Murphy Devitt in Cork, Part 1

A couple of years ago I visited the Catholic church in Caheragh, just north of Skibbereen, specifically to look for an image of Thaddeus McCarthy about whom I was researching at the time (see my post Thaddeus McCarthy, the Bishop Who Never Was). As I stepped into the church it was immediately obvious that the stained glass was not the usual traditional images based on renaissance paintings that I had been seeing in most of the churches I had been in. No, what greeted me (above is the Thaddeus window) was something entirely new and different – modernist, colourful, idiosyncratic, painterly, beautifully designed and expertly executed windows, each one identified as the work of Murphy Devitt of Dublin and installed in 1963. I fell in love.

The stained glass windows in the rest of this post (except for one) are all from the Church of Our Lady Crowned, in Mayfield, Cork. This one represents the Risen Christ

There are Murphy Devitt windows in ten Cork churches, and why not? Johnny Murphy, after all, was a Cork boy, brought up in the city and starting his art education at the Crawford School of Art in the 1940s when the life-drawing classes still revolved around the Canova casts. He was a standout student, winning a scholarship to the National College of Art in Dublin. There he met a fellow student, the beautiful Róisín Dowd, whose parents had fled the Belfast blitz to settle in Dublin. Together and separately, they travelled to Paris and Rome, doing what art students do – visiting galleries and studios, studying centuries of European painting, absorbing and responding to those influences (think Botticelli for Róisín, Klimt for Johnny), finding their artistic voices and refining their own styles.

The Presentation in the Temple (detail)

Returning home, they had to wait for several years to marry. Their daughter Réiltín suspects that Grandfather Dowd insisted on Johnny having gainful employment and that may have been why he joined the Harry Clarke Studios in 1952 and began to seriously study the craft of glass painting. Harry Clarke died in 1931 but his studios carried on making stained glass until the 1970s. There was plenty of work for anyone in the ecclesiastical provisioning business as new churches were going up all over the country to serve the burgeoning, and pious, population.

Dessie Devitt, Paddy McLoughlin, Mickey Watson and Johnny Murphy in their busy studio in the 60s

One of the glaziers Johnny worked with at the Harry Clarke Studios was John Devitt, universally known as Des or Dessie. Becoming fast and lifelong friends, they decided to strike out on their own, taking some of the men from the HC Studios with them. It was the late 50s and they couldn’t have picked a better time. Working from a mews in Monkstown and later a custom-built studio in Blackrock, they started to tender successfully for new commissions. This also allowed Johnny and Róisín, who now joined them as well when she could escape motherly duties, to develop their own unique approach to designing and painting stained glass, very different from what had become a somewhat hidebound atmosphere at the Harry Clarke Studios. For an example of what I mean by that, and to illustrate the contrast with MD, take a look at my post Time Warp, featuring a set of Harry Clarke Studio windows from the late 1950s. Below is a detail from one of them – far, indeed from the genius of Harry Clarke himself.

Detail from a Harry Clarke Studio window in Drimoleague. Although this window is interesting for lots of other reasons, the quality of the glasswork and the artistry of the painting had declined over the decades since Harry’s death. 

What Johnny always called their ‘first big break’ came with the Church of Our Lady Crowned, in Mayfield, Cork, completed in 1962. According to The National Inventory of Architectural Heritage:

Our Lady Crowned Roman Catholic Church was built to the design of J.R. Boyd Barrett’s firm and when completed in 1962 comprised the final of five new churches constructed to the north side of Cork city and named after the five Glorious Mysteries of the Rosary. The design and construction of the roof is of technical importance while the extensive stained glass windows, from the workshops of Murphy & Devitt in Dublin, are of particular artistic merit.

Too often, stained glass windows are one-off commemorative objects, mounted in an available opening. But when you see a whole scheme of windows in one church, designed to fit and complement the architecture throughout the building, the effect can be breathtaking. And so it is with Our Lady Crowned. The church is wedged-shaped, with enormous glass panels occupying at least half the space. Scenes from the Life of Christ range around the walls, from the Annunciation to the Crucifixion and Epiphany, with the huge area over the main door taken up with a choir of angels heralding the crowning of Mary on one side and Christ on the other.   

