Tuesday, January 19, 2021

Christmas Rhymers / 'Mummers' in Ulster

This is another of the shared traditions - we did this in our primary school a few times as an old-time local equivalent of what in later decades would become 'pantomime' season. We had a wonderful principal - Mrs Armstrong - the wife of a local Presbyterian minister, who loved passing down local tradition to us weans. And, as you can see in the image above, she was happy to have us perform a play that included Beelzebub! I wasn't unique, other friends of my age did the very same thing in other schools in Newtownards and other places on the Peninsula. The tradition can be easily found in County Antrim too, written about by John Hewitt (his poem The Christmas Rhymers, Ballynure, 1941 is online here) and John Clifford (link here).

The famous Ballyboley photograph above (taken by John Clugston of Dundonald) has been reprinted in many books – this one is from my copy of Six Miles from Bangor; the Story of Donaghadee and the Copeland Island by WG Pollock. It has a full chapter about the rhyming tradition, and it reproduces a version of the entire script. 

My aunt Betty turned 80 back in July. She sent me the following poem on New Year's Eve. It looks like an extract from the famous Rhymers script, but she said that it was used by itself as a standalone rhyme on Hogmanay in years gone by –

I wish you a Happy New Year
With a bag full of money and a barrel full of beer
Get up auld wife and shake yer feathers
And don't ye think that I'm a blether
A slice of loaf, a cut of cheese
And a glass of whisky if you please

I posted it on Twitter, and a friend in Scotland told me that on their side of the water these are known as the Galoshan plays, which are being carried on at Inverclyde & Greenock (website here).

I remember seeing the excellent Aughakillymaude mummers from County Fermanagh at the Smithsonian Folklife Festival in Washington DC in July 2007, and recognised a lot of their performance. They are the most renowned group carrying this once-widespread tradition on.

If traditions aren't written down, to be passed on, they may as well have never existed. I would like to see the Aughakillymaude mummers again some time – a reminder of something that we all used to do.

• PS  - If you are interested in this subject, I can highly recommend my good friend Philip Robinson's chapter 'Harvest, Halloween and Hogmanay; Acculturation in some Calendar Customs of the Ulster Scots'. published in Halloween and Other Festivals of Death and Life, edited by Jack Santino, published by the University of Tennessee Press (Knoxville, 1994), which includes a section about the Christmas Rhymers.