So… on Sunday, the last day of our Christmas Holidays, which was also Nollaig na mBan, as a treat primarily for me I think, we went to Collin’s Barracks, part of the National Museum of Ireland to see The Armagh Rhymers perform a Mummer’s Play.
Mumming is a traditional part of the winter holidays which, it is believed, dates back thousands of years in Ireland. There’s music and story telling, and people in masks. Amazing basketwork masks in this case.
As part of the research for The Treachery of Beautiful Things I read quite a bit of theory about mummers’ plays. There are a lot of theories to be honest, but the advantage of writing fiction as opposed to academic study, is that you can select the theories that fit best for you. The core of the play is a battle between the hero and a villain, during which one is killed. He is then resurrected by a doctor (sometimes with a magic potion, this time–brilliantly–with jumper cables!) This has been seen as the survival of an ancient rite of sacrifice, or symbolic sacrifice, made during the dead of winter to ensure the cycle of seasons turned. I love the idea of these cultural elements surviving through folktale. This is how stories live on, passed down by word of mouth, storytelling in its oldest form. (Not everyone believes these plays are that old, as the records don’t go back further than the middle ages, but that’s the problem with folklore, isn’t it? Who was writing down the things that everyday folk were doing? They were too busy with kings and emperors. You know, the ones who paid people to write for them.) We’re luckier in Ireland, as the Annals of Ulster make reference to men in conical hats who entertained King Conor. So that takes us back 2,500 years for starters.
In the play we saw the hero was St. Patrick (but he could be St. George, or Robin Hood, it depends where you are. In this play I didn’t catch all the names, but the Armagh Rhymers have more details on the website), seen here with a horse, who then transformed into Crom Dubh, an ancient Irish fertility/harvest god. St. Patrick of course is best known for driving the snakes out of Ireland (represented in the play by chasing Crom Dubh off with a rattle). Defeated, Crom Dubh calls on his son, a Turkish knight (no idea why. It’s traditional. Shhh.)
They fight, and St. Patrick kills the knight (with his lightsabre. Oh yes he did, and we loved it. Shhhh!)
The doctor arrives and inspects his patient. With help from the audience, and the aforementioned jumper cables, he revives the slain warrior. Everybody cheered and clapped.
We then had more music and a singalong. Lots of clapping was involved.
Until it was time to go.
It was a terrific experience. The kids, including our friend’s kids who had also come along kept turning to OH & myself asking how we knew the songs. I don’t know. We picked them up somewhere. He blames the scouts. It doesn’t really matter because everyone was joining in. It was a communal experience, a sharing of something very old, taking part in those traditions which still hold their power in the middle of the dark days, to make sure the sun still comes up and t0 drive the cold winter away.
Plus, lightsabres, jumper cables, and singalongs. What more could you ask for? Like many winter celebrations, the emphasis is on good company, noise, light and life. In the darkest part of the year, a time to draw together and defy that darkness with joy. It’s powerful for us to remember. I began the Christmas season by taking part in a festival of lights on Solstice night, where the local kids and their families marched with lanterns and drummers through my home town of Dalkey. It seems only fitting to finish it with one of the oldest celebrations in these islands.
So I’ll leave you with a little bit of the music. Big shout out to Eoin Kelly (Ogs Online @eoin_kelly), the Turkish Knight. Go follow him and find out more about the Rhymers.