A VISIT FROM SLIGO'S CHRISTMAS MUMMERS; also: STRAWBOYS: What are they?
Co. Sligo Sidhe Gaoithe Mummers on YouTube. Click HERE
For Irish Times feature click HERE
Death and Resurrection
As the days grew shorter and shorter approaching the winter solstice it seemed to our remote ancestors that the waning sun was in imminent danger of disappearing altogether. In earlier times human or animal sacrifice was offered to placate the gods. When this ceased people knew that something had to be done that would please these all-powerful, mysterious deities so they would restore the light, allow the days to lengthen and the forces of normality rebirth and regrowth to return.
At Newgrange in the Boyne valley the shaft of light entering the chamber on the shortest day of the year did the trick. From time immemorial in Ireland the Christmas Mummers have practised sympathetic magic to achieve the same result. Following the struggle between the two hero figures, representing the fight between the forces of light and darkness, one falls to the ground. He represents the death of the old year. Dr Brown arrives and by his magical incantations cures the fallen body. He can achieve any consequence he desires simply by simulating the problem, treating it, and transferring the desired result by a process of cause and effect to the dysfunctional unit: in this case the movement of the sun and planets. This is why Mummers go out only during the Solstice/Christmas season.
In medieval times the winter struggle between dark and light was represented in plays. Those plays, which are believed to have their origins in the second millennium B.C., have come down to us today in the form of Mummers and Wren Boys. Their are very few Mummers groups in Ireland now and, despite the adage: "Don't make a custom or break a custom", fewer still who keep the tradition as it was handed to us. Taking their name from the 'Fairy Whirlwind' of Irish folklore our Sligo 'Sidhe Gaoithe' Mummers is one of the very few that is part of that unbroken living link. Mummers are often confused with Strawboys as some groups wear straw. However this is not traditional except for one character 'Jack Straw' (See note on Strawboy tradition at bottom of page). Some Mummer groups dance around the midsummer bonefire but, as the very essence of the Christmas mummers is involved with death of the old year and revival of the new, this is just ridiculous!
This short story recalls my first encounter with the ‘Mummers’:
My mother mixed the dough for our Christmas cake on the kitchen table. Back then, Halloween and Christmas were the only times of the year when we were sure to have raisin bread. My chin reaching just over the top of the table, I watched in mouth watering anticipation.
A fireside scene from the '50s
Out of the dark night
Beside the fire my father sat in the chimney corner building the red hot coals expertly as he added more turf. Weather-beaten faces ruddy in the reflected firelight he chatted quietly, swapping stories with ramblers Dan Kelly, Kevin Mc Grath and Jimmy Dowdican. Outside, one of the frequent winter gales swept in off the Atlantic. The deep bellow of the big open chimney rose and fell according to the intensity of the gusts, its crescendos punctuating the occasional silences in the conversation.
Suddenly a loud rat-tat-tat on the front door startled the gathering. ‘Any room for Mummers,’ a strident, rough voice outside the door demanded. ‘Aah, it’s only the Mummers,’ my mother said. ‘Come in,’ she smiled, facing to the door, ‘Ta failte romhaimh.’
"grotesque shadows pirouetting"
The door burst open and a strange looking masked figure dressed in rags, decorated with ribbons and papers, and wearing a tall conical straw hat leaped, with a few wild bounds, into the kitchen. A draught of air whirled through the open door causing the flame of the oil lamp to dance wildly. It sent grotesque shadows pirouetting along the whitewashed wall from the prancing figure in the middle of the kitchen. I ran terrified from the table to hide behind my father in the corner and watched as this menacing figure, like some mad hobgoblin of the dark, paced across the floor. Following him a motley array of creatures with strange names: Captain, Green Knight, Brian Boru, Beelzebub and Devil Doubt paraded across the flagstone floor in quick succession each one reciting a strange gibberish of words:
"I’m bonny brave Brian Boru
On Clontarf’s fair plain I did slew
Norwegians and Swedes
Norsemen of all breds
Oh, their battles with me they did rue.
But Brodur the dirty young pup
Charged in before I got up,
From my knees as I prayed
And my old head he splayed
At life’s table no more did I sup.
If you don’t believe these words I say,
enter Finn Mac Cumhaill, clear the way!"
A warrior-like figure dashes in and recites:
"My name is fab Finn Mc Cool
From my birth I was destined to rule.
As the Fianna’s “top cat”
On invaders I sat
And, by God, no-one acted the fool.
