Christmas Mummers in County Fermanagh

By the Mummers’ Rule, the lads were obliged to act decorously and visit every house in the vicinity, Catholic or Protestant, rich or poor, friendly or not. Their Captain knocked at the door, courteously requesting admittance. It was Christmas time, when nights are long and cold. The mummers huddled on the street, in the deep dark and icy winds, deciding whether to compress their performance into a “wee quickie” or drive it to the limit and “go in with a vengeance.”

The Captain went in first. “Room, room, gallant boys, give us room to rhyme....” Captain Mummer circled the floor, the ashplant in his hand, promising diversions in a play, the like of which was never acted on stage. Then, one by one—uniformed in tunics, masked by tall straw hats, casting monstrous shadows through the kitchen—each man passed through the door, identifying himself in cadenced lines. After the Captain came Beelzebub:

Here comes I, Beelzebub,

And over me shoulder I carry a club,

And in my hand a dripping pan,

And I think meself a jolly old man.

And if you don’t believe what I say,

Come in Oliver Cromwell and clear the way.

Reciting his rhyme at a high, steady pitch, each man entered, displaying his weapons or boasting his powers. Oliver Cromwell, conqueror of nations, had fought in France and fought in Spain, and he was back in Ireland to fight again. Each man called in the next, clearing the way for Prince George, a famous champion from merry England: “Here comes I, Prince George, with me armour shining bright....” Next came Saint Patrick:

Here comes I, Saint Patrick,

And the reason I came,

I’m in search of that bully,

Prince George is his name.

And if I do find him,

I’ll tell you no lie,

I’ll hack him to pieces as small as a fly,

And throw ‘im to the Devil for a Christmas pie.

The inevitable fight ensued. Prince George—not Saint George, England’s patron and the logical opponent of Saint Patrick, but a prince, a knight, an embodiment of wordly might—Prince George, a royal Englishman, calls Ireland’s saint a liar and commands him to pull out his purse and pay. Patrick resists, George insists, and Patrick, stabbed like Christ in the side, falls with a groan. In the struggle over truth and wealth, invader and native meet, symbolically reenacting the recent war, and sacred Ireland is slain by secular England. Saint Patrick lies dead on the floor.

But all hope is not lost. A general cry is raised for a Doctor. The first to come not garbed in the outlandish getup of a mummer, but wearing a black suit and carrying a black bag like any doctor, he enters, saying he will revive the slain champion for forty guineas. Promised his astonishing fee, paid to bring Ireland to life again, the Doctor submits to interrogation, describing his fantastic practice in answer to Captain Mummer’s questions. The doctor’s was the fullest, funniest role, and Michael Boyle played it with panache. The Captain asks what medicine he uses, and Michael replies:

The filliciefee of a bumblebee,

And the thunder nouns of a creepie stool,

All boiled up in a woodenleatheriron pot.

Let that be given to him fourteen fortnights before day,

And if that doesn’t cure ‘im, I’ll ask no play.

The Captain asks what ills he can cure, and the Doctor says:

I can cure the pain within, the pain without,

The little pain,

The big pain,

The crippin and the palsey and the gout.

And I have a wee bottle here

in the waistband of me trousers.

They call it:

Hokey, pokey


Rise up dead man and fight again.

The Doctor’s crazy old cure cancels murder, death is undone, and the dead man rises like Lazarus. George and Patrick—England and Ireland, soldier and saint—stand alive, side by side. Peace seems possible. At this point of hope, the play’s first phase has ended, the next begins....

From the book, ‘The Stars of Ballymenone’, by Henry Glassie, Bloomington and Indianapolis, Indiana University Press, 2006.

This large and generous book of over 500 pages is a quite remarkable study, spread over many visits and years, of the people and traditions of a very small area in County Fermanagh.

To read the rest of the Christmas Mummers’ play you will need to borrow, or better still, buy it. The account begins on page 55 and ends on page 61.

A Box of Christmas Readings