The day we visited the church was full of children preparing for their Confirmation

When I told Réiltín Murphy*, Johnny and Róisín’s daughter, that Our Lady Crowned was my favourite of the Cork MD churches, she responded that it was her parents’ favourite too. It’s not hard to see why – it’s a triumph of imagination, artistic vision, craftsmanship and above all collaboration. As I get more familiar with MD windows the distinction between a Johnny Murphy window and a Róisín Dowd Murphy window is sometimes quite clear: Johnny’s style is more angular, with loose dark brushstrokes, strongly marked facial features, heads tilted at an angle, while Róisín’s figures are more curvy and flowing, with greater attention to fabric and to musical instruments. Réiltín characterises the difference thus: Róisín’s figures, I always think, are too busy to pose for their photo while Johnny’s are usually quietly aware of just who they are and what they symbolise.

Nativity, Presentation and Jesus in the Temple windows

In Mayfield, all those elements are present: at first glance it’s impossible to tell where Johnny leaves off and Róisín begins. But we do have evidence, in the form of an original cartoon, that links Róisín directly to the Assumption window and once you see that, you see her hand in other places too – the heavenly choir, for example, has many of her hallmarks.

Róisín’s cartoon for the second angel from the bottom on the right, and the finished window

I am tempted to see Johnny in the passion images – the sombre figure of the suffering Jesus (below) exudes a quiet power alongside the mocking soldiers.

But many of the windows defy easy analysis. Look at the Nativity window (below), for example, and see if you can figure out whose hand is where. Complicating all this in Murphy Devitt windows is that when times got busy they took in extra artists to help with the workload.

In this window note how the ‘break-outs’ (the areas of coloured glass) are used to separate two long panels, which are then unified at the top. The composition, which manages to include all the major figures in two tall narrow panels, is impressive, as is the integration of those panels with the break-outs.

As with most of their commissions, Johnny was the one who sketched out the overall design and decided on the ratio of figurative panels to ‘break ups’, those areas of coloured glass that allow the eye to rest between scenes, to register the passage of time between events. Non-figurative schemes became important elements in the Murphy Devitt style – more about  them later, but for the moment note the highly original way in which the expanse of coloured glass are treated. Nobody else was doing anything like this at the time – it was a unique and beautiful Murphy Devitt innovation.

In this window, the Finding of Jesus in the Temple, the separating device is the break-out panel and the unifying device is the floor

Not for Murphy Devitt the regular quarry glass with its dependable lozenge shapes, or static grids of straight lines. Johnny loved the wobbly, the wavy and and the irregular. Réiltín says, He was interested in music: the fugue, he said, whereby the same melody/image is played in different keys – his abstracts are often flipped, turned, twisted to be similar but not identical. He loved glass as a painting medium. He loved its kinetic effect in its flaws, its trees moving outside, its changing light/colours from passing clouds, its seeming to be alive.

A window where the break-outs serve as background, with the two main figures occupying panels and the cross stretching across the space

It’s a lot easier to cut regular shapes and fit them together, of course, but you don’t need an expert for that. This is where Dessie Devitt came into his own as a master glazier. Choosing the glass to match the colour scheme, assembling it all harmoniously, cutting and leading the thousands of pieces that went into a scheme like this – none of it would have been possible without Dessie Devitt and the men who worked alongside him.

The heavenly choir, above  one side of the main door, with Our Lady Crowned on the right. Below is a detail from the other side

By all accounts it was a charmed workplace, a happy environment where everyone worked hard but where laughter and The Chat abounded. Des in particular was gifted with the ability to recognise the absurd and could hardly leave the studio without coming back with an entertaining story.

About the same time as Mayfield, Murphy Devitt won the commission to design a set of windows based on the Canticle of St Francis for another Cork church, this one attached to a Cappuchin Friary. We’ll take a look at that one and some others next week. For the moment, the Mayfield church will serve as an introduction to Johnny, Róisín and Des, their modern aesthetic and their collaborative approach.

*Many thank to Réiltín Murphy for much of the background information, for answering all my questions and for additional photographs, including the people pictures and Róisín’s cartoon.

