Christmas, ‘Mummering’, The Wren and The Schools’ Collection of the Folklore Commission

Christmas, ‘Mummering’, The Wren and The Schools’ Collection of the Folklore Commission

Over the past few years, this blog has frequently made reference to ‘The Schools Collection’ (Bailiúchán na Scol) of the Irish Folklore Commission; a collection of primary school copybooks gathered under the direction of the Irish Folklore Commission between 1937-39. This is a most valuable, beautiful and fascinating resource, and nowadays a digitised copy of the original texts can be accessed online.

The aim of the project was to catalogue, index, and conserve information on Irish traditions from across the country. This collecting scheme was initiated by the Irish Folklore Commission, under the direction of Séamus Ó Duilearga and Séan Ó Súilleabháin, and was heavily dependent on the co-operation of the Department of Education and the Irish National Teachers’ Organisation. Over the duration of the project, more than 50,000 sixth-class schoolchildren from 5,000 schools in the 26 counties of the Irish Free State were enlisted to collect folklore in their home districts. Topics covered under the scheme included those of supernatural lore, festivals, hidden treasures, diseases, cures and herbs, local crafts and customs, famous local people, information regarding holy wells, fairy forts, local fairs, games played by children, legends, riddles and proverbs and topographical information, to list but a few. The children recorded this material from their parents, grandparents, and neighbours.

Material was written first into the children’s homework copybooks, and then re-written into the larger official notebooks that had been distributed for the scheme. The completed official notebooks were bound, paginated and numbered, according to parish, barony, county and province. Approximately 740,000 pages (288,000 pages in the pupils’ original exercise books; 451,000 pages in 1,128 bound volumes) of folklore and local tradition were compiled.

Wrens Day 2010 (Image: Aoife Granville)
Wrens Day 2010 (Image: Aoife Granville)

Among the traditions and festivals recorded in this archive are those associated with Christmas time. A great variety of practises are recorded, some still familiar to us now, and some no longer common. The Yuletide practise of ‘mummering’ is less common and widespread now than in 1930’s Ireland, and there are hundreds of references to this Christmas tradition in the Schools Collection. ‘Mummering’ is a Christmas-time house (and public house)-visiting tradition involving local community groups who dress in disguise and visit homes within their community or neighbouring communities during the 12 days of Christmas. If the mummers were welcomed into a house (again, or pub), they often performed a variety of informal dances, musical recitations or told jokes. However, the hosts had to guess the mummers’ true identities before offering them food or drink. Judging by the number of references to the practice recorded in the Schools’ Collection, the tradition seems to have been especially popular in Co. Donegal and Co. Louth in the 1930s, though it was a nationwide custom. The tradition continues into the present day. If you would like to witness this spectacle, I suggest visiting the town of Dingle in Co. Kerry on December 26th where mummering is somewhat conflated with the largely similar traditions associated with Hunting the Wren. You will also be able to find the practise in other parts of Ireland on this day, and in far-flung places like Newfoundland where the long-banned tradition is now making a comeback.

In Ireland, the tradition, with it’s pagan associations came under the scrutiny of the Church in many areas through the 20th century. The parish priest of Bannow in Co. Wexford had the following to say about the practise in the late 1920s;

“It has come to my notice, that a blackguard mummering set has risen in our midst, contrary to the laws of our Church, with a variety of foolish tricks and silly manoeuvrings, in order to obtain food, drink and money by false purposes . . .”

The priest was ignored and mummering went on. A few years later, however, his church, bolstered by the passing of a Dance Halls Act, got its hands on the running of all dances in Ireland’s rural parishes – and the might of the law was four-square behind the clergy in prosecuting those who engaged in the sinful and unIrish mumming, which didn’t contribute a penny piece to the coffers of the church either.

According to Diarmuid O Muirithe writing in The Irish Times in 2000, The Wexford Mummers were arrested for dancing on the street in 1935. As late as 1947, the local paper reported, “Patrick Fanning of Raheen, Taghmon, was fined £1 for a breach of the Dance Halls Act. Of the seventy people found watching mummers in a loft, fifty three had paid two shillings to play cards for chickens. Sergeant McEvoy prosecuted. For the defence it was stated that Mr Fanning’s grandfather allowed mumming in the loft in days gone by.

Although on the wane for some decades, perhaps it is time to resuscitate this once-widespread tradition?

Hunting the Wren in Dingle on December 26th (Image: Stair na hÉireann History of Ireland)
Hunting the Wren in Dingle on December 26th (Image: Stair na hÉireann History of Ireland)

School: Clochar na Trócaire, Baile Mathúna Ballymahon, Co. Longford

St. Stephen’s Day.
St. Stephen’s Day falls on the twenty-sixth of December. St Stephen was the first Martyr who shed his blood for Our Lord, for he was stoned to death. We all look forward to St. Stephen’s Day. Some people call it the wren-day, because on that day the boys go out to hunt the wren.

