Traditional Drama Forum - No.8 ISSN 1743-3789 September 2003

Compiled by Eddie Cass

Conference Reports

Mumming in Cross-Border and Cross-Community Contexts, Derry, 9-13 June 2003

It was in December 2000, nearly three years ago, and I was in Enniskillen watching the Aughakillymaude Community Mummers perform when I first met Séamas Ó Catháin. The Irish Room to Rhyme project had just been launched at a public lecture given by Alan Gailey. The project was to look at the mumming play tradition in some Gaelic speaking communities. In England, we were hoping to launch the James Madison Carpenter Collection project. It seemed that so much was happening in the academic support of play research. During the course of our discussions, Séamas told me that it was hoped that an international conference could be held as part of the work of Room to Rhyme. That conference took place in June and what a splendid success it was.

The conference was supported by the Department of Irish Folklore, University College Dublin, the University of Ulster, and the Ulster Folk and Transport Museum. We owe a considerable debt of gratitude to these bodies and to Criostóir Mac Cárthaigh who organised the conference so well. Participants in the conference came from a number of different groups, the Room to Rhyme group together with some American specialists in the field of Irish folk drama, the Traditional Nordic Masks and Mumming group and the Traditional Drama Research Group. Papers were presented by members of each of these groups and covered a wide range of topics from aspects of British folk plays, through wren boy traditions, Halloween customs, through to Scandinavian and German masking customs. I do not want, however, to reprise the full content of these papers, abstracts of which can be found at They will be maintained at that URL until the end of December after which they will be found at under ‘Former Events’. It is hoped that the papers from the conference will be published as a volume in the near future.

The Armagh Rhymers perform for conference delegates at the Verbal Arts Centre, Derry.   Making Mummers' straw hats in the Mummers exhibition at the Clinton Centre, Enniskillen.
The Armagh Rhymers perform for conference
delegates at the Verbal Arts Centre, Derry.
  Making Mummers' straw hats in the Mummers
exhibition at the Clinton Centre, Enniskillen.

An important part of the programme was the outside visits. Of these visits, two were of particular significance. In Derry itself, Vincent Woods talked to us about how he came to write At the Black Pig’s Dyke. This was an impressive performance, seeking to explain how Woods had taken the mumming play and used it as a peg on which to hang an exploration of the tensions which are part of Northern Ireland. Vincent Wood’s lecture was followed by a performance by the Armagh Rhymers. In Enniskillen, we were hosted by the council in the new Clinton Centre. A major part of the reception was the chance to see the work which was being done by the Aughakillymaude Community Mummers toward their objective of a mummers centre at Derrylin. This, it is planned, will be the first dedicated museum of mumming in Great Britain and Ireland – and, possibly, in Europe. The foyer of the Clinton Centre was given over to a display of models of local mumming play characters; models which had been created by a professional museum model-maker and which will form a key part of the display planned for this museum at Derrylin. And impressive these models were. A second popular feature was the chance we were given to watch local experts making straw hats and costumes. The brave among us even took the chance to manufacture their own hats with whatever level of supervision was sought. Later, after a keynote address by Henry Glassie, we were treated to a performance by the Aughakillymaude Mummers.

Within the last twelve months, there have been three major folk drama conferences, the Traditional Drama Research Group conference in July 2002, the Traditional Nordic Masks and Mumming group conference in Turku, Finland a month later and now Londonderry. In addition, the masking and guising conference held at the Warburg Institute provided a further opportunity for folk play scholars to share their research experience. In the final plenary discussion session at Derry, it was agreed that the academic stimulus to European folk drama studies provided by these conferences should be maintained and whilst we could not expect to repeat the conference schedule of the past year, there was a need for further conferences to give researchers the chance to meet and discuss their findings. Two key decisions were made at the final session. First, that there should be another conference within the next three years and, second, that the Irish and English researchers whose traditions are so close should try and establish more regular means of communication.

Eddie Cass

Guising: The Historical Uses of Masks and Disguises, Folklore Society, London, 16-17 May 2003

On 16 and 17 May the Folklore Society joined forces with the Warburg Institute, its generous new landlord, to host a conference entitled Guising: The Historical Uses of Masks and Disguises. Speakers were drawn from many parts of the world, including several European countries, north America and Japan. Their papers were equally wide ranging, both geographically (we heard talks on Bolivia, Serbia, southern Africa, Newfoundland…) but also in terms of the topics covered. The speakers had taken the conference organiser at his word when he called for considerations of masking and disguises in art, drama, literature, religion… in addition to the traditional guising occasions familiar to folklorists.

