Armagh Rhymers


The former existence of the Christmas "Rhymers" (or "mummers") plays in the Craigavon area has long been known and the late T. G. F. Paterson published two play texts from the north Armagh parishes of Drumcree and Ballymore in 1946. This short article presents another play text, collected from a native of Lawrencetown, and material from an incomplete version from Knocknamuckley. These plays differ from one another, although the degree of difference was small. However, such variation was usual whenever in Ireland these plays were known and performed and is to be expected within an oral tradition such as mumming. While the plays within a given district, for example Craigavon or south-east county Antrim, had much in common, yet the plays of either of these districts not only differed from each other but also and even more markedly, from plays in, say, west Tyrone or north Dublin.

Lawrencetown

The Lawrencetown play collected in December 1967 from Mr. James McCusker of Banbridge by Rev. Brian Monaghan, C.F.C., and sent by him to the then Irish Folklore Commission, now the Department of Irish Folklore, University College, Dublin, whence a copy was forwarded to the Ulster Folk and Transport Museum archives in 1969 as part of an exchange of folk drama material between the two archives.

Mr. McCusker's information refers to the period about 1905-1910. He told that the play was performed during the six weeks or so before Christmas, by a group of youths or young men travelling through the countryside by night from house to house, working ever closer to the village of Lawrencetown where the play was performed during the week preceding Christmas. As usual by the beginning of this century, performances were given to solicit money for Christmas celebrations, but in various parts of Ireland there are traditions of an older motivation; food or money was collected to provide a feast or celebration to which every contributor was invited, and memories of this remain in some more or less formally organised dances in some places until some years ago, for example, the Mummers' Ball at Kerrykeel in north Donegal.

Paper Suits

The Lawrencetown performers were dressed in paper suits and headgear, bound around with sashes. St. George and the Turkey Champion, of course, wielded swords, and the Doctor had a bag of medicines. Dibbly Dout used his brush vigorously as he spoke his lines, Beelzebub's equipment matched his lines and Johnny Funny carried the inevitable money box. Performances were commonly given in farmhouse kitchens, the rhymers entering each in his turn, so that only at the end was the entire group assembled in the room.

The first rhymer came in declaiming:
Room, room, brave gallant boys,
Come give us room to rhyme,
For we come here to show you fun
Upon a Christmas time.
Act of young and act of grace
If you don't believe what I say
Enter in St. George, and he'll clear the way.

St. George:
Here comes I, St. George,
From England I have sprung,
One of those noble deeds
In value to begin.
I fought them all courageously
Still I gain my victory.
Show the bloody man
Who dare you stand.
I'll face him. I'll cut him down
With my courageous hand.

Turkey Champion:
Here am I, the man who dare you stand,
And his courage is so great.
And with this sword,
I'll make you snarl and quake.

St. George:
What are you but a poor silly lad?

Turkey Champion:
I am a Turkey Champion,
From Turkey land I came
To fight you
The Great St. George by name.

St. George:
I'll cut you and I'll slice you
And I'll send you back to Turkey land.

They fight with swords, during which combat the Turkey Champion is slain.

Spectators:
Oh doctor! Oh doctor!
Ten pounds for a doctor,
Is there not a doctor to be got?

Doctor:
Here I am, a doctor most pure and good,
And with this medicine,
I'll bring this man back to life.

The Turkey Champion arises, and the Doctor packs up.

St. George:
If you don't believe what I say
Enter in Oliver Cromwell.

Oliver Cromwell:
I am Oliver Cromwell
With my long copper nose.
I have conquered many nations,
As you may all suppose.
If you don't believe what I say,
Enter in Beelzebub.

Beelzebub:
Here comes I wee Beelzebub,
And over my shoulder I carry my club,
And in my hand an oul' saucepan.
I count myself a jolly old man.
If you don't believe what I say,
Enter in Dibbly Dout.

Dibbly Dout:
Here comes I, wee Dibbly Dout.
If you don't give me money,
I'll sweep yous all out.
Money I want and money I crave.
If you don't give me any money,
I'll sweep you all to your grave.
If you don't believe what I say,
Enter in Johnny Funny, and he'll clear the way-

Johnny Funny:
Here comes I, wee Johnny Funny,
I'm the man collects the money.
All silver, no brass.
Send your farthings to Belfast,
Get old weemin. Shake your feathers,
And do not think that we are Blethers,
For we are here to show you fun,
Upon a Christmas time.

(Johnny Funny then shaking his box and offering it to the audience collects small money donations. The entire cast then sing some song).

Short Play

This is quite a short play text and it is likely that at one time it was longer. The cure episode particularly is abbreviated. Information on the play used in Knocknamuckley, sent to the Ulster Folk and Transport Museum archives some years ago by Rev. David Porter, had the following after the doctor had been called:

Doctor:
I am a doctor pure and good
And with my word I'll staunch his blood.

What can you cure, doctor?

