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The Development of the Irish Christmas Mummers Play 743

Roots and Ramifications of

A Remarkable Fusion
Aspects of the Development of the Irish Christmas
Mummers Play
Samas Cathin

The document, Descriptio itineris Capitanei Iosae Bodley in Lecaliam, con-

tains an interesting account of a journey made in north-eastern Ireland almost
four hundred years ago. Its author, Captain Josias Bodley (c. 15501618), was
an English officer of the Elizabethan army who spent several years in Ireland
around the turn of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries at a time when Eng-
lish power there was at a relatively low ebb.1 Christmas tide 1602 found Bod-
ley travelling with some companions through various parts of counties Armagh
and Down on his way to join in celebrating the festive season with an acquaint-
ance who probably lived at Downpatrick in the Barony of Lecale.
Ireland had been racked with conflict as the English sought to subdue the
natives who, just a few short years before (in 1598), had succeeded in routing
Queen Elizabeths forces at Blackwatertown, near Armagh, with the slaughter
of above two thousand men. Josias Bodley was a leading figure in the cam-
paign to regain control that followed this set-back, an interlude that culminated
in the disastrous defeat of the Irish at the Battle of Kinsale in 1603, the Flight
of the Earls and the collapse of the old Gaelic order, and, commencing in
1608, the Plantation of Ulster.
Bodleys account provides, as one commentator puts it:
a curious peep at the barrack or mess-room life, the sayings and doings off parade
and out of view of the eyes of history, of six officers of high rank and fame in Eliza-
beths veteran army but it further possesses an interest in the locality just men-
tioned, from the allusions to the wild and uncultivated state in which it then was, and
the difficulties encountered in traversing it; as well as from the circumstances that,
just at this time, the power of the Irish Clanship was about to cease; by the submis-
sion of Hugh, Earl of Tyrone, the last of the great ONeills; and that, in the forfeiture
of his estates, as well as those of the ODonnell, ODoherty, OCahan, and some
other less important chieftains, originated the settlement and plantation of Ulster,
with the establishment of which Bodley was officially connected (Anon 1854:
Bodleys elder brother, Sir Thomas Bodley, will be ever memorable as the founder of the mag-
nificent library at Oxford named from him the Bodleian where the manuscript containing this
account (MS Tanner 444, fol. 4v) is held: Fletcher (2000: 56 and 350, note 248) and Fletcher
(2001: 565).
744 Samas Cathin

More importantly from our perspective, Josias Bodley furnishes an outsiders

view of mumming in that part of Ireland in the period immediately prior to the
Plantation of Ulster, an event that resonates in the annals of Irish mumming to
the present day in the context of the development of the Irish Christmas Mum-
mers play. Gailey (1966: 154) characterised the synergies involved in this
process in the following terms:
The folk play in Ireland represents an alien element received into a changing cultural
pattern. Records of its appearance in the country almost all come from areas where
English influence was strong in the seventeenth-century Plantations, but we would
require to know more about the detailed relationships between incoming and already
existing populations in these areas before being able to claim that the folk-play either
replaced or merged with some other custom.

The forces that sustained the emergence of this particular cultural product were
similarly summed up by Green (1971: 113) in his review of Gailey (1969):
The outline remains the same: a text of presumably recent date imposed on a
shadowy life-cycle drama of international provenance and vast antiquity. Questions
remain to be answered, especially as to how and when the existing English texts and
characters were imported and imposed on the earlier folk dramas. At whatever time
and for whatever reason, there does seem to have been a remarkable fusion of Eng-
lish and Irish elements.

