In rural Ireland of the past, families eagerly awaited the arrival of the “mummers” at their doors during Christmastime. The mummers were men who acted out a play which they performed in people’s homes. They dressed in homemade costumes as the characters they portrayed. In some cases, the faces of the performers were covered in straw masks; in others, only the character, Jack Straw, would have a straw mask. Costumes of straw have been used in Celtic ceremonies for centuries. Christmastime mummers should not be confused with the participants at parades on St. Stephen’s Day (Wren’s Day) or at other Celtic celebrations.
Mummery probably arrived in Ireland from England where disguised actors performed at various times of the year such as at Christmastime, New Years, and pre-Lenten celebrations. The players were called mummers, or guisers (performers in disguise), or Christmas rhymers. The dialogue of the play was spoken in rhymes. The characters were usually heroes of old who battled until one was killed. Prince Patrick is one of the good heroes although Brian Boru could have substituted. The enemy hero could be Prince George or Oliver Cromwell representing England. A doctor would show up after the fight scene and bring the dead hero back to life. Money would be collected at the conclusion of the play.
Mummery at Christmastime was performed in Ireland in the early 19th century. It probably continued on and off in Ireland up to the beginning of World War I. From time to time, mummery would re-emerge as interested people resurrected the tradition. (Currently there are several mummer groups performing in Ireland such as the Aghyaran Mummers of County Tyrone.)
From the folklore stories collected by Irish Folklore Commission in the late 1930s (and published online at duchas.ie), comes the following description of this Irish Christmas tradition in Donegal. It was reported to the Commission by a student of the Meanreagh Primary School (Donaghmore Parish (Killygordon), County Donegal). The student’s name is Michael Browne from Tievecloghoge. Michael wrote the story from the reminiscences of Mr. Patrick Gallen (Dan) of Meenreagh Townland. The following is the description of the mummers as described by Michael Brown:
The mummers come around this district about two weeks before Christmas. They go to some house and dress themselves. They start out when it gets dark, and go round the houses until bedtime.
The following are the names of the mummers:
Father Christmas, Prince George, Prince Patrick, Doctor Browne, Big Head, Beljie-Bub, Jack-Straw, Devils-Dout, Master man of the play, and New-Year boy.
When Father Christmas comes into the house he says-
“Here comes I, old Father Christmas. When I come I bring good joy. It was acted on stages and acted on floors, but it never will be acted better than it will be acted inside your door.
Run, run gallant boys give us space to rhyme; we will show you some activity about the Christmas time, and if you don’t believe in what I say I’ll enter in Prince George and he will soon clear the way.”
Prince George comes in and says
“Here comes I Prince George from England. I have sprung with all my noble deeds and valleys to begin. I was seven long years in a prison cage and from that to a grievous home. England is right and Ireland is wrong and where is the man to dare me stand.”
Then Prince Patrick comes in and says
“Here comes I the daring man Prince Patrick with my armour shining bright. I am a noble champion that came out this night to fight. Ireland is right and England is wrong and I’m the man to dare you stand.”
Then the two start to fight with wooden swords until Prince Patrick falls on the floor, dead.
Then Father Christmas says
“Oh George, Oh George what have you done, you have killed and slain my only son.”
Prince George says
“He challenged me to fight and why should I deny it. I cut him in four quarters and there his body lies.”
Father Christmas says
“Oh doctor is there any doctor to be found, to cure this man that is lying bleeding on the ground.”
Doctor Browne comes in and says
“Here comes I wee doctor Browne the best wee doctor in the town. I can cure the plague within, the plague without, if there were nine devils in I could knock ten out.”
Then doctor Browne takes a bottle out of his pocket and cures Prince Patrick.
Then Prince Patrick jumps up and says
“Wonderful, wonderful, what have I seen. Twenty nine devils knocked into nineteen. Eighteen devils knocked into twenty four, and if you do not believe in what I say, I’ll enter in Big Head and he will soon clear the way.”
Big Head comes in and says
“Here comes I that has never come yet, Big head and little wit. Though my head is big my body is small. I will do my best to please you all. My head is made of iron and my body is made of steel and if you do not believe in what I say I’ll enter in Jack Straw and he will soon clear the way.”
Jack Straw comes in and says
“Here comes I Jack Straw, kick the devil through a riddle, through a rock, through a reel, through an old spinners wheel, through a bag of water, through a mill-hopper, and if you do not believe in what I say I’ll enter in Beljie-Bub and he will soon clear the way.”
Beljie-Bub comes in and says
“Here comes I Beljie-Bub, on my shoulder I carry my club and in my hand my dropping pan. I think myself a jolly old man, and if you do not believe in what I say I’ll enter in Devili-Dout and he will soon clear the way.”
Devils-Dout comes in and says
“Here comes I wee Devils-Dout, the best wee devil that ever went out. Money I want and money I crave if I do not get money I’ll sweep you all away to your grave. I’ll enter in Master man of the play and he will soon clear the way.”
When Devili-Dout comes in someone in the house puts money in the box which he has in his hand.
Then the Master man of the play comes in and says.
“Here comes I Master man of the play, pay me the money and let me away. All silver no brass, leather half-pennies won’t pass, and if you do not believe in what I say I’ll enter in the New-Year’s boy and he will soon clear the way.”
The New-Year’s boy comes in and says
“Here comes I the New-Year’s boy, when I come I bring good joy. I bring you joy and I bring you mirth, and I bring you all the best of health.”
When they have the rhymes finished they sing and dance, and the New-Year’s boy
plays a fiddle.
The video below is of a modern day performance of the Aghyaran Mummers at the Killeter Centre in County Tyrone: