minute ethnographic film, titled Ireland-Newfoundland Fairy Folklore with documentary filmmaker Suzana Zalokar. This film contains commentary from academics as well as interviews with people in both locations about fairy lore, their personal beliefs and even discussions of people’s encounters with fairy beings. An Ireland-Newfoundland Partnership Research Bursary funded the documentary aspect of the collaborative research project. The film is in the final stages of production and we aim to have it out later this year.

[EDW] Like a great many people, I grew up with folk and fairy tales, and I think that it must be this childhood experience that lies behind my ongoing fascination with the subject and with academic research into it. You clearly share this interest, and so I wondered if you had similarly grown up with these tales and beliefs, and whether you felt that this inspired your own research into the subject?

[JB] I remember having books about mythology as a little girl, so I was exposed to this in my home environment. I don’t know where I first came across magic and more esoteric material, but I was reading about the occult before my teenage years. I was raised with no religion and I was exempt from religion at school, which was unusual for that time in Ireland. In a way I think this made me curious about religion and again, that interest in what people believe and why. My interest in mythology definitely influenced my decisions in choosing my academic path and I was strongly drawn to the area of belief studies in folklore and now in the area of study of religions.

[EDW] Are there any other projects or publications on the horizon that we should keep our eyes out for?

[JB] I have some ideas for a project on aspects of Irish folk religion, but it will be on the backburner while I finish the other projects I’m involved in.

[EDW] A question that I ask all of my interviewees is where they see the future of their subject progressing (or indeed regressing) in the next few decades. So from your vantage point, I’d like to ask you where you think Pagan studies and the study of fairy folklore will each be in twenty years time? Do you think that they have a bright future, or do you fear that funding cut-backs to the humanities and social sciences will have a detrimental effect on these particular scholarly pursuits?

[JB] Pagan Studies as a field extends across various disciplines, with input from a diverse range of approaches grounded in sociology, philosophy, anthropology, psychology and history, and the subject matter of Paganism has import and value from each of those perspectives. I can only speak from the standpoint of my discipline of folkloristics. From my point of view, as an ethnographer, Paganism is a fascinating subject to study for various reasons, including the issue of identity politics and cultural heritage. For a folklorist, it is especially interesting to examine the use of tradition and the cultural resources utilised by Pagans as well as examining the mechanisms in operation at the junctures of traditional and emergent culture. This movement can tell us much about current cultural processes and social change. The things that Pagans say and do, and the material culture they produce, all hold some meanings that reveal something about changing culture. Since Paganism is an expanding international movement, there are interesting parallels to be drawn between different cultural contexts and it is interesting to investigate how this religious movement adapts to distinct socio-cultural circumstances. So, in this regard I don’t see a regression of Pagan Studies any time soon, but rather an increase in academic interest. It may seem to us in Pagan Studies that a huge amount of work has been done, but despite fantastic and valuable studies being carried out, these are a drop in the ocean of scholarship compared to the academic work done on other religions and cultural ideologies. Twenty years from now, perhaps Pagan Studies will be have a stronger position within academia rather than being in a more precarious position on the periphery.

Developments in the study of fairy folklore rest on the progression of folkloristics as a discipline and as with other disciplines in the Arts and Humanities, funding cuts are having an impact. Folklore and heritage are integral to people’s identity, understanding of themselves, and sense of place, but the powers that be and those who give financial backing can often overlook these things. Historically, little serious attention has been paid to belief in supernatural beings and this is especially true of the Irish context. In relation to fairy folklore specifically, I hope to be able to contribute to the scholarship and I have a plan for an extensive research project that should be kick-started in the near future… and hopefully before twenty years have passed! 

[EDW] Thank you for talking to Albion Calling, Dr. Butler, and I wish you all the best in your future projects!


  1. This is cool, thanks for doing the interview. :)

    1. Thank you for your feedback! I'm glad that you enjoyed it.

  2. Thank you as that is a most interesting interview. I am about to post some links from blogspot blogs since i can't just reblog them like i can on WP and your post will be one of them. Good work. BB. Lee / Shawnus

    1. I am glad that you enjoyed reading it ! By all means share the link on your own blog.

  3. Hey I just found at YT that film of an interview with her on Irish Fairy Beliefs
    Have not even watched it yet but sure it is good.