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 http://www.arts.ulst.ac.uk/academy/Mumm_abstracts.htm. They will be maintained at that URL until the end of December after which they will be found at http://www.arts.ulster.ac.uk/academy under ‘Former Events’. It is hoped that the papers from the conference will be published as a volume in the near future.
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.