They all dress themselves very queer and they put on false faces. Then they go from house to house dancing and one of them plays music. The people of the house give them money. They carry big sticks and one of them carries a dead wren. This is the rhyme they say in each house,

The Wren, the Wren,
The king of all birds.
St. Stephen’s Day,
She was caught in a furze.
Although she is small,
Her family is great ,
So rise up landlady,
And give us a treat.
And up with the kettle
And down with the pan,
So give us our answer,
And let us be gone.

The children have a party on that night with all the money they get and the big people have a dance.

The Mummers’ Day
The Mummers’ Day always falls on the first of January. It is nearly like the wren-day. On that day the boys all dress up the same as on St. Stephen’s Day. They put on queer clothes and false faces. The boys wear girls’ clothes, and the men wear women’s clothes. Then they go from house to house dancing and singing. One of them plays music and the others all dance. Sometimes they dress up an ass with ribbons, bells and holly. Then one boy rides the ass, and another boy leads him from house to house. When the ass would walk the ribbons would fly in the air, and the bells would shake. On that day the children divide the money between themselves and the big people buy drink. Any person who goes out to hunt the mummers has to get leave from the guards first. I like the mummer’s day.

School: Cúige, Coogue Middle, Co. Mayo

CBES_0108_CBES_0108_008.jpg

There are not as many customs practised on Christmas night nowadays as were practised in the olden days. On Christmas night most people leave the outer door open and they also leave a lighted candle on each window of the house. At Christmas time almost everybody cleans their chimneys and most children believe that they are being cleaned for “Santa Clause” to pass through them easily. On Christmas night very few people go visiting to a neighbour’s house and anyone that goes waits until he thinks they have their Christmas supper eaten. When anybody comes into the house on Christmas Eve or Christmas day the people of the house usually give them some sort of drink.

The day following Christmas day is St. Stephen’s and on that day most of the boys of about between the ages of seven years to sixteen years go about from house to house playing music and dancing. The flute is the most instrument they use. Long ago they used to go out in crowds, one or more playing the violin or melodion and the rest dancing but now they go in pairs and when they go home they divide the money which they have gathered evenly between them.

Collected by Pearl Salmon

School: Dromiskin, Dundalk (B.) Co. Louth


Xmas, without its “Mummers”, would be anything but the jolly season it is in this neighbourhood. Making their appearance about three weeks before the Great Day these merry-makers are looked forward to and welcomed by all.

Each townland in the district has its band of Mummers composed of some six to ten young lads aged from ten to twenty years. When the day’s work is over they meet at some previously selected centre, all dressed up for the occasion, and set out on their rounds often accompanied by a dozen or more admirers who, however, take no part in the “performance” given by the Mummers but remain outside the houses while their heroes are inside disporting themselves. Old and discarded female attire is mostly worn by the Mummer, it being no unusual sight to see ” King George ” or ” Oliver Cromwell ” arrayed in his mother’s or ” big ” sister’s skirt and cloak that have seen their best days. Boot polish, soot, or more commonly a ” false ” face(?) hides the identity of the character while a head dress consisting of an old cap, caubeen, or immense cone-shaped hat of paper, completes the outfit.

Arrived in the vicinity of a house the Mummers approach the door as silently as possible lest they alarm the occupants or provoke the displeasure of an all too keen watchdog. A gentle knock and admission is gained. Once inside all restraint vanishes. With a ” Room!, room! gallant boys ” or a ” Here comes I ” the leader chants his rhyme gesticulating the while with a huge stick or wooden sword and finishes with an introduction to the next character in these words ” And now my good people having said my say for (–) clear the way ” when immediately the next character presents himself with a ” Here comes I ” – and so on.

Practically the same characters appear year after year, ” King George ” ” The Doctor ” “Diddly Dout ” ” Bilsy Bob ” and ” I that didn’t come yet ” being older than our oldest inhabitants. Rhyming over, the performers give selections of dance and song, with accompaniments on the mouth-organ or melodeon. The reward received – varying from 2d to 1/2 – the Mummers depart with a ” God bless you and a Happy Xmas to you all ” and a ” The same to you ” from the occupants of the house.

The ” Treasurer ” is a man of great importance. He receives the donations in an ” old tin can ” which he never fails to rattle with the obvious intention of impressing on his would-be benefactor the lavish generosity of those already visited; a sort of ” Go thou and do likewise ” gesture. And what happens the ” takings? ” They are either divided among the members or pooled for the purpose of providing some form of amusement for them and their intimate friends. Footballs and football “togs” are very often purchased with the proceeds and as a result many promising local Gaelic football teams can trace their formations to their activities. An all-night dance used be the wind-up to the ” mumming ” season but, as the local clergy disapproved, this has been discontinued.

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