Over the years, the Irish Christmas Mummers play has engaged the attention
of a small number of scholars, among them the aforementioned Rodney Green
(1946 and 1971); his fellow Ulsterman, Alan Gailey (1966, 1967, 1968, 1969,
1974 and 1978); and Henry Glassie (1975) and, latterly, Ray Cashman (2000a
and 2000b) of the USA. Among the questions raised in that context are the fol-
lowing: how to quantify the influence on Irish mumming of the incoming Eng-
lish planters and, correspondingly, how to explain the apparent lack of influ-
ence of planters and other newcomers of Scottish origin (predominantly Prot-
estant in both cases); what was the role of British oral tradition and likewise
eighteenth- and nineteenth-century chapbooks in shaping and consolidating
the Englishness of mumming rhymes in general; what is the distribution of
the mumming tradition as between different regions in the northern half of Ire-
land and, in particular, as between members of the Protestant and Catholic
communities in that area; what was the nature of the original Irish ludus,
posited by Green, and how exactly did that ludus meld with texts and charac-
ters imported and imposed (Green 1971: 113) 2 upon it; and, not least, what
was the role of the Irish language in that process?
The description provided by Bodley of the Irish mummers he met with at

While there is not enough evidence to make a definite statement, I am strongly of the opinion
that there was an original Irish ludus, preserved in Ulster and parts of Leinster, by fitting on to it
an imported English text. Elsewhere it has degenerated into the simple Wrenboy processions of
Saint Stephens Day: Green 1946: 12. Gailey (1966: 153) is less sanguine, however, maintaining
the view that the question of borrowing from an older Irish ludus must be more problematical than
Green imagined.
The Development of the Irish Christmas Mummers Play 745

the turn of the year 1602 predates the onset of the kind of fusion referred to
by Green and, therefore, does not concern itself with these issues. Bodleys
contribution to expanding our knowledge of the nature of what may have been
an example of an original Irish ludus is largely limited to areas such as com-
portment, musical accompaniment, equipment and costume, and disguise; his
description of what he saw and heard implies the occurrence of verbal ex-
changes and, perhaps, even the delivery of vaunts of one kind or another, but,
unfortunately, no hint of whose these or what their narrative content may have
been is offered.
Nevertheless, Bodleys account highlights interesting aspects of Irish mum-
ming including some that continue to feature in contemporary Irish mumming.
It goes as follows:
Et jam iterum ad Lecalium nostrum, ubi ibter alia, qu ad hillaritatem conferebant,
venerunt vna nocte post Cnam maschari quidam ex Nobilibus Hibernicis, numero
quatuor (si recte memini) Illi primum miserunt ad Nos literas Fustianas secundum
antiquam phrasim, post nostras cordiales commendationes &cetera dicentes, se
fuisse certos Aduienas nuper arriuatos in illis partibus, & valde cupidos preterire
vnam, vel alterm horam Nobiscum, & post concessam veniam isto ordine ingrediun-
tur. Primo puer cum tda accensa, tunc duo pulsantes tympana, tunc ipsi Maschari
duo, & duo, tunc altera tda. Vnus ex Mascaris portabat sordidum emunctorium
cum decem Libris intus, non ex Bullione, sed ex noua pecunia nuper impressa, qu
habet Lyram an vno latere, & Insignia Regalia ab altero. Iduebantur Canisijs {read
Camisijs} cum multis folijs Hder hic, & illic sparsim consutis, & super Facies
suas habebant maschas ex pelle Cuniculi cum foraminibus ad videndum extra, &
nasi erant facti ex papyro, Galeri vero alti, et pyramidales (more persico) etiam ex
papyro ornati cum dictis Folijs. Dicam breui, ludimus Tesseris; nunc Tympana ex
illorum partibus, nunc Tuba ex nostris sonabat (Fletcher 2000: 56).
(And now back to Lecale, where, amongst the various things which roused our
mirth, there came one night after dinner certain maskers, Irish noblemen, four in
number, if I remember rightly. First they sent us preposterous letters [according to
the old expression] which, after cordially greeting us, announced that they were cer-
tain forreigners [sic], recently arrived in those parts, and that they were keen on
spending an hour or two with us. And after getting permission, they enter in this or-
der. First, a boy with a lighted torch, then two [men] beating drums, then the maskers
themselves, two by two, then another torch. One of the maskers carried a dirty
handkerchief with ten pounds in it, not in bullion, but in the new currency recently
minted, which has harp on one side and the royal arms on the other. They were
dressed in shirts with ivy leaves sowed [sic] on, thickly in some places, and thinly in
others, and over their faces they had masks made out of rabbit skin, with holes to see
out of, and their noses were made of paper, with high, conical helmets and peaked
[in the Persian manner], also made from paper and decorated with the same leaves.
Let me be brief: we play at dice, now with drum rolls from their side, now with trum-
pet flourishes from ours.)