Getting Into the Art!

Uillinn – the West Cork Arts Centre gallery in Skibbereen – has just opened its first exhibition of 2020. It’s a riot! I have seldom seen such enthusiasm in an art show from the lively crowd who had gathered for the launch event, billed as an indoor picnic.

We went along, and were delighted. It’s advertised as an exhibition for children: take no notice of that! Just go and join in the fray – we all have a child in us. And it is a fray, in that it’s totally participatory. You can’t avoid taking apart everything you see, and putting it all back together however you want to. How amazing, to be encouraged – no, commanded – to get involved and act out the child. I wish I could show you the expressions of delight on the faces of all the ‘real’ children who were there, but today’s privacy laws mean that we can’t publish those. Instead, through some skilful juxtaposing and a little bit of PhotoShop, we hope that we can get across the sheer exuberance of all the activity.

The ground floor gallery was full of shapes – many recognisable, some abstract – all brightly coloured, attractive and tactile. Each one could easily be a piece of ‘modern art’. The fun comes when you realise they can all be taken apart and put back together in unlimited combinations. There are no restrictions: everything has hooks, slots, sockets. This is your chance – everybody’s chance – to build sculptures, make murals, hang things on walls (or on each other!). There’s not a single Do Not Touch sign anywhere . . . Imagine the excitement!

If you wanted to, you could enter the exhibition through a tunnel – it looked invitingly organic, if not somewhat anatomical. You were disgorged into a forest of sweets hanging on strings. Towards the end of the afternoon there were lots of empty strings and very few sweets. But, surely, that’s what it’s all about: consuming the art; embracing it, encountering it, making of it what you will.

It was interesting for us to note tidy-minded adults busily untangling the hanging strings, while their offspring revelled in getting them as muddled as possible. Meanwhile, we overheard a fraught parent exclaiming “I can’t believe you just ate the art!”

Art in Action is the brainchild of a group of Polish artists, and was first curated at the Municipal Art Center, Pomorska, Gorzów in 2019, with the intention of travelling on to Skibbereen. One of those artists, Tomasz Madajczak, has been based in Ireland since 2003, and has contributed to previous exhibitions at Uillinn. He provided the liaison between the two arts centres which resulted in this collaboration. He seemed completely at home among the exhibits:

I need to persuade you all to visit this exhibition, so I won’t give away too much in this little preview. I will just mention the upstairs galleries, where some ingenious devices are available to ensure full interaction between art and spectators, including a modern take on the epidiascope (remember those? – you will if you are anywhere near my age!), pop guns for shooting down technological detritus, and over-aweing human voice amplification. Here are some further images to whet your appetites . . .

Don’t be shy about coming into this show and being part of the action! That’s exactly what it’s there for. All the better if you can bring along a group of children – or aim to be there when there are children in the gallery: the Arts Centre has a continuing programme of involving schools and other community groups. It’s the children, particularly, who will show you what being uninhibited means.

Art in Action is on at Uillinn, Skibbereen until 22 February 2020. It is curated by Bartosz Nowak, with work by Basia Bańda + Tomasz Relewicz, Ewa Bone + Ewa Kozubal, Tomasz Madajczak, Krzysztof Matuszak, Aleksandra Ska and Hubert Wińczyk. Open Monday to Saturday, 10.00am to 4.45pm daily. Special thanks must go to Uillinn’s Director, Ann Davoran, and her technical team for bringing this show to fruition, with special mention to Ballydehob’s Stephen Canty – who solves every problem! Uillinn receives financial support from the Arts Council and Cork County Council.

Fingal Mummers

On Stephen’s Day we went up to Fingal County to see the Mummers – it’s a mere hare’s leap from Nead an Iolair. Until 1994 there was no county of Fingal: the area was part of Greater Dublin. Since that time this county has recorded the highest birth rate and population increase of any community in Ireland. Why? I would like to suggest that it’s because Fingal has , for countless generations, been the home of a Mummers tradition.

