OUR Featured Researcher: Nat Ivy ’23
Nat Ivy (she/her) is majoring in history and creative writing. She conducts research under the mentorship of Associate Professor of History Ellen Wurtzel. Her project is titled “Changelings— Turn and Face the Strange: Folklore, Identity, and Murder in 19th Century Ireland.”
Please describe your project:
My project examines the legal evolution of changeling murders in 19th century Ireland, murders committed under the suspicion that the victim was a fairy imposter, and their intersection with political and social history. In Irish folklore, changelings were fairies who would assume the place of an individual, usually a child. They were not, however, perfect substitutes, and would display behavioral or physical differences, revealing their true nature. The most effective way of banishing a changeling and returning the original person was though violence. Utilizing court records, newspapers, and archival materials I explore the ways in which folklore was utilized by both the Irish and the English as a means of both oppression and identity, and the way that folklore can be used to contextualize the transitions in Ireland’s legal and social systems.
A brief summary (the elevator speech) of your research project:
My project examines the phenomenon of changeling murders, murders committed on the suspicion that the victim was a fairy impersonator, unique to 19th century Ireland. I seek to follow the evolution of these murders in the legal and social spheres using contemporary newspapers, archival records, and court records.
Why is your research important?
My research seeks to recontextualize folklore as an active and evolving aspect of Irish life through the 19th century. I also seek to prove changeling murders were not solitary events in time, and in fact art of a larger and more complex social history
What does the process of doing your research look like?
A lot of my research is combing through public records and utilizing the magic of digital archives. I have been able to identify cases through folklore collections and secondary sources, and then track down the court transcripts, media coverage, and even personal records (like diaries) that pertain to the actual event and crime. It’s very important to be able to verify the events and the outcomes, and kind of feels like a puzzle. From there, I examine the social, economic, and political world around the event and try to draw connections and conclusions.
What knowledge has your research contributed to your field?
I have been able to trace three distinct periods in Irish history wherein changeling murders were treated distinctly in court and in the public sphere.
How did you get involved in research? What drove you to seek out research experiences in college?
As a history student, I took HIST 299 Historical Research Methods where I began the research for this project. I later was able to write and present research on German folklore and medieval witchcraft at the University of Pittsburgh European and Eurasian Undergraduate Research Symposium, which inspired me to pursue a longer research project and take on an Honors thesis in my senior year at Oberlin.
What is your favorite aspect of the research process?
I have really enjoyed being able to engage in archival research with this project. I was fortunate enough to receive an Artz grant and travel to the National Archives of Ireland. I am also very passionate about examining folklore’s persisting cultural relevance.
How has working with your mentor impacted the development of your research project? How has it impacted you as a researcher?
Working with Professor Wurtzel always inspires me to push myself to produce the best version of what I’m working on. Under her mentorship, I have become a more confident and structured writer and a more detailed and thorough researcher. Though she doesn’t focus on folklore or 19th century history, her perspective pushes me to consider angles I would not on my own, and to explore new sources.
How has the research you’ve conducted contributed to your professional or academic development?
I’m pursuing an MA in Folklore and Public Culture after my time at Oberlin, and having research experience has made me a much better candidate. Going through the process of proposing, writing, researching, and editing a thesis has improved my writing, researching, and ability to construct a convincing and coherent argument.
What advice would you give to a younger student wanting to get involved in research in your field?
Take the plunge and undertake an Honors thesis if you have the opportunity to do so. Establishing a community of people who care about my research and my project, and who I can serve in the same way, has been one of the most fulfilling experiences I have had at Oberlin. The freedom to research things I am passionate about has reignited a love and respect of learning in me. Also do in-person research! It’s so much fun and a truly unique experience.