To take oral literature first, Professor Jacobson-Widding, of Uppsala University, used Freudian analysis of southern African folktales to show how the mermaid figure was used both to simultaneously disguise and represent feelings and fears which could not be openly said, perhaps not even consciously thought. Professor Uemichi from Aichi University in Japan, described the traditional forms and occasions for masking in his country, but went on to show how each one had found an echo in some of Japan’s most famous literary works. Kate Heslop from Newcastle University discussed how Grettir, the Icelandic bandit hero of a late medieval saga, used disguise in his interactions with both friends and foes, and in particular highlighted the tension between the renown and immediate recognition due to a true hero, and Grettir’s need to remain hidden. In literature, as in guising practice, disguise must both hide and reveal at the same time. Sarah Sierra from Boston University illustrated how the late nineteenth-century Spanish realist novelist Galdós used fairytale motifs in his writings, particularly in La Desheredada in which the protagonist transforms herself from a poor Cinderella to a rich princess, but the cost of maintaining her disguise eventually ruins her economically and destroys her psychologically. Galdós was only one of several writers at the period, and not just in Spain, who consciously looked to the developing discipline of folklore for material, but also as a guide to human desires and action.

Literature found its way into art in the numerous carvings of Reynard the Fox in English churches, particularly in his disguise as preacher and apothecary with which he fooled his gullible victims. Giles Watson used numerous illustrations in his talk, and himself startlingly performed the role of Reynard, to raise questions about this villain’s presence in sacred spaces, and what it might tell us about medieval humour and popular attitudes to the Church in the run-up to the Reformation. More sedate images were offered by Nina Trauth of Trier University in the portraits commissioned by German aristocrats showing themselves in masquerade costumes. More than just fancy dress, ruling noble families used aspects of eastern dress to construct a vision of themselves through ‘otherness’.

Turning from art to drama, Terry Gunnell, of the University of Iceland, looked at the archaeological evidence of guising practices in pre-historic Scandinavia, and related them both to the descriptions of Norse pagan rituals, and to the continuing traditions of guising in the north sea region. Peter Harrop, known for his writings on English folk drama and now the head of performing arts at University College, Chester, took on the Brechtian notion of ‘Verfremdungseffekt’, the process of ‘becoming strange’ but also of making the strange familiar, and applied it to mumming. It is clear that folklorists will find much fruitful matter in performance studies. Ted Merwin, of Dickinson College Pennsylvania, illustrated one example of ‘Verfremdungseffekt’ with his examination of non-Jews playing Jewish parts on the mainstream stage (a well established practice of which Shylock is only the most famous example). How do non-Jews perform Jewishness, especially when the outward signs of ethnic identity (the Yiddish language, specific forms of dress) are increasingly abandoned by the community they are attempting to guise? How are our ideas about ethnic minorities informed by dramatic performances? What does it mean for Jews when so many of the public performances of Jewishness are performed by non-Jews? Similar conundrums were raised by Janice Henning’s paper on gender and maskwork, for while it appears that in many cultures men are allowed to play with gender identities through cross-dressing rituals and androgynous masking practices, women are not permitted the same freedoms (according to Janice such hostility remains present in mumming troupes to this day). Janice brought in her own masks to show how women might also participate in guising. Tamara Walker, from the University of Michigan, showed how performance escaped the confines of the stage and ritual and walked about on the streets of colonial Bolivia, where slaves borrowed, stole or inherited their mistresses’ fashionable head-to-toe costume, the saya y manto. Dress was particularly important to slaves because their masters attempted to deprive them of all status, rank and individuality by clothing them in uniform. The saya y manto enabled slaves to pass as free persons through the city of Lima, transforming themselves not only in their relationship with others, but briefly experiencing a different sense of themselves.

The papers that focussed on traditional guising practices were in a minority, but just as stimulating. Molly Carter of Sheffield University drew on the analogies between the behaviour and dress of mid-winter mummers and folk stories of supernatural visitors, in particular fairies of the Tom-Tit-Tot variety who likewise came unbidden, caused disruption, tricked and were tricked, and embodied luck for the household. Vesna Marjanovic of the Ethnographic Museum in Belgrade described and illustrated the variety of masked processions performed in Serbia. Mapping this variety demonstrates that there is not one tradition but rather many, strongly influenced by the Churches (Orthodox guising at mid-winter, but Catholics at Shrovetide) and also by other ethnic groups in the region, particularly the Italianate carnival which seems to have arrived in the region with German migrants. Finally Paul Smith of Memorial University, Newfoundland, brought the news that in that province, the home of so many of the innovatory studies of folk drama, mumming had been banned in 1861! Or had it? Paul’s paper suggested that folklorists need to reconsider the things they think they know, and in particular investigate the relationship between law and practice.

The conference did not reach any conclusions, but that was not its purpose. It did, however, illustrate the potential for cooperation between folklore and other disciplines including performance studies, art history, literary studies, history and even the law.

David Hopkin


Sandra Billington, "Mock Kings in Medieval Society and Renaissance Drama"
Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1991, ISBN 0-19-811967-4. £65.50

This book is not as recent as titles usually described here, but I make no apologies for that. I have had a copy on my shelves for several years but I was reminded of the work by a donation of a copy from the author to the Traditional Drama Research Group. The title is still in print and should be readily available from most libraries. Whilst the whole book will be of interest to students of early drama, it is the first section which will be of more appeal to folk drama specialists. This section deals with mock kings and lords of misrule in a non-theatrical context, one of popular festivity. Here, Billington discusses these traditions as they are manifested in summer and winter games in addition to their function within peasant rebel and outlaw ‘society’.