On our new green last evening here was presented the drollest piece of mummery I ever saw in or out of Ireland. There was St George and St Dennis and St Patrick in their buffle coats and the Turks likewise and Oliver Cromwell and a doctor and an old woman who made rare sport till Beelzebub  came in with a frying pan upon his shoulder and a great flail in his hand threshing about him on friends and foes, and at last running away with the bold usurper whom he tweaked by his gilded nose – – and then came a little Devil with a broom to gather up the money that was thrown to the Mummers for their sport. It is an ancient pastime they tell me of the citizens . . .

This account of Mummers in Cork is supposed to date from 1685, and is found in a manuscript collection in the Library of Trinity College Dublin, lodged by Thomas Crofton Croker in the 1840s. It is probably the earliest recorded portrayal of the custom in Ireland or Britain. Three hundred and thirty four years after this description of ‘an ancient pastime’ was written down, recognisably the same ‘mummery’ is happening every year across these islands around midwinter.

The Fingal Mummers ‘entering in’ (above). Following a revival in the 1950s, this group travels around several towns and villages on Stephen’s Day, performing their play to crowds who gather to see them. We tracked them down to their starting point, O ‘Connors Inn, Ballyboughal, which seemed a quiet little settlement until we walked through the door of the pub and realised that every resident of the village – and quite a contingent of visitors – was crammed inside waiting expectantly for the visiting players. The excitement was tangible, and everyone was in good spirit, enjoying the Christmas cakes, puddings and treats that were being freely handed around.

It seemed that the visit to O’Connors was a purely ritual appearance, as the crowds and the noise were too overbearing to permit a performance of the play. There was music and singing, but the group eventually moved on – with us following – to the next venue: Man O’War! This bar, which also gave its name to the scattering of houses around it, was evidently established in 1595 and became a toll point on the turnpike section of the main Dublin to Belfast road in the 1700s. The road has long since been superseded and is now a quiet lane. The pub, however, has grown in size and reputation and, on Stephen’s Day was packed: a large number of musicians was seated around an enormous table, and post-Christmas festivities were in full swing, with an air of expectancy leading up to the arrival of the Mummers.

It was at Man O’War that we saw the Fingal play performed. There are around a dozen characters, which include St Patrick, Prince George, The Doctor, The Butcher, Jenny Wren and Beelzebub. The main protagonists, Patrick and George, fight with swords until the former kills the latter (obviously!). A quack doctor is brought in and raises George to fight another day. There is considerable humour, innuendo and – always – music and dance. A most important aspect, however, is the appearance towards the end of the play of a character – Slick-Slack – who carries a large family on his back (usually dolls and teddy bears).

From upper picture – heroes Patrick and George, fiercesome Doctor and musicians

For me, it was just slipping back to old times: from when I could barely walk we attended the Mummers play at Crookham Village in Hampshire, England, every Boxing Day, and I absorbed the tradition into the rhythm of 1950s life. Here are the Crookham Village Mummers around that time:

A mid 20th century photograph of the Crookham Mummers, Hampshire: could the little boy on the right be me? The characters in this play, left to right – Roomer, Slasher, Trim Tram, Doctor, Turkish Knight, King George, Old Father Christmas

Into adulthood I never questioned the existence of the Mummers: they were just an essential part of Christmas – like carols, bells and reindeer. As soon as I was able, I joined the Mummers myself and now, after decades of performing it, carry the complete play in my head (the Hampshire version of it, anyway). It was only when my interest in folklore became academic that I asked myself: what is all this about? And then I became aware of the significance of mummery in the traditional cultures of northern Europe, Scandinavia – and beyond – and saw its place and relevance to the season when the sun gets to its lowest point and then has to be encouraged back again: cold and darkness have to be replaced in the natural cycle with light, warmth and regeneration. The old spirit of winter has to be supplanted by the young fertility character who carries his wife and (large) family on his back. In Fingal that is Slick-Slack; in Hampshire it is Trim-Tram who rounds off the performance:

In comes I, Trim-Tram, left hand press gang: press all you bold fellows to sea to fight the French and Spanish. Although my name be Jolly Jack, wife and family on my back – although my family be but small, I thinks myself best man of all . . .