Fletcher (2000 and 2001), whose labours have recently resulted in the most
comprehensive survey of the documentary sources for Irish drama from ear-
liest times until the mid-seventeenth century, and whose translation of
Bodleys Latin text this is, comments that the exotic visitors in question ob-
746 Samas Cathin

Fig. 24.1: The Ederney Mummers, Co. Fermanagh, Ireland, in 1982. (Photo: Samas Cathin.)
(Courtesy of the National Folklore Collection, University College, Dublin.)

viously operated as a group, that they had assumed a fictitious identity, an-
nounced in advance, and that when the maskers made their entry, they did so
in pairs dramatically preceeded by a boy with a blazing torch and two
drummers, with another torchbearer bringing up the rear. Their appearance,
as Fletcher says, seems especially to have struck Bodley, for he recorded it
carefully: shirts with ivy leaves sown [sic] on, rabbit-skin masks with paper
noses, and headdresses which were conical paper affairs similarly covered with
ivy leaves (Fletcher 2000: 57). Fletcher continues:
It may be suspected that the evenings entertainment was a hybrid of English and
Irish forms. Elements of the upper-class English pastime of masking are clearly ap-
parent in it, especially in the way in which it was stage-managed. Irish input into the
Lecale performance might be suspected in the way in which the maskers dressed:
their conical headdresses seem to foreshadow those still worn by the Ulster straw-
boys for mummings (Fletcher 2000: 57).

In most cases, the identity of members of todays mumming groups is con-

cealed by facial disguise or masks of various materials, nowadays often false
faces of latex but, formerly, home-made disguises fashioned from humbler
materials including, in earlier centuries, animal skins as Bodleys account
confirms. Most striking of all, perhaps, is the deployment of straw as a material
for masking and the manufacture of body costume. Masks in the shape of
conically shaped headgear are woven in a ribbed style with a broad base wide
enough to allow them to be drawn over the head and cover the face. The ribs
can be adjusted by pulling them closer together in order to hide the wearers
features completely from view, or by easing them apart in order to give
enhanced vision. Straw hats often feature a fancy four-cornered crest or top-
The Development of the Irish Christmas Mummers Play 747

Figs 24.2ab: Straw hats as used by mummers

in Co. Fermanagh, Ireland. Models commis-
sioned by Aughakillymaude Community
Mummers, displayed in County Hall, Enniskil-
len, Co. Fermanagh, in June 2003. (Photo:
Molly Carter.) (Courtesy of Molly Carter.)

knot, also of straw, from which a long tassel might trail (see figs 24.1, 24.2 a
b and 24.3). Straw body costume can range from a rudimentary sheaf of straw
bound around the waist with a sgn (straw) rope to elaborate panelled tunics
designed to cover the upper and lower body. These were fastened across the
middle with loops of straw and also trailed fancy woven straw tassels (see fig.
Other than trumpeting and drumming a musical accompaniment to a game
of dice in which the Englishmen stripped the Irish noblemen of their money
and sent them packing, no reference is made by Bodley to whatever kind of
presentation may have preceded the activities of the gamblers on this occasion.
As Fletcher says, the exotic appearance of the visitors (whose description by
Bodley as Irish noblemen, to judge by the general tone of his piece, is likely
to have been sarcastic), was what mainly impressed this English observer
whose seeming disinterest in recording whatever narrative content may have
attached to an otherwise closely observed event, might have stemmed from
For a full description of the use of straw in making these costumes, see Gailey 1968. There are
intriguing parallels between the form of these costumes and those found in Shetland: see further
the Survey of Masks and Mumming Traditions in the North Atlantic elsewhere in this volume, and
figs 4.34.5, 4.74.8 and 4.104.11.
748 Samas Cathin

Fig. 24.3: A Mummers play as performed by the Aughakillymaude Community Mummers at

County Hall, Enniskillen, Co. Fermanagh, in June 2003. (Photo: Terry Gunnell.)

