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16 October 2014
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Aughakillymaude Community Mummers

The Aughakillymaude Community Mummers have unwittingly become the unofficial cultural ambassadors for rural Fermanagh.

Beelzebub, mumming character

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The Fermanagh Men of Straw
Article by Jim Ledwith

The Aughakillymaude Community Mummers, widely known as much for their unusual sounding townland name where they all hail from (Aughakillymaude meaning the wooden field of the wild dog), have unwittingly become the unofficial cultural ambassadors for rural Fermanagh. The sixteen strong motley mummers troupe have literally been tramping the roads at all ungodly hours bringing luck, diversion and mayhem by re-enacting and performing an ancient mid winter hero/combat folk drama that is heavily pregnant with all the pagan symbolism of a mid winter European fertility play.

Since 1988 when the newly founded Aughakillymaude Community Association "jumped in" and saved the closed 1888 Aughakillymaude National School from being sold off into private ownership, the burley, unrulely mummers have been "holed up and lodged" within the same stone built listed building which proudly overlooks the tranquil setting of Upper Lough Erne outside Derrylin village 14 miles South West of Enniskillen.

Aughakillymaude Community Centre (built 1888)
Aughakillymaude Community Centre. Built 1888.

For the mummers there is no hullabaloo over "keeping on" the annual folk tradition of mumming (never mind their playing of an ancient pastime of outdoor wooden skittles in the centre yard). Indeed, for ordinary rural Fermanagh folk mumming is identified with being both enjoyable and chaotic, and being a commonly accepted excuse to "act the blaggard" and cause all sorts of ructions by "storming in" uninvited into settled homes, and peaceable pubs and halls.

Lofty academics would tell us that the Aughakillymaude nonsensical mummers play of rhymes and gibberish involving fighting, killing and bringing back to life from the dead a fallen hero by a blackened doctor using medieval root based medicines (the fore runner of aspirin) came to Ireland during King Henry II's reign of 1182. He is recorded to have instructed his Dublin castle based plantation soldiers to go out and entertain the native Dubliners at Christmas time.

Fermanagh mummer complete with a three pronged straw pleated hat, straw jacket and straw skirt
Fermanagh mummer complete with
a three pronged straw pleated hat,
straw jacket and straw skirt

Whatever the exact origins, rural mummers know that mumming is what their parents used to do and were expected to do each winter coming up to Christmas time, when "getting up" a mummers troupe from their area and going about doing the house visits amongst your neighbours was all about bringing luck. Also it was a bit of fun, breaking up those long dreary nights in the dead of winter.

These devilish, fearsome heroes of the night (also known affectionately as "the Men of Straw") are now plotting to make a real public show of themselves and their traditions by displaying a permanent public exhibition at the Aughakillymaude community owned building. Plans are well afoot to extend the building to the rear in order to "house" up to sixteen life sized mumming characters. Bold and daring applications written in the best of English for capital funding are currently being "haggled over", whilst the mummers' priority is the naming of a country kitchen within the new building as "Cecilia's Kitchen". Cecilia was a disabled elderly lady who lived alone on Inislaroo Island immediately opposite Aughakillymaude. (The mummers raised the money to install electricity via a generator on the island and proudly looked after her needs in all sorts of weathers.)

To make the 16 life sized mumming models (that will be housed within a turn of the century kitchen and parlour setting) the Aughakillymaude Community Association "headhunted and swore in" Enniskillen model maker of renown Gordon Johnson . A humble, humorous wee man who is a devil for detail, Gordon has loads of examples of his artistic work on permanent display throughout Ireland's finest museums and heritage centres.

Renowned model maker Gordon Johnson removes the conical shaped straw pleated hat from Captain Mummer, who is holding a goat horned staff and hurricane lamp
Renowed model maker Gordon Johnson
removes the conical shaped straw pleated
hat from Captain Mummer, who is
holding a goat horned staff
and hurricane lamp.

For the past year with a big whack of grant aid from the Rural Development Council's Peace two local identity and heritage programme Gordon has been working closely with mummers Dessie Reilly (Beelzebub) and Jim Ledwith (Saint Patrick) in ensuring that the straw craftwork, costumes and the accoutrements and paraphernalia that adorns the motley mummers are true to the real McCoy. The straw craftwork on the models is a much sought after traditional skill that the proposed mummers activity centre aims to rightfully restore and is a folk craft to be admired as it uses local traditional skills and natural resources such as oat, barley and rye straws.

