Mummers and the Mummers' Play

A rare but still observable tradition - not just on Wren Day

The Knight of Saint Patrick battling Saint George
••• The Knight of Saint Patrick battling Saint George. © Janet Barth - used with permission

Mummers (also known regionally as guisers, strawboys or wrenboys, the latter when the appear on Wren Day) are groups of people dressing up in traditional costumes to play certain, pre-defined roles and enact the so-called Mummers' Play. These plays are performed in the open, often in the street or on the market square, sometimes also indoors, either repeatedly during house calls (when the whole procession moves through the village) or in public houses.

The word "mummer" has been in use since the middle ages, but our knowledge of what these mummers were doing is sketchy - they were dressing up (mumming), but no notes on the plays have survived. Indeed "mummer" may have been a very generic term for an actor or performer. Mumming may be related to German and other European carnival customs. A kinship with the medieval mystery plays may be suspected, but the subject genre is wildly different and much more "earthy" (not to mention comic).

Mummers' plays as they performed today seem to hail from the 18th century, though elements in them will have much deeper roots.

The Mummers - The Roles to Play

Depending upon locality and size of troupe, there may be much variety in mumming - but these are generally speaking the main characters to be encountered. Take note that characters are either introduced in rhyme by the storyteller (see below) or will be making a short speech upon first entering centre stage, introducing themselves:

  • In England, the principal hero of the proceedings would be Saint George ... that won't run in Ireland too well. So here we have a "Knight of Saint Patrick" or similar taking on the immense task of standing up for all that is good and right. 
  • The adversary of this knight would then often be ... Saint George or at least an English knight (who will wear the red cross of Saint George as an emblem). Replacing the traditional foes such as a Saracen, Turk or Moor, alternatively a rogue soldier called "Slasher" (by name and trade, one might say). 
  • There might be a dragon or a "wild worm", as well as a horse of sorts (the latter often prone to wreak mischief upon bystanders).
  • As to the more human characters, the "storyteller" introducing the play, the characters and so on might be Father Christmas (mumming was often done on Wren's Day) or, another Irish twist, Saint Patrick himself. 
  • And then there are the supporting characters - these may include such heroes as Robin Hood, a Devil, Brian Boru or even Wolfe Tone. It has to be said that these are about as authentic as King Arthur in Disney's "The Sword in the Stone". And they are interchangeable, with historical accuracy taking a back seat to everything else. 
  • An important member of the cast (often providing comic relief and a bit of horror at the same time) is "the Doctor". Not Doctor Who, but a medical practitioner who gets called to the scene and will administer wondrous cures and potions and dish out advice. 

Add to this numerous musicians and a general crowd of interacting bystanders and your cast is complete.

The Mummers' Play - Good Prevails

If you are expecting Shakespearean drama, do not watch a mummers' play ... though the themes may be broadly similar and even the bard has his bawdy, humorous side, the play acted out by the mummers will be broad farce and melodrama in heaps.

And everybody knows the end anyway.

The central plot revolves around killing and then resurrecting one of the characters. Or more of them. In more or less gruesome and gross ways. A good example would be the Knight of Saint Patrick encountering Saint George, insults being traded, weapons drawn, then a good fight and somebody ends up dead. this is the cue for the doctor to appear and work his miracle. Up springs the dead hero (or villain), the plot takes another few twists, evil is defeated and runs away ... or so. 

Not much of a plot?

What did you expect? The whole scene is laid out in black and white and the tone is generally humorous, so it is all about cheering your hero on and having a good boo at the villain. As camp as the Batman TV series and with as much psychological depth as an early Schwarzenegger movie (but with less explosions and special effects).

A Dying Tradition?

Yes and no - mumming and the Wren's Day seem to be things of the past, but some dedicated folks keep the tradition alive. Amongst those are the Aughakillymaude Mummers, who have their own centre and museum in Derrylin (near Enniskillen, County Fermanagh).