The Christmas season has long been a time of fun, food and festive good cheer. But, since it began, it has also been full of traditions, whether unique to families or society as a whole.
We are all familiar with these and have our own versions too, but there are also some traditions which, although they originated many decades ago, are not quite as mainstream and only those in the know are aware of their existence.
This is the case with mumming, an old Irish Christmas tradition which, although it is unclear exactly when it began, is thought to have been around since at least 1819.
And according to Fiona Byrne, curator of history at National Museums NI, mummers or rhymers, as they are called in Armagh, originally consisted of a group of a dozen men dressed up in straw costume disguise which could consist of straw dresses, straw hats or wicker hats in the shape of animal heads.
“They played instruments, sang and danced, generally wore white shirts and made their own straw costumes and sometimes there would have been ribbons tied in the straw hats,” she says.
“They performed short plays in (the guise of) various characters, spoke in rhyme and basically provided entertainment, moving from house to house, supposedly bringing good luck.
“Hats made out of rush or straw were well made, covered the face and mummers only answered to their character’s name, keeping their identity a secret. Some even changed their voices as disguise was very important.”
Thanks to some dedicated performers, this tradition is still in existence today in many parts of the world, including Northern Ireland and the Armagh Rhymers, which was formed in the 1970s by Dara Vallely, who is also a musician and painter, is a troupe of mummers “dedicated to preserving the ancient Irish arts of music, theatre and poetry”.
Wearing masks and disguises, the mummers perform at Christmas, New Year’s Day and other festive occasions throughout the year.
“Travelling troupes of actors have been entertaining people since the Middle Ages and most likely well before,” says Dara, who learned most of the rhyming he knows from his father.
“Since many of the traditional plays are tied into seasons and religious festivals which predate even Christianity, the art of mumming is very ancient.
“Part of the tradition is improvisation and new characters have joined the ranks through the years, thriving through historical eras and it is very much alive today.
“It seems to attract artists of all kinds who believe that life should be fun and is usually not performed for any personal financial gain.”
According to Dara, everything the rhymers use has to “have had a life before”, so costumes are made from used fabric and natural materials. They also use straw masks in keeping with the origins of the practice. Like all cultures in the world, a mask releases the wearer from the restrictions of everyday behaviour,” he reveals.
“Maskers can more easily walk the line between the ‘seen’ and the ‘unseen’ worlds — and in Ireland, especially, if you are engaged in rousing spirits, you certainly don’t want them to recognise you.
“The Armagh Rhymers masks are made from straw and willow grown along the banks of Lough Neagh and are mostly woven by folk artist James Mulholland and are conical-shaped to represent ancient houses and forts.”
Fiona Byrne explains the mumming tradition is similar to other performers in different parts of the country.
“Traditionally, mummers performed as Christmas Rhymers, Straw Boys and in some places, the Wren Boys,” she says.
“Some references in the National Museums NI sound archives makes mention of rhyming at Halloween as well as Christmas — and I can see why, as it is a similar tradition to trick or treating.” In addition to this, mummers’ plays are also performed around Christmas time.
“There were various characters including Rune, Prince George, Turkey Champion, Devil Doubt, Jack Straw, Beelzebub, the Captain, the Wren and Green Knight — and each would have had a rhyme to perform,” she adds.
“The basic storyline consists of a hero slaying the villain — and with characters such as Prince George, theories are these traditions came from English and Scottish settlers. There are some similar traditions in Northern England. Likewise due to Irish emigration, there are mumming traditions in New York and Philadelphia.
“It is difficult to agree when and where this tradition started. Some believe that although the mummer rhymes and plays have English origins, mumming in Ireland is much older due to mentions of men in straw conical hats providing entertainment at Emain Macha (Navan Fort in Armagh) which sounds similar to the Rhymers.”
Along with having a wealth of information on the subject, the National Museums NI has a hands-on involvement in the mumming tradition as staff member Bob Johnston makes masks for the Armagh Rhymers. There are examples of his work at the Ulster Folk Museum, where the troupe has performed on many occasions throughout the years.
“Mumming seems a strange tradition and it is difficult to provide a description which would do justice to the experience as it truly needs to be seen,” says Fiona.
“There has been a revival of traditional Irish crafts in recent years and mumming and rhyming have become more popular.
“In fact, only a few weeks ago, we facilitated an artist, originally from Belfast, now exhibiting in London, to view our mummer masks as research for the sculptures he creates.
“In 2019, a community engagement event entitled Mummers and Drummers had the two traditions come together at the Ulster Folk Museum to the sound of the Lambeg drums.
“The Armagh Rhymers performed at the Ulster Folk Museum a couple of weeks ago. If you missed them, hopefully you can catch clips of their performances in our Picture House in the Folk Museum. They are also available to hire.”
The tradition has been around for a long time, and if performers and enthusiasts have anything to do with it, will continue to do so for many years to come.
“People think it’s magical and it’s very special to us,” adds Dara. “There are many reasons why the tradition is worth preserving — during the last 40 years we have performed in schools and were the first group to bring Catholic and Protestants together in joint programmes. It’s a tradition which belongs to everybody, whether you’re Catholic, Protestant or pagan and has origins in the ancient world, where humans knew that they were close to animals.
“I also think it is very special because we know that it comes from ancient Ireland.”
n For more information, see www.armaghrhymers.com