lack of familiarity with the Irish language, which we may presume to have fea-
tured as part of the visiting Yuletide mumming partys presentation.
If, as Fletcher suggests, the evenings entertainment was a hybrid of Eng-
lish and Irish forms in terms of performance and presentation, we may equally
well suppose that communication between the parties may have been just as
variable. We may also speculate that the kind of narrative content that ultimate-
ly fueled and sustained the operation of Greens process of fusion featured
among the maskers utterances on this occasion and that this together with
kindred contemporary materials duly came to be reflected in the forms we rec-
ognise today as enduring elements of the Irish Christmas mummers play. It
seems reasonable to suppose that, despite the dearth of Christmas mummers
rhymes in the Irish language (a situation adverted to by various commentators
[Green 1946: 12; and Gailey 1978: 61]), certain elements of the play as we
know it today may have had Irish-language counterparts or models at an earlier
For example, some of the elements of the doctors rhyme, in which this
character responds to a call for him to list the ingredients of the cure he has to
offer, are paralleled directly in the Irish-language, albeit in sources not obvi-
ously connected with mumming. A detailed analysis of all available rhymes at-
tributed to the doctor, the stuff of which formulae is impossibility symbols,
may well expand the range of potential matches in this context. 4 Elements of
Gailey (1974: 1112) offers an analysis of elements of the doctors rhyme, including reference
to relevant English and Scottish sources, and indicates (1974: 9) that all three elements of the epi-
sode involving the doctor (statements of his abilities and of the ingredients in his medicine, and a
guarantee of his qualification by a recitation of his travels) are well known in British mumming.
The Development of the Irish Christmas Mummers Play 749

the doctors rhyme from Christmas Mummers plays are attested not only in
more or less contemporary Irish-language sources, but similar formulations
also crop up in an Irish literary source of an earlier period where they are char-
acterised as greas do mianaibh ingantacha nach urusa dfhagail (a bunch of
remarkable wishes not easily fulfilled). The relevant passage occurs in the late
Middle Irish text, Tromdmh Guaire (Joynt 1941: 1011), in which an incident
that is said to have occurred on a not insignificant date, namely idir dha
Nodlaig (lit. between the two Christmases) during the twelve days of Christ-
mas is described. There, Muirenn, wife of Dalln, articulates a troublesome
wish (mian cesamail). Failure to fulfil it, she maintains, will be the death of
her (n baam beo). Senchn asks what she wishes to have and Muirenn
Sgala do linn leamhnachta le smir mughdhorn mhuc n-allaid; peta cuach do beth ar
crand eiginn am fhiadhnuisi idir dha Nodlaig in tan sin a tenn-[eiri for a mhuin
7] crislach na timcheall do ruadhan [bloingi toirc] gleghil, 7 ech mongach riabhach
do beth [fithi 7 m]ong corcra fuirre 7 bert do ln in damhain alla uimpi 7 si ac cronan
roimpi co Durlas.5 Is decair in mian sin dfhagail, ar Senchn. N haein-mhian
sin acht greas do mianaib ingantacha nach urusa dfhaghail.
(A bowl of new milk with the ankle-bone marrow of a wild pig; a pet cuckoo on a
churn dash to be my witness between the two Christmases a pressing [burden on
its back and] a girding of pure white boar lard round her, and a hairy bay horse with
a purple mane under her and a spiders web about her as she drones all the way to
Senchn replies: That is a hard wish to satisfy That is not a single wish but a
bunch of remarkable wishes not easily fulfilled.)

