These masked singers continue an Irish Christmas tradition
For centuries in Ireland, mummers would arrive at homes unannounced in an age-old holiday custom. Now, after a long lull, these disguised revelers are back in force.
For at least 400 years during Christmas season, Irish mummers have dressed in straw outfits while going house-to-house captivating residents with their plays, rhymes, singing, dancing, and music. In the mid-1900s, this custom nearly died out, partly due to fractures in Irish society. Now, however, mumming is resurgent.
This is all thanks to several mumming clubs in Ireland that perform shows in the lead-up to Christmas. One huge project was started seven years ago in County Leitrim by local artist Edwina Guckian. Straw is harvested from local farms, handwoven into masks and dresses, and donned by more than 300 young mummers who perform in groups outside homes throughout December. The Leitrim event culminates with the costumes being burned in a festive bonfire.
But don’t call them “Straw Men,” unless you want to annoy academics, who say that, although it is widely believed that mumming dates back to pagan times, the evidence points to that origin story being more lore than fact.
Either way, mumming is helping a new generation bond with ancestral traditions, says Guckian. And while mumming groups historically consisted of young men, now they represent the full spectrum of Irish society.
Tourists keen to witness a performance can head to Leitrim, an idyllic county in northwest Ireland known for its verdant forests, crystalline lakes, and tight-knit rural communities.
Mumming’s the word
The word mummer, believed to be Germanic in origin, is used to refer to a masked actor in the countries where this tradition has prospered, including Ireland, England, Scotland, and Canada. The custom arrived in Ireland from England in the 1600s, explains Anne O’Dowd, retired curator at the National Museum of Ireland and author of Straw, Hay and Rushes in Irish Folk Tradition.
For centuries thereafter, mumming was common in the northern half of Ireland and along parts of its east coast. It was given an Irish twist via its characters and themes. Historically, each all-male troupe portrayed Irish heroes like Saint Patrick, controversial political figures such as Britain’s Oliver Cromwell and King George, folk characters like Jack Straw, and mythological creatures including Beelzebub.
A fight between two of these characters, one a villain, the other a champion, would end in blood. “A doctor then arrives and brings the dead character back to life,” O’Dowd says. “The theme of the plays—life and rebirth—is an annually recurring event in nature.”
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With concealed faces, ragged outfits, and a stick in their grip, traditional mummers had a fierce appearance, says Críostóir Mac Cárthaigh, director of the National Folklore Collection at University College Dublin. Without warning they would enter a home and ask to perform. Some residents offered a warm welcome. Others spurned them for terrifying their children. In either instance, the mummers usually were paid for their presence.
Their shows were amusing, yet with an undercurrent of intimidation, writes Henry Glassie in his 1977 book, All Silver and No Brass: An Irish Christmas Mumming. Near the end of a typical mummers’ play, two devil characters would appear. If they were not sufficiently compensated, they would threaten to steal the homeowner’s animals and “sweep you into the grave.”
“Rhyme and action render it all humorous, but the words are clear,” Glassie notes. “There are many young men, armed with sticks, standing around your kitchen, who would like you to give them some money.”
In each mumming group, one character requested payment in rhyme. “Here I comes, Fiddly Funny, I’m here to collect the money. All silver no brass, bad money will not pass,” was one classic verse. Historically, the mummers converted these funds into alcohol-fueled revelry, Mac Cárthaigh says. Whereas in the modern day, any donations to the mummers are usually funneled into charity and community programs.
Mumming also had a positive impact in bygone eras, Mac Cárthaigh says. The tradition helped bind some of Ireland’s segregated Catholic and Protestant communities, with troupes sometimes containing members of each religion. But as the country’s sectarian divide widened during the 1900s, mumming faded.
From the 1950s through to the 1980s, as Ireland was besieged by civil unrest, mummers often needed permits to perform near the border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland. With the looming specter of domestic paramilitary units, who orchestrated many of the violent incidents further dividing Ireland, people were understandably perturbed by roaming groups of disguised men.
Bringing cheer during pandemic lockdowns
Today, in a more peaceful Ireland, mumming is free of such weighty baggage, and is widely viewed as a quaint activity open to everyone. The mummers of Leitrim range from boys as young as two years old to women in their 70s. Many are fine musicians, delighting onlookers with their mastery of the fiddle, banjo, tin whistle, or bodhran drum. Others are skillful Gaelic dancers, actors, or singers. Some are so young that their talents amount to wearing straw and looking adorable.
Separated into mumming troupes of between four and eight people—often a mix of adults and children—they go door-to-door in Leitrim dancing, singing, rhyming, playing instruments, or performing short plays. Unlike the old-time mummers, they are not paid for their efforts. Instead their reward comes in the form of an invite to the private Mummers’ Join celebration, just after Christmas, when the costume bonfire is lit.
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Most of their elderly fans were once mummers themselves. Guckian had been thinking of exactly these vulnerable people, ordered to stay inside their properties during Ireland’s pandemic lockdowns, when she decided to respond to the pandemic via mumming.
Alongside friends and fellow musicians Fionnuala Maxwell and Brian Mostyn, Guckian has performed at some 130 nursing residences and homes of seniors in the past 18 months. The threat of COVID-19, and strict government rules, meant the trio had to perform on doorsteps. They couldn’t venture inside, no matter the pleas from people starved of conversation and company.
“The welcomes we received were so heartwarming,” Guckian says. “Some took out their instruments and joined us. Others just wanted to spend the day talking and a few even asked if they could come with us for the day.”
For several of those audience members, these jovial experiences were among their last on Earth. Like many of the thousands of elderly Irish people who have been claimed by COVID-19, they grew up in communities enriched by mumming. They also watched this tradition fade.
But before they passed, these Leitrim men and women received one final, rousing house call. The ring of a bell. The strum of a banjo. The soar of a flute. The patter of dancing feet. And the glint of fond Irish eyes through a straw mask. The mummers had returned.
Ronan O’Connell is an Irish-Australian journalist and photographer based in County Mayo, Ireland. You can find him on Twitter.