On Saturday (5th January) I went to the Galway Mummers Festival in New Inn. I've been wondering how mumming in Ireland compares to the mummers plays performed in England (by the mighty Byker Mummers for example). I've only really heard my family describing what they were like decades ago. I've seen wren boys when I was quite young, but they were literally boys, and not that interesting to tell the truth. Basically they were trick or treaters. Who claimed to have killed a wren. I can't remember seeing any dead wrens as evidence.
Now that I know what English mummers do (they march, blackfaced into your house, lead by a Head Man and demand to perform a play about combat, death, resurrection and reconciliation in return for sweeping the floor, then sing a bit) I thought I should have a better look at Irish mummers while I was home.
Some Galway Head Men:
The Galway Mummers Festival in New Inn has been running for thirty years, and is an attempt to keep mumming alive. From what I can gather, in Galway at least, mumming was a living tradition up until the 60s. People would dress up on St Steven's day (26th December) and go from house to house in a group and play music, dance and tell stories for anyone who welcomed them into their home. They typically stayed for a short while and were given money when they left. Which they surely drank.
My grandparents and their brothers and sisters remember the mummers as becoming a bit of a liability. I get the impression that with the widespread availability of cars, people would travel quite a long way to houses to get money. I am guessing the standard of the performance deteriorated as mummers were freed from the responsibilities which came from being recognised and people became more fearful of total strangers coming into their house from other towns. My mother remembers mummers being welcomed into their house when she was small, and that they gradually declined and were replaced by child wren boys who would come to the house with black faces and sing:
The wren, the wren, the king of all birds
St Stephen's day was caught in the furze
Up with the kettle and down with the pan
Will you give us a penny to bury the wren?
and then ask for money. Wren is pronounced "ran" here by the way.
I remember seeing this happen a few times. I think it might have been in my mother's village, Ahascragh, rather than my own town, Athenry. I never did it myself.
So, the mumming at the festival consisted of several groups performing a play representing the arrival of a group of mummers to a house on St. Stephen's day. They are lead by a Head Man, welcomed in, they sing, dance and tell stories. The Head Man (often called The King) often says the rhyme above on entering, before ordering the rest to perform. The mummers do little without being told to do so by the Head Man. There is often a dance involving a broom. They wear costumes, but no masks or face paint. There is a certain element of a play at the festival, but this is only to put the mumming in the context of entering a house on St. Stephen's day. My family say there was no acting out of the mummers. There would have been a storyteller (a seanchaí) and these guys are usually great.
English mummers perform a play, sing and play music. Galway mummers recite a short rhyme, sing, play music, dance and tell stories. The similarities include being lead by a Head Man, promising to sweep the house, wearing funky clothes and drinking a lot. Tinsel seems a very popular part of the costume in Galway, my mother says this was always the case. Rags and ribbons are traditional for English mummers.
The festival at New Inn was well attended.
There was even a camera crew from BBC2 there to film the proceedings.
However, Brendan Canney from Caltra is sending me footage he recorded from the night.
It was quite enjoyable, many of the musicians, dancers and storytellers were excellent, some of the plays introducing the mummers were funny. I don't think any of the groups were great at everything.
It was a little sad to see this happening in a community centre which was basically a big warehouse, in front of a crowd of several hundred people, when it should be happening in your hall or your living room.
It did make me think that the Byker Mummers would do well to get some long-legged leaping short-skirted teenage girls involved in the play there somewhere.