This and a number of other circumstances point to the possibility of Irish-lan-

guage narrative content having formed part of the interface between the Eng-
lish and Irish mumming traditions at an earlier stage. Nevertheless, the fact of
the matter is that, with the rare exception of specially translated versions of the
play for, at the very least, the past century or so, the Christmas Mummers play
appears invariably to have been performed in English, even by and for people
whose knowledge of that language would have been rudimentary in many cases.
It would be extremely interesting to speculate as to what the meaning of this
intriguing dynamic might be, especially in the context of possible similar oc-
currences elsewhere. Previous commentators whose knowledge of the
Irish-language sources may have been slight have tended to see the preponder-
ately monolingual English-language play in Ireland as evidence of the over-
whelming nature of the influence of the alien product and the correspondingly
insignificant input of the native tradition to the process. I hope to show else-
where that there may be more to this than meets the eye and that greater possi-
bilities to illuminate the fascinating chemistry of interchange and adaption
exist than might have been hitherto imagined (see Cathin 2007 forthcom-
Joynt 1941: 1011. The translation from the Irish is mine.
750 Samas Cathin

The Irish Christmas Mummers play is of the Hero Combat variety, a struc-
ture in which two of the characters engage in sword-play (see Helm 1980: 27
33; and Cass and Roud 2002: 2930); one of these is mortally wounded only
to be miraculously revived by a doctor who is called upon to minister to the
stricken combatant (fig. 24.3; cf. fig. 23.1). These four characters dominate the
essential core of the play: the swordsmen, the doctor and the caller, and they
are also familiar, to a greater or lesser degree, from the mumming tradition of
various parts of our neighbouring island. 6 A singular quality of the Irish play is
the string of so-called independent characters that top and tail it, so to speak,
surrounding the dramatic core of the play with a series of entrances and exits,
actions and rhymes that often do not have an obvious bearing on its central
theme. Both spheres the central dramatic core and the ground occupied by
the independent characters offer opportunities for us to identify elements
of Irish influence on the play as we know it in Ireland today and we shall now
take a brief look at a few of these.
Jack Straw, who is possibly the most interesting of the many independent
characters in the Irish play, is epitomised by Gailey as a significantly Irish
folk drama character (Gailey 1974: 16) who, within Ireland is known only in
Ulster, who appears in only one version outside Ireland, in Ayrshire (Scot-
land), but in circumstances clearly suggestive of direct influence from Ireland
(Gailey 1967: 25), and whose absence from the chapbook text is noteworthy
(Gailey 1974: 16). This exotic figure has achieved something akin to iconic
status in that in many of the mumming groups in which he appears he is the
only character to be dressed in straw (see figs 24.1 and 24.4). As is borne out
by the descriptions of him contained in versions of his rhyme, Jack Straw is
nothing less than the personification of straw:
You often heard of Jack Straw,
But never saw him on this floor before.
My father was straw, my mother was straw,
And I was reared in a barn of straw (Gailey 1968: 83).
This was also noted as:
My father was straw,
My mother was straw,
and why shouldnt I be straw? (Gailey 1966: 145).

Other versions proclaim Jack Straws prodigious virility:

Here comes I Jack Straw,
With my stick in my hand ready to draw.
I had fourteen childer born in the one night,
And not two in the one townland (Glassie 1975: 82).

In addition, Jack Straws rhyme has occasionally been understood as a riddle,

the answer to which is variously given as A butterfly, A maggot and

See further the article by Emily Lyle elsewhere in this volume.
The Development of the Irish Christmas Mummers Play 751

Fig. 24.4: Jack Straw, with the Dooish Mummers, Co. Tyrone, Ireland in 1976. (Photo: Caoimhn
Danachair.) (Courtesy of the National Folklore Collection, University College, Dublin.)

Lightning. The following is a typical version of this enigmatic formula-

Here comes I, Jack Straw,
Such a man you never saw.
I kissed the devil
Through a rock,
Through a reel,
Through an old spinning wheel,
Through a bag of pepper,
Through a millers hopper,
Through a sheeps shank bone ( Cathin 1998: 182).7
Jack Straw and another of the independent characters, Green Knight (whose
pugnacious entrance and demeanour quickly peters out in limp withdrawal
from the scene), represent a pairing that may have constituted a double combat
element that once featured as part of the Irish play.8 Green Knight is seen in
For a discussion of this rhyming riddle, see Cathin 1998.
For a treatment of what he calls Secondary Verbal Combat, see Gailey 1974: 78 and 1617.
752 Samas Cathin