Doctor:
The plague within, the plague without,
The palsy and the gout;
And if you bring me an old woman three score years and ten
With the knuckle bone of her toe broken, I can fix it again.

What's your medicine, doctor?

Doctor:
The juice of the beetle, the heartburn of the tongs,
Three turkey eggs one yard long;
Mixed up with a hen's feather
In a piece of a cat's bladder.
Take three drops of this and you'll become a living man again.

(The doctor offered the wounded man a drink of his medicine, and said:)

Doctor:
Get up and sing us a song.

Slain champion:
Once I was dead, but now I'm alive,
God bless the old doctor that made me revive.
If you don't believe what I say,
Enter Oliver Cromwell and you'll clear the way

Oliver Cromwell spoke basically the same lines as in the Lawrencetown text above, but added at the end the following words, which quite often are part of his rhyme elsewhere in Ireland:

I have made my foes to tremble
And my enemies to quake,
I have beaten my opposers,
And made their hearts to quake.

Minor Differences

Apart from some minor differences in the words of some other characters, the only other substantial difference between the Lawrencetown and the Knocknamuckley plays appear to have been the substitution of St. Patrick for the Turkey Champion as one of the combatants at the beginning of the performance however, Mr. Porter's information did not make clear whether he or St. George was the victor. Reference to the neighbouring county Armagh plays of Drumcree and Ballymore shows that St. Patrick appeared in both, although in neither was he involved in the combat.

Both of these plays have a longer vaunt by George containing wording that goes back to medieval origins in England. They have, also, another character, the Turk's father (Ballymore) or mother (Drumcree), and in the latter case it is she who calls in the doctor, a function she has also in the plays in south-east Antrim. Another south-east Antrim character appears also in the Drumcree play:

Ned:
Here comes I, Big-Bellied Ned,
If ye can't give money, give me plenty of bread,
For when I was young I was not well fed,
But now they call me Big-Bellied Ned.
By contrast, the Ballymore play has a character well known in English mummers' plays, known too in quite a number of the Irish ones. His words, like some of George's, are known to go back to words used by traditional fools or devils in some medieval dramas.

Big Head:
Here comes I who niver come yit,
Big head and little wit,
The more me head's so big my body's small,
But I'll do my best to plaze ye all.

Similarity

The slight similarity between the present plays and those in south-east Antrim is interesting, because the Lawrencetown play gives Johnny Funny the two lines ending with the rhyme feathers : blethers. These same lines occur in south-east Antrim especially, and in one or two other places where there are known Scottish connections historically. The lines appear to have been borrowed into Irish oral tradition from Lowland Scots begging rhymes.

Such as it is, the structure of these little plays is quite clear. Each consists of three phases - one hesitates to refer to them as acts, in performances lasting usually less than four minutes. Vaunting and altercation between two champions precedes a physical combat ending in the slaying of one. A wonder-working doctor brings the slain champion back to life. A succession of characters appear to declaim their lines, but to do little; what functions they have are associated with the extortion and collection of money and/or food, and their performance may end with a song.

Various theories to account for this simple structure have been put forward. An older idea suggested that the theme of death and revival was a reflection of the passage of the seasons, and that the plays were performed to 'encourage' nature at a dead time of the year, as it were, to foresee the rebirth of nature in springtime. A more recent analysis to the mummers' plays in England has produced the theory that what we have in the plays of the different regions are the dismembered fragments of an original drama of the human life-cycle, to which was added the supernatural element of revival after death. Theorising about origins is an interesting exercise, but equally important are the motivations involved in the survival of these little plays in recent centuries. Collection of the necessary goods for a communal festivity has already been mentioned and there is considerable evidence for this from west Ulster and from south-east Ireland. A rather different and seemingly more modern idea has been the use of the performances to collect money for charitable purposes, to aid the poor and the infirm, for example with food or blankets, or more recently to give directly to established charities or to subsidise local activities such as a band of a football club. If the theory that the plays may have originated as part of some kind of luck-bringing ritual, whether based on the human life-cycle or not, has validity, then we can see perhaps a modern interpretation of it in this use of an old custom for charitable purposes.

The theories of the development of the mummers' plays in these islands may be followed up in the following books:

  • R. J. E. Tiddy: The Mummers' Play, Oxford, 1923, reprinted Chicheley, 1972.
  • E. K. Chambers: The English Folk-Play, 1933, reprinted New York, 1964.
  • E. C. Cawte, Alex Helm and N. Peacock: English Ritual Drama, London, 1967.
  • Alan Brody: The English Mummers and their Plays, London, 1971.
  • Alan Gailey: Irish Folk Drama, Cork, 1969.
  • A reproduction of a Belfast chapbook printing of a Belfast play text, printed between 1803 and 1810, will appear in Ulster Folklife 21 1975


References

  1. Paterson,T.G.F., 'The Christmas Rhymers/County Louth Archaeological Journal, 11,1945-1948,47-51.
  2. Gailey, Alan, The Rhymers of South-East Antrim/Ulster Folklife, 13 1967 18-28.