Up to the time of writing nine of these life sized characters proudly stand (it must be said menacingly) - masked, silent and still - in line, threatening to come alive. They are extremely lifelike. Take another look at the brutish huge straw costumed mummer in the very top photo. Although a model, to stand beside him you would swear that the veins on the back of the hands (they are big as shovels) are pulsing. It would make the hairs stand on the back of your neck.


'Doctor Good and Sure' administers the cure to 'The Bold Slasher' whilst 'Lisbellaw Jack Straw' looks on'
"Doctor Good and Sure" administers the
cure to "The Bold Slasher" whilst
"Lisbellaw Jack Straw" looks on

"Stir up carefully with an auld cat's feather,
take that fourteen fortnights before
the day,
and sure if that doesn't cure you, I'll ask
no pay.

Moreover I have a little bottle in the
Hip pocket of my waistcoat
Called Hocus Pocus Sally Campain.
Rise up dead man and fight again."

By the way the Doctor in this tableau is wearing a thin mesh mask over his face and is dressed with top hat and tailed coat to represent a Harvey Street trained doctor of old.


model of Beelzebub
Beelzebub

And the final example of the model maker's craftsmanship is Beelzebub who is a dirty lookin clart.

"Here comes I Beelzebub,
And in my hand I carry a club,
And over my shoulder, a frying pan,
A'm'nt I a horrible old man,
And if you don't believe in what I say
Enter in the bold slasher
And he'll soon clear the way"
A mummer from Fermanagh, far west of the River Bann,
none braver, none stouter, no better man
let it draw near, that season in December
when mummers do battle in Enniskillen town centre.
Mumming troupes a plenty gather up from all around,
from ancient townlands that abound and abound,
masked and clad in strange straw gowns
fighting to death with swords and acting the clown.
So when the mummers wrap your door
bid them in and clear the floor
they'll act the like of which never seen before
for mumming is our folk drama and pagan folklore.


Extract from poem "Men of Straw"
Jim Ledwith
Extract of Ballyboley Mummers performing, from BBC Archive Tape.

A dip into the BBC Archives to listen to an extract of the Ballyboley Mummers performing.
(Click on speaker to listen.)

Breege McCusker visits the Aughakillymaude Community Centre in Feb 2004 .

In February 2004 Breege McCusker visited the Centre to hear from Jim Ledwith and Dessie Reilly about a visit by the Aughakillymaude Community Mummers to Bulgaria.
(Click on speaker to listen.)

(To access audio and video you need RealPlayer .)

Relevant Web Links

Creating Communities – The Art of Rural Living (Includes footage of Mummers)

YOUR RESPONSES

Muriel McGrath - Jan '08
I was born in Omagh but live in Berkshire. My mother gave me Dr Haldane Mitchell's "Images of Omagh and surrounding district" Volume 15 for Christmas and in it there was a picture of Mummers. I went on "Google" to search for more information and found this article really interesting.

Art Curry - May '07
My name is Arthur Curry.
My grandparents were from Derrylin, Co Fermanagh. My grandfather was Redmond Curry and my grandmother was Alice Blake. Both popular names in Co Fermanagh. Mary Coyle just recently told me about the Mummers. I have read a lot about the mummers.
My email is alc2848 at ail dot com. Slainte

Daith MacAindriu - Apr '07
Philadelphia - January 1st - Mummers parade - the biggest mummers event known to man. Yes indeed the roots are Irish. Glad to see yous keep the tradition alive. If you make it to Philadelphia - there is a mummer's museum and many club houses of the various mummer organizations.

Marilyn Vance McGaughey - Mar '07
This is a neat article that gives a wonderful idea to those of us in the US some of the history and customs as well as the participation of the people in helping the community in Co. Fermanagh Ireland. It was most interesting .

Gerald Flanagan - Feb '07
Reports of the trials are to be found in the Enniskillen Chronicle/Erne Packet avalible on film at Enniskillen library. Very tedious work though because of the layout ot newspapers then.

