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Duncan Broomhead

A Performers' Perspective, or Rambling on with Colonel Slasher

Whilst reading 'The Heritage Lottery Fund News' my attention was caught by an article from Jim Ledwith, who wrote enthusiastically about an International Mummers' festival in Enniskillen. It was accompanied by a large photograph of an unnamed group of Mummers from Co. Fermanagh, wearing their distinctive straw costumes and high conical straw masks.

I contacted Jim, a Community Services Officer for Fermanagh District Council, and keen supporter of local Mumming. After an exchange of letters, photographs and numerous phone calls, arrangements were made for us to attend the next festival, as guests of the Aughakillymaude Community Mummers. We would be performing the Alderley Mummers Play, that was taught to us in 1977 by Alec Barber, one of the original Alderley Mummers.

Aughakillymaude is a small community of less than 500 people, situated on the banks of Lough Erne, twelve miles south of Enniskillen. The Mummers side was formed in 1988 to raise funds to convert the disused local school building into a Community Hall. Mumming has now become an important focus of local activity. In addition to fielding both a junior and a senior Mumming side, they have plans to open a Mummers Museum. Over the years they have met other Irish Mummers, Rhymers and Straw Boys plus some Morris Men from Leominster, but we would be the first English Mummers that they had met.

Our departure date arrived and so did storms in the Irish Sea. After getting up at 4:00 am,

And due to numerous ferry cancellations, we arrived at Aughakillymaude 18 hours later. We were all very tired, it was drizzling and cold, and there were only half a dozen cars parked outside the isolated Victorian stone building. The single source of illumination for miles around came from the few coloured lights strung up outside. We did not know what to expect from an International Mummers Festival, certainly more signs of life, things did not look too promising.

We need not have worried, as soon as we stepped inside the hall we were made to feel welcome, in fact welcome, was the word on everybody's lips as they met you. We soon settled into a weekend that would be marked by a relaxed view towards time keeping, many speeches, warm hospitality and a whole bunch of Mumming.

Jim Ledwith gave an illustrated lecture on the Mumming tradition in Co. Fermanagh in his usual snappy and enthusiastic style. During his lecture he made special mention of a couple of 'hate characters' who appear in local plays, and who would feature during the weekend. They were St George 'the man we all love to hate' and Oliver Cromwell, 'with his long copper nose'.

At some time approaching 1:00am we were asked to perform our play, bearing in mind that this was nearly 21 hours since we got up, I don't think it was one of our better performances. What really threw us at the time was that the audience actually booed when St George entered, although we later found out that this reaction was the norm.

On Saturday morning the Aughakillymaude Junior Mummers, over 20 of them, gave us a performance, I was spell bound. They seemed to incorporate just about every aspect of Irish Mumming that I might have expected to see during the visit. The whole performance was carried off with such pride and enthusiasm that it was infectious.

Their play was of the 'Hero Combat' type with a cast of 13 characters including, Captain Mummers, Jenny Wren, Jack Straw and Oliver Cromwell. In addition to the play there were songs, a recitation, step dancing and music. Many wore costumes made from straw, others were made from sacking or old working clothes, and some like the Doctor, dressed in character.

In the afternoon we went into Enniskillen and met up with other sides prior to performing out of doors. First to perform were Aughakillymaude Junior Mummers and then us. The weather stayed dry, so we did not need to use the transparent cagoules that had been given to us by Manchester United Football Club.

Next up were a side from Belfast, there were five in the group, with at least one of them doubling up and doing two parts. Their costumes ranged from straw, through representational, to one that reminded us of 'Xena Warrior Princess'. (Or was that just me?) The Aughakillymaude Senior side followed on and rounded off their performance with some fine singing and energetic set dances. To finish the proceedings for the afternoon, we performed the Alderley Play outdoors, and then again indoors, in one of the local bars.

The festival has been going on for about ten years, but for reasons that I do not fully understand, was on a much smaller scale this year. It was obvious that people were expecting something to happen, because during the course of the afternoon I was approached by members of two other local Mummers sides who had come to watch. Elsewhere in Enniskillen, over the weekend, there had been a conference on Mumming where Alan Gailey had given a paper.

Saturday evening was spent at the Community Hall where we were treated to some excellent Irish dancing and an outstanding local ceilidh band, The Emerald Ceilidh Band. During the evening we performed the Swettenham Souling Custom, 7 men, 2 songs and a horses skull. This is not a play but is typical of the Souling customs from the South West corner of Cheshire. The performers all wear masks and cover their jackets in long tissue paper strips.

After we finished one of the Aughakillymaude Mummers shook me firmly by the hand and said, 'you don't have to scratch us too deep and we are all the same', not quite what I had expected him to say. It did however, set me thinking about the weekend as a whole and my far too parochial outlook on Mumming. As the evening became early morning, there were more speeches and the exchange of gifts. We were presented with a full size straw mask and two miniature ones plus a model of a Mummer dressed as Oliver Cromwell.

We departed on Sunday morning after more speeches and another exchange of gifts. The journey back was uneventful except for the overwhelming feeling of well being. Our weekend had turned out to be very much a community based event, with as much emphasis on cross cultural relations, as there was on Mumming. It had been a privilege to meet the people of Aughakillymaude, I would not have missed it for the world.

A couple of weeks later when I went to see Uttoxeter Guisers, I deliberately sat in a side room in one of the smaller pubs. Although I couldn't see the play, I could still hear it clearly and spent my time watching the audience. I started wondering what they all made of it, and thinking that the Aughakillymaude gang would probably be more familiar with what was going on than many of the locals were. Then, as if on cue, Old Mary Ann entered and declaimed the line 'with my copper nose, I beat the Dutch, I beat the French'. Those words echoed back from Ireland, 'you don't have to scratch us too deep and we are all the same'

Colonel Slasher. (Alderley Mummers Play)
Also known as Duncan Broomhead