Trim-Tram fights with Old Father Christmas and kills him, causing some consternation to younger members of the audience. Trim-Tram concludes:

Ladies and gentlemen, see what I have done: killed my poor old Father Christmas, just like the setting sun. So, while I sits and takes my ease, good people – give us what you please . . .

At which point the hat is passed around, giving the watching crowd a chance to partake of the ‘luck’ which the Mummers bring to the communities they visit.

The Butcher is on the left – replete with carving knife and turkey!

Masks and straw headpieces are common in the Irish Stephen’s Day traditions. Remember the workshop we had in Ballydehob a few weeks ago? That was in preparation for a Wranning there this Christmas just gone. Unfortunately, we couldn’t magic ourselves to be in two places at once on the day, so we will have to wait for next year’s event. Meanwhile we were very happy to have the Fingal experience. Long may that county continue to hold on to the luck, and perpetuate its fecundity!

A Wildflower Year

2019 was a good year for the wildflower watcher. This January pine cone looks otherworldly, having lost the seeds along its length.

February – Alder Catkins

I run a Facebook Page called Wildflowers of West Cork. It’s on its winter break right now, but take a look at the photographs and you’ll see the amazing variety of flowers I have seen this year. For this post, I have chosen one photograph for each month that represents something for me about that month, or that brings back a memory of my year of wildflower observation. It’s a personal selection, a bit quirky perhaps.

January (first photo) and February (above) are all about the waiting, with hints of what’s to come peeping out every now and then.

March – Colt’s-foot

I was pleased to find these Colt’s-foot flowers in March, but not in West Cork. Although distribution maps show it as occurring here, I’ve actually not seen it here at all yet. Must look harder!

April – Early Dog-violet

I found this one in Kerry. You have to look closely to see the difference with the Common Dog-violet (which we have in abundance). Don’t worry – I didn’t pick it, I’m just holding it steady for the camera.

May – Yellow Rattle

I planted these myself from seeds ordered from Sandro Caffola at Design by Nature and I was thrilled to see them coming up, especially after a crowd of pigeons showed up to feast on the newly-sewn seeds. Yellow Rattle parasitises on grass, loosening the soil and creating bare patches. I’m trying to cultivate a wildflower meadow in one part of my garden and this is one of the recommended strategies for encouraging wild flowers to drift in and take root.

June – Bee Orchid

This is a spectacular and relatively rare native Orchid. Altar Church at Toormore on the Mizen was practising a Don’t Mow, Let it Grow philosophy in the spring and early summer, and all kinds of flowers were flourishing there, including this beauty.

July – Figwort

This is such an easy-to-overlook plant – the red flower is tiny and unobtrusive and it’s only when you see it silhouetted against the sky like this that you realise how exotic it is. The tallest one I’ve seen towered over me.

August – Yellow-horned Poppy

I had a wonderful day on Long Island in August with my friend Damaris Lysaght, helping her do the annual count of this Poppy population. It grows on shingle beaches, but only in occasional locations around the coast, so it was a real privilege to be involved in monitoring such an important species. I had failed to find the Poppy in May when I took a reconnaissance trip to Long Island so I was thrilled to be with Damaris, the expert, on this occasion.

September – Wild Clary

Watching Damaris, I realised I had a lot to learn about counting wildflowers so I signed up for a day long monitoring workshop conducted by the botanist Paul Green for the Biodiversity Data Centre. It took place near Youghal and this was one of the flowers we counted. I really enjoyed the day – observing wildflowers is normally a very solitary activity for me so it was wonderful to hang out with simpatico folks and talk wildflowers all day.

October – Flax

Once widely grown in Ireland for the linen industry, Flax now crops up here and there, often as a result of birds distributing seeds from feed mixes. We had walked cross-country to find a stone circle that day – I wasn’t expecting to see so much Flax in the final field, and wonder if it was sewn as part of a green manure mix.

November – Pixie-Cup Lichens

This was the year we discovered Lichens and Little Things in the Woods and ever since I’ve been keeping an eye out for them. I’ve discovered the rock faces in my own garden hosts quite a variety, including these tiny Cladonia that look like they’re ready for a fairy party.