For whenever commotion broke out
And anyone acted the lout,
To engender some fear
I pulled out my spear
And the enemy I soon put to rout."
Brian Boru mortally wounded
A parade of other characters went through their rhymes and gymnastics following which a fight broke out between Finn Mc Cool and Brian Boru. I watched wide-eyed as after a fierce struggle Brian Boru dropped mortally wounded to the floor. In response to a call from the Captain a mad doctor in outlandish dress rushed in claiming to cure:
"the plague within, the plague without
The palsy, ague and the gout.
If there was nine devils within
I could drive eleven out.
If there was an old woman on critches
I’d have her jumping stone ditches"
Feigning uncertainty the Captain asked:
"What medicine do you use, Sir?"
Like an African witch doctor the strange medicine man pranced and gyrated and claimed that he cured with:
"the foo of the fee and the hillis the bee
Nine pills, nine drills, nine fortnights before day
And if that doesn’t cure, I’ll ask no pay.
I’ve a little bottle here on top of my cane
Called hocus-pocus ellacampane.
Rise up dead man and fight again."
The dead man rose up from the floor, Devil Doubt produced an accordeon, and the strange company played and danced around the floor. After awhile they passed an old tin box, collecting a few coins from the people of the house before dancing out into the darkness rhyming:
"We are the neighbours childer
Who have come from far and near.
We thank you all and wish you well
And hope to meet next year."
That first experience of the Christmas Mummers has etched itself on my memory as in a photograph. The custom is not as popular as it once was, but in North Sligo, and in some other parts of Ireland, we still carry on this ancient tradition handed down from one generation to another. There is nothing in today’s extravagant holiday festivities to match that simple Christmas visit of long ago so vividly imprinted on a child’s imagination!
Below: Mummers on their rounds 2007:
For a related article on Wrenboys go HERE
Previous articles featured in this space can be found in Archives
"Strawboys" go out at all times of the year, but only to weddings. Taking their name from their disguise Strawboys are an ancient wedding tradition the origins of which are unclear. Strawboys are recognisable by their uniquely shaped conical straw hats and dress and, despite their title, nowadays comprise both men and women. Although sometimes worn by Mummers, straw hats are incorrect dress for this play and not in keeping with tradition.
Our Co. Sligo ‘Sidhe Gaoithe’ Strawboys (pictured left and below) go out to weddings in Northwest Ireland and occasionally travel as far as Dublin. The purpose of the Strawboy visit, which lasts about half an hour, is to bring good luck, happiness, health and prosperity to the bride and groom. The central part of the ceremony is the crowning of the wedded couple before and after which our members dance, sing, play music and recite poems to entertain the guests.
Disguise is common to all traditons but when done properly Strawboys are the only one of the three customs (Wrenboys, Mummers and Strawboys) who wear straw hats and skirts. Previously it was a tradition to burn the hats on the way home when the group was well received at a wedding. If they were made unwelcome or not hospitably treated the hats were thrown high up in the tree branches so that next day the whole village would know of the bride and groom’s meanness!
Visit Youtube for a glimpse of our annual Hat Making Night HERE
For information on 'Wrenboys' go to: Wrenboys in Ireland: ‘The wran, the wran, the king of all birds...':
When Strawboy costume is correctly made it should look like this
Beware of Imitations
"At Aughakillymaude, a series of man-made torches filled with fire lighters were soon ablaze marking the beginning of the mummers road procession.
Traditionally known as the buachailli tui (the strawboys) at least a dozen young straw cladded mummers emerged from the darkness carrying aloft naked, flaming torches in silent procession.
Marching in semi military formation the mummers also known as guisers at Halloween proceeded to lower their torches and salute the mummers centre."
Sounds good doesn't it!
But this is all makey uppy stuff that has nothing to do with custom or tradition. Aughakillymaude 'Mummers' group are a mixum gatherum of Irish and European customs drawn from the different seasons and various countries. They are funded to travel at home and abroad presenting these 'customs' as genuine Irish — but they are not!
Theatre yes, tradition no! On Bonefire Night (June 23rd) their group dances around a bonefire with straw hats and skirts. It looks good and the tourists love it — but it has nothing to do with custom or tradition, it's an Aughakillymaude 'Mummers' invention.
Beware of imitations. The true mummers go with their madcap revelry at Christmas and celebrate the winter solstice in the way of always. Strawboys in straw dress go out to weddings all through the year. Wrenboys go out on St. Stephen's night.
It's important to know the difference.
Proverb: "Never make a tradition or break a tradition."