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Ruth Finnegan was born on the last day of 1933 in Derry, Northern Ireland, the eldest child of Dr Thomas Finnegan, Professor of Classics and President of Magee College (later, under his leadership Magee University College) and Agnes Finnegan née Campbell, teacher and writer. Largely brought up in Derry, she spent most of the war years in Donegal, 13 months of it in a small cottage in a 'gentle' (faerie) wood, an experience vividly described in her mother’s entrancing 'Reaching for the Fruit' and her own semi-autobiographical novel, 'Black Inked Pearl'. This had a lasting influence on her life.


In order to avoid an upbringing tainted by Ulster religious divisions, on their return to Derry in 1945 her parents sent her to a Quaker school in York (the Mount) where the experience of memorising and repeating daily ‘texts’ from the Bible and other literature, shaped much of her future writing, most directly in her monograph Why do we quote? and her novel Black Inked Pearl.

This was followed by four joyous years (1952-56) at Somerville College Oxford, again reflected in the novel, in the delightful study of classics (a degree that then combined literature, history and philosophy), ending, to her amazement, with one of the best classics firsts of her year. After two years teaching (and repaying her student debt) at the leading public school Malvern Girls College (now Malvern St James) she decided to return to the intellectual life but this time, much though she would always love the Greek and Roman cultures, to follow her instinct, honed partly by her anti-colonialist and broadly left-wing stance, to widen her study to include learning about other cultures .


She chose to focus on Africa, and completed first the postgraduate Oxford Diploma and B.Litt in Anthropology, then fieldwork (1960-61, 1963-4) on story telling among the Limba speakers of Northern Sierra Leone (her manuscript field notes are deposited in the archives of the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London); digitised versions of audio taped Limba story-telling and (minimally) music are available on. She completed her D.Phil in 1963, supported by Nuffield College, under the celebrated anthropologist E. E. Evans-Pritchard.


Immediately after her marriage in 1963 to David John Murray, grandson of Sir James Murray, the first editor of the Oxford English Dictionary, she accompanied her husband to the University College of the Rhodesias and Nyasaland in the then Southern Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe), and from there to the more democratic if conflict-ridden setting  of  the University of Ibadan, Nigeria (1965-69) where their three daughters were born.  From there she and her husband were recruited as founding members of the academic staff of the Open University where, apart from three years at the University of the South Pacific in Fiji and Ruthm 1989, and in the wonderful setting of the University of Texas at Austin, they very productively spent the rest of their careers. They are now both Emeritus Professors and still research active. They have five grandchildren (one in New Zealand) and live, write and talk in Old Bletchley in Buckinghamshire, round the corner from the famous Bletchley Park.

Further more detailed information about the themes and vision of  Ruth Finnegan’s anthropology can be found in Ruth Finnegan Anthropologist, available at

Ruth Finnegan author
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