December – Winter Heliotrope

Introduced into Ireland by Victorian beekeepers to provide winter nectar for bees, Winter Heliotrope has become invasive, covering the ground in large kidney-shaped leaves and leaving no room for native species. Nevertheless, they do introduce a welcome note of colour and scent in the depths of winter.

I leave you with another image from the Altar Graveyard – an Early Marsh Orchid (see comments below – I had mis-identified this as a Common Spotted Orchid – thanks, Paddy for, er, ‘spotting’ my error) growing in a sea of Bog Pimpernel. Here’s to another great year of Wildflower Watching!

Our Top 20 West Cork Photos of 2019

As ever, at the end of each year, we publish some favourite photos from our West Cork wanderings, like the one above from a memorable day on Long Island. We will caption each photo but apart from that, this post will be text-free. Enjoy!

A pilgrim touches the Sheela-na-Gig, part of the rituals observed during the rounds on St Gobnait’s Day in February

Three Castle Head on a glorious day

The ‘Tate’ – an installation in John Kelly’s Sculpture Garden, Reen Farm, taken during a high summer concert

Lonely ruined cottage near an abandoned mine on the Mizen

These stones at Cashelkeelty on the Beara, part of what was a stone circle, seem to mirror the landscape behind them

The Opium Poppy, a garden escape flourishing as a wild flower along a West Cork boreen

Hungry Hill on the Beara

This Neo-Gothic gate lodge is in Coolkelure

Cobwebs on gorse on a misty morning

The Ballydehob International Turnip Race is off to a good start

We made new friends on one of our island walks

On top of the world, at the Healy Pass, Beara Peninsula

A zen moment at Derreenatra, on the Mizen

Dhurode, with Bird Island, the Mizen

Crookhaven from across the water

From a bygone era, still to be found behind the shop counter at Levis’s in Ballydehob

Blackthorn blossoms, always a welcome sign of spring

Barley Lake is glimpsed as we return over the Caha Pass between Cork and Kerry

Our favourite view during a spectacular winter sunset

Looking forward to a New Year of blogging and picture taking. See you all in 2020!

All Silver and No Brass

title page full

To celebrate St Stephen’s Day, I’m republishing this post from a couple of years ago. Both Mumming and Hunting the Wren were (and still are) traditional activities which take place on the day after Christmas in many parts of Ireland. I was pleased to find Henry Glassie’s volume on the Mumming Tradition in Northern Ireland in my younger days: as a Mummer myself, I was eager to search out any material on this then neglected subject, and was pleased to find this volume. It is written and illustrated by Henry Glassie, a Professor of Folklore at Indiana University Bloomington, and is the product of an extended field trip to County Fermanagh in the early 1970s. The title comes from the Mummers’ plea for the audience to put money in their hat or box – preferably silver coins!

Henry Glassie – born 1941 – has written many books about life and traditions in Ireland. His first was All Silver and no Brass, published by The Dolmen Press in 1976

…Winter nights in Ireland are black and long. A sharp wet wind often rises through them. Midwinter is a time to sit by the fire, safe in the family’s circle, waiting for the days to lengthen and warm. It is no time for venturing out into cold darkness. The ground is hard, the winds bitter. But for two and a half centuries, and possibly for many years before them, young men braved the chilly lanes, rambling as mummers from house to house, brightening country kitchens at Christmas with a comical drama. Their play, compact, poetical, and musical, introduced an antic crew and carried one character through death and resurrection…

(From the Preface to All Silver and no Brass by Henry Glassie)

here comes I

saint patrick

Glassie stayed in Ireland during the Troubles, and deliberately chose a community that was close to the upheavals of those days.

…Mumming was neither my project nor my goal. My project was the creation of an existentially grounded ethnography of people in trouble… We settled next to the barbed-wire bound barracks in the southwest Ulster town of Enniskillen, in the County Fermanagh, about twelve miles north and east of the burning border. I began quickly, luxuriously conducting my study on foot. I came to know every dog, bog, path and field in a small area south of the town, lying west of Upper Lough Erne, its waters as bright, its isles as green as promised in the old ballad of the Inniskilling Dragoon…

Enniskillen, from a photograph dated 1900, and Henry Glassie’s illustration of the mummers ‘Doin the Town’ as remembered in the 1970s

I like the way the book is set out. One section transcribes a number of conversations that Glassie has with people who remembered – and had been involved with – the mumming tradition.

