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.
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?