Ron Kerr - Feb '07
I am Ron Kerr and I lived in Lisnarick, near Irvinestown, from 1939 to 1952. I rememember taking part in the mummers as a ten or twelve year old in the late 1940s and going from house to house in the village. Unfortunatly I can't remember any details! However it was interesting to read the article.

JB - Nov '06
In the west of Ireland they are known as the "Straw Boys". The tradition is alive and well on Achill Island and surrounding districts.

Noreen Edmonds
Last year a group of us musicians went on the wren for the first time. The occasion was greatly enjoyed by us but in particular by our neighbours and friends. This we intend to repeat the event but would love to make the straw masks. Can you help us with this? Would you have instructions for same? Many thanks

Nell Dale - Aug '06
Hello!
Do you have any instructions on how to make straw costumes, I am making some for a harvest procession and guessing at constuction can you help at all.
Look forward to hearing from you.
Thanks
Nell

Martin Plumley - Dec '05
"We are one two three jolly lads all in one mind And we've come here a mumming this merry Christmas time So we hope you'll prove kind with your coins and strong beer For we'll come no more nigh here until the next year"
Is the song we (the Weston Mummers from Bath in England) sing before we enter in. I have played The Old King in our version of the play (rewritten around 20 years ago) for over 10 years but I recognise much from the Ballyboley clip. Wonderful to hear such a traditional rendition. For me it marks the passing of the year and meeting up with old friends to entertain and have a drink or two.

Liza Austin Strange - June '05
My name is Liza Austin Strange and I'm from Hayfield in the High Peak area of England. Recently I was lucky enough to be invited to visit Fermanagh with my group of musicians and dancers from the Fosbrook Folk Education Trust School of Traditional Dance, Music and Song based in Stockport, Cheshire.

Our invitation came via the Adlington Morris Men who have been involved in exchanges with the Aughakillymaude Mummers before and brought them to visit our school in Stockport three years ago. The nine young people who went with myself and my husband were fascinated by midsummer ritual we attended on Knockninny Mountain and were delighted to meet so many interesting characters.

We particularly enjoyed the ceilidhs at the community centre where the music, set dancing, tea and soda bread were excellent! We also enjoyed meeting the young fiddlers from Derrylin and their teacher. Rides in Michael McBarron's donkey cart were another highlight of our time there. We are planning another visit to this part of the world as we enjoyed ourselves so much.

Our young people are proud to have been part of the initiative for Peace and Reconciliation which supported the midsummer festival there. We'd like to thank the Aughakillymaude Community Mummers and congratulate them on their achievements. Their community spirit blazes like their hilltop bonfire. The organiser of the festival Jim Ledwith must be worth his weight in gold to that community and an inspiration to all who strive to pull together for common good.

Although we are clog dancers and musicians rather than mummers, mumming does also take place in the north west of England where we live. Our plays also champion the triumph of good over evil. Aughakillymaude Mummers have achieved this by extending the hand of friendship successfully across a variety of boundaries.

Ian Storer - June '05
My name is Ian Storer from Macclesfield in Cheshire with an interest in taking pictures of places close to home and my travels. I've recently been asked to give a slide show of our county and what happens around Cheshire. I found some slides of your visit to Quarry Bank Mill and Macclesfield during your weekend with the Adlington Morris Men. It was a pleasure to meet such a fantastic group of folks as yourselves. Thanks for keeping traditions alive, for providing your unique form of entertainment, and for being great guys to meet.
Happy memories!

February '05
My name is Jim McMaster of Devonshire, Bermuda. I was born in Belfast and as a young man joined the R.U.C., and trained in the Depot in Enniskillen 1950. I heard about the Mummers when I was there. I was stationed in Garrison, Co. Fermanagh for a year and a half and then joined the Bermuda Police Service in 1952 and married a Bermuda girl in 1956 and have remained here ever since. I was browsing the BBC channel to get the news from N.Ireland when I came across this article on the Mummers and found it very interesting indeed. Good to be able to hear an extract of the Ballyboley Mummers performing and the Aughakillymaude Mummers visit to Bulgaria. Very interesting and enjoyable.

 


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