…Most of the kitchens at the centers of those white houses were opened willingly, generously to me. My Americanness set me outside the local social categories, so I got on well with people of opposed political and religious persuasions. More of the people were Catholics than Protestants, more were men than women, more were old than young. Almost all had made courageous adaptations within the terrors that frame our lives. That was what interested me most: how daily life passed sanely, even artfully, despite armored cars hurtling down the country lanes, despite bombs that cracked the air and rattled the windows. I had forgotten all about mumming. Then one evening Mrs Cutler and I were chatting about Christmas and she mentioned the mummers’ arrival as the season’s high point. Suddenly excited, I asked if any of the play’s performers were still alive, and she listed people I knew well. All of them were men in their sixties and seventies who had begun to stand out in my thinking as exceptionally energetic, outgoing, and articulate. From that time on, I asked many questions about the drama, its performance, meaning, and purpose. I learned that the memory of mumming is cherished…

wren-boys

Upper picture – Wrenboys from Athea, Co Limerick, 1946 and below – ‘Mummers hunting the wren’ in Macroom, Co Cork, around 1950

Glassie talks at length to two brothers, Peter and Joseph Flanagan, who have very clear memories of taking part in the mumming.

“…We’d just take every house that we faced, whether we’d be admitted or not. We’d just take every house that we’d face. Of course, there was people on the other hand that wouldn’t admit them because it might frighten the youngsters, you see, or cause some confusion. That’s the way. That’s the way it goes now. So, You all stood at the door and…”

He twists and rapidly knocks five times on the table.

“…’who’s there?’

“…’Captain Mummer. Any admission?’ Yes, aye, or no: that was the way. ‘Any admittance for Captain Mummer and his men?’

“and if the person was pleased to admit you, well, they’d open the door. Throw it wide open for you.

“And Captain Mummer walked in.”

Peter moves quickly from his seat and down the kitchen. His heavy boots sound sharp on the floor. He closes the front door behind him, raps on it thrice, and re-enters. He strides ten feet into the kitchen and stands to deliver his lines, turning his torso to project to the audience assembled in a semi circle that runs from the front table past the hearth to the back table. Joe and I are fixed upon him…

“Here comes I, Captain Mummer and all me men.

Room, room, gallant room, gimmee room to rhyme,

Till I show you some diversion round these Christmas times.

Act of young, and act of age, the like of this were never acted on a stage.

If you don’t believe in what I say, enter in Beelzebub and he will clear the way.”

Frowning, Peter returns to his stool. It has been years since he has thought of the rhymes. “Let me see now,” he says, and sits repeating the speeches of Beelzebub and Prince George under his breath. Joe picks up the large turf out of the fire with the tongs and sets them at the front of the hearth. He sweeps the thick ashes off the iron to his side with a besom, places new turf against the backstone, and arranges the old coals next to them. The smoke and glow increase as the new turf ignite. Joe, too, went mumming, but he went out less often than Peter and cannot remember the part he played. He sits back as Peter starts in again…

Henry Glassie’s drawing of ‘how a mummer’s hat is made’ together with two examples from more recent times

Glassie’s writing goes on to describe the recollections of the play from those who undertook the performances. It is an invaluable record: his informants have now passed away. They would probably be surprised to know that their plays have not been lost: a new generation is performing in the north – and elsewhere on the island of Ireland. They would be even more surprised, perhaps, to learn that their own play breathes again: there is a Mummers Centre in Derrylin and the Aughakillymaude Community Mummers (Aughakillymaude translates as the wooden field of the wild dog) perform regularly in the area around Christmas time once more, while at other times they travel across Europe keeping the spirit of mumming in Ireland very much alive:

the performance

Henry Glassie’s reconstruction of the performance before the hearth – above. Below – Aughakillymaude Community Mummers in full cry

aughakillymaude-mummers

Aughakillymaude Community Mummers in full cry (above)  and (below) Henry Glassie’s reconstruction of the performance before the hearth