modern versions of the play as representing the Irish, as opposed to the English
interest, a role usually discharged by Prince or Saint Patrick (facing Prince or
Saint George) in the dramatic core of the play.
Appropriately enough, Green Knight is clad from head to toe in the Irish
colours and carries a green shield and green sword in latter years, a green
(wooden) machine gun. He generally follows Jack Straw into the arena as part
of the Presentation, immediately prior to the Combat, and delivers a rhyme
such as the following:
Here comes I, Green Knight,
With my machine gun here to fight.
My head is made of iron and my bodys made of steel
My britches are made of hardware
And any time theres a battle on Im ready for the field
If you dont believe the words I say,
Enter in Prince George and hell clear the way.9
It came as somewhat of a shock recently to find the person playing this char-
acter decked out in army fatigues, sporting an imitation (wooden) machine gun
and wearing a balaclava in a version of the play performed within a few miles
of the present border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland, a
district subject to intensive military and police patrols and frequent road
blocks. The young man in question seemed utterly unconcerned about the risk
of being arrested as a suspected member of a paramilitary organisation. This is
the background against which we find mumming used as a vehicle for the ex-
pression of multi-layered religious and political loyalties in At the Black Pigs
Dyke, a recent play by Vincent Woods.
A subtler, more accommodating representation of the Irish interest, so to
say, is also discernible in the role of Prince or Saint Patrick. Not unsurprisingly,
perhaps, in the majority of the Irish plays surveyed by Alan Gailey, George
falls victim to Patrick, the Turkey Champion or another character (Gailey
1966: 133135). In a society where political loyalties, British or Irish, broadly
divide along sectarian lines Protestant/ Catholic the facility to inflict figura-
tive defeat on the political opposition must have accorded a modicum of satis-
faction to some, while what injured feelings there may have been on the oppo-
site side would be instantly assuaged by the miraculous revival and swift res-
toration to health of the losing party.10
Such factors may have been among the reasons the Christmas Mummers
play found and continues to find such ready acceptance in communities other-
wise notoriously wary of one another in matters cultural. Nor did these events
take place in a vacuum insulated from the daily concerns of opposing factions,

Collected by the author on numerous occasions in various parts of counties Fermanagh and
Tyrone. A single version of this rhyme is noted by Gailey (1966: 147) from Garrison, county
Glassies chapter in All Silver and No Brass (1975) entitled Function: To Bring Unity Amongst
them (122142) treats of these issues, and those mentioned in the following paragraph.
The Development of the Irish Christmas Mummers Play 753

but performances typically took place subject to the scrutiny of all, as it was
the custom to visit every house in the community, whether Protestant or
Catholic. Whereas the participants in predominantly Protestant or Catholic
areas tended to be exclusively Protestant or Catholic, in many areas of mixed
population, the players, accompanying musicians, singers, dancers and cos-
tume makers were frequently drawn from both sides of the community.
These and many other issues have been the subject of investigation by the
Room to Rhyme Project which over a period of three years (20002003) ac-
tively documented the mumming tradition over much of the northern part of
Ireland from archive and field sources. A portion of this work has concentrated
on representing the findings by means of GIS mapping, a process that promises
to facilitate the achievement of new levels of understanding with regard to the
distribution of the various manifestations of mumming within the region, the
location of various mumming groups, their stamping grounds and itineraries,
questions of membership with regard to social class and religious affiliation,
names of characters and their rhymes, costume and accoutrements, music, song
and choreography, and a host of other interesting features.
This work is based at University College Dublin, but I am delighted to say
that it represents a co-operative venture between my own university and two
institutions in Northern Ireland (the Academy for Irish Cultural Heritages in
Derry and the Ulster Folk and Transport Museum, just outside Belfast), and,
equally so, that the various funding authorities have seen it as a worthy vehicle
for promoting peace and reconciliation between the opposing sides in Northern
Ireland and advancing cross-border co-operation on the island of Ireland.
Arising from the remarkable fusion of cultural and national interests that is
the Irish Christmas Mummers play, we may look forward, perhaps, to seeing
mumming exercise a continuing role as a model of cultural accommodation in
a society that, unfortunately, appears almost as divided nowadays as it was dur-
ing Irelands Elizabethan wars.
754 Samas Cathin