Eddie Cass, "J.M. Carpenter, Ethel Rudkin and the Plough Plays of Lincolnshire"
Folk Life, Vol.41, 2002-2003, pp.96-112

This is the text of a paper first given at the annual conference of The Society for Folk Life Studies held at Wisbech, Cambridgeshire, September, 2002

Eddie Cass, Michael J. Preston, and Paul Smith "The Peace Egg Book: An Anglo-Irish Chapbook Connection Discovered"
Folklore, Vol.114, No.1, April 2003, pp.29-52

This deals with a chapbook, The Peace Egg Book, printed in Manchester by Robert Carr but which contains a Belfast Christmas Rhime Book text.

Early Theatre, A Journal Associated with the Records of Early English Drama, Vol.6, 2003

This is a special volume subtitled ‘Performance, Politics, and Culture in the Southwest of Britain, 1350-1642. In 1996, REED published its volume on Bristol, the last in the series which covered the southwest and Wales. To mark the event, REED sponsored four sessions at the 1996, Leeds International Medieval Congress. It is the papers from these sessions which form the core of this volume, of which Part 1 has now been published with Part 2 to follow. These papers are required reading for those interested in folk drama in these counties and who wish to contextualise their studies. The area covered is from Cornwall up to Wiltshire and Wales

Rob Francis "Guizing: A local Christmas tradition unmasked!"
Parwich and District Local History Society Newsletter, No.7
Available online at:

Copies are available at £1 each from Parwich & District Local History Society, Hallcliffe House, Parwich, Nr. Ashbourne, Derbyshire, DE6 1QA. Paper copies of this particular issue are in short supply.

Joan Jones & Mel Jones, "The Remarkable Gattty Family of Ecclesfield"
Rotherham: Green Tree Publications, 2003. ISBN 0 9521733 5 5. £8.95.

Earlier this year a Gatty Festival was held in Ecclesfield, Sheffield ‘…in honour of the remarkable Victorian family of high achievers who grew up in the village’. This book was published to coincide with the festival. Whilst there is only the briefest of mentions of Mrs Ewing’s The Peace Egg, the book is an essential purchase for anyone with an interest in the Gatty family.

Críostóir Mac Cárthaigh "An Alternative Mummers’ Play from Donegal"
Béoloideas. Vol.70, 2002, pp.199-205.

The paper records the revival of a play at Meevagh whose characters include Hitler, Churchill, Gandhi, Mussolini and De Valera. It includes the script.

Peter Millington "The Truro Cordwainers’ Play: A 'New' Eighteenth-Century Christmas Play"
Folklore, Vol.114, No.1, April 2003, pp.53-73

Millington’s article deals with the text of a play first published by Thurstan Peter who stated that the play was from Mylor, Cornwall. Using biographical information on the actors and an analysis of the manuscript, the author demonstrates that the play was actually from Truro in the late 1780s.

Peter Millington "'This is a Mummers’ play I wrote': Modern compositions and their implications"
'Mumming Traditions in Cross-Border and Cross-Community Contexts', Derry, 9-13 June 2003
Available online at:

This is an annotated web version of the original Microsoft PowerPoint presentation.

Milltown Memories: "Setting the Pace"
Milltown Memories, No.3, Spring 2003
Available online at:

Milltown Memories is a new serial publication based in the Upper Calder Valley, West Yorkshire. This issue has a brief piece on pace-egging along with two photographs from the 1930s. One photograph is of the Midgley School Team; the second is of a group of girls who are holding the team’s hats. There were follow-up letters in Issue No.4. Copies can be purchased from Milltown Memories, 6 Melbourne Street, Hebden Bridge, West Yorkshire, HX7 6AS. Cost, £3 incl. p&p.

Séamas Ó Catháin, "The Irish Hobby Horse and the Icelandic Horse Dance"
in: Séamas Ó Catháin (ed), "Northern Lights. Following Folklore in North-Western Europe. Essays in honour of Bo Almqvist"
Dublin, University College Dublin Press, 2001. ISBN 1 900621 63 0

Tom Pettitt "From Stage to Folk: A Note on the Passages from Addison's Rosamond in the 'Truro' Mummers' Play"
Folklore, Vol.114, No.2, August 2003, pp.262-270

Following Millington’s paper on the Truro play (cited above), this article considers which printed edition of Addison's opera was used by the Truro actors for the inclusions they inserted in their Christmas play.

Stuart Rankin & Chas Marshall, "The Return of the Blue Stots"
Morris Matters, Vol.22, No.2, July 2003

This article updates an earler one in Tykes News of Autumn 1982. We are also told that there is to be a 60 page booklet on the Blue Stots and details will be given in the Forum as soon as we have them.

Percy Youd "Tales from a Sporting Life: Memories of a Mersey man who made his mark"
Northwich, Cheshire, Leonie Press, 2003, ISBN 1-901253-31-7, £8.99 + £1.35 p&p.

The autobiography of Percy Youd (1879-1963). It has a chapter on soul-caking including the text of the Frodsham play, in which he played the 'Old Woman'.

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