By Clare Taylor.
Crouched on top of Knockninny hill in Fermanagh with a beacon of fire roaring above our heads, a young man from Belfast explains the motivations of heroin use. “It’s like, yer skint and ya only need a little at first and it gives ya everything, only problem’s when yer tolerance goes up…” I offer him whisky, and he accepts, noting that as an alcoholic he really shouldn’t drink and it could interfere with his medication. We chat about his diminished prospects, then break off our conversation and rise as a long line of masked figures dressed in sackcloth and straw, carrying flaming torches and led by a piper move towards us up the slope.
The only light is from the fire, and from the half moon shining on this clear warm night. You can see for miles around, across Lough Erne and her endless wooded islands, and the rich farmlands. Another fire is lit, and the mummers circle it three times. Grain and straw is thrown into the flames, a shouty man with a loudspeaker explains the ritual as sacrifice acknowledging the bounty of the earth and to ensure continued fertility. Another mummer jumps over the fire three times. Two young girls distribute warm currant bread among the group of spectators. I munch on the host, slug some more whisky and revel in this scene. It is hokey, unpolished, ad hoc. No one is bowing their heads, kneeling in prayer or whispering devotions. Ribaldry rather than piety is the order of the evening, appropriate to celebrating the messy business of life – the unceasing cycle of birth, death, and renewal.
Mumming is pre-Christian pagan entertainment and theatre, ritual and folk drama. It is adaptable to different cultures and can be found across Europe and North America. The Philadelphia Mummers Festival is the largest unsponsored festival in the U.S., drawing over a million visitors to the city. Wren boys, straw boys, Morris dancers, Commedia Dell’Arte troupes are all related to the mumming tradition. Some mummers rhyme, some put on short stylised plays, some play music, some dance on crossed swords. The Aughakillymaude mummers performing the summer solstice ritual I witnessed were formed in 1988 for a local fundraising initiative – see a short documentary about the group.
Mumming is varied, hybrid, and as a longstanding unbroken tradition, incredibly potent. The most outstanding modern reinterpretation of the form is the award-winning At The Black Pig’s Dyke by playwright and broadcaster Vincent Woods. More recently Donal O’Kelly’s Vive La also used the mummers’ style of storytelling in rhyme to great effect. Both of these plays were essentially concerned with bloody betrayals of sectarian violence; the mummers provide entertainment in their plays and music, but it is the ritual element that reaches in deeper to touch collective experience and folk memory.
Straw boys are a variant on the tradition; a group masked and decorated in straw join in a wedding party and dance with the bride. A key element is the bride’s welcome and hospitality to the masked figures; the return is the entertainment provided by the straw boys, the subsequent unmasking and the bringing of luck. The masks play a vital function in this ritual; the bride welcomes the unknown directly to her wedding celebration, acknowledged and included, the unknown reveals itself and entertains. Contrary to the denial of death-fear dominant in consumer culture, the straw boys’ wedding ritual shows how to welcome and become comfortable with the unknown. What you don’t know might just blow your mind…
Known unknowns are whirling all around me, as back down from the mountain we traipse across the road to witness the Bulgarian mummers perform their fire-walking ritual accompanied by that high pitched mosquito whine distinctive of Middle Eastern music. By this time, I’m fairly flying on the whisky and the poitin, and the rest of the night passes in a blur of drinking and dancing in the community centre. Just after two, a woman materialises in front of us and announces ‘I’m a Pioneer, and I’m taking ye home’, and brings us safely to our lodgings in the village.
The next day, I am miraculously well, given the quantity of booze shipped the night before. I head for nearby Inis Rath, an island in lower Lough Erne, where the Hare Krishnas have a centre. In the temple room, we sit on the floor and listen to a devotee interpreting text from the Bhagavad Gita. She compares lack of spiritual life to a broken television in our hearts, which cannot receive spiritual broadcasts or tune in to the ‘super soul’. We chant Hare Krishna to restore reception. Then food is served – the feast – and we sit out on the lawn and chat quietly. I wander down to the water’s edge and across the lake I can hear Rod Stewart’s ‘If you want my body and you think I’m sexy…’ I walk around the island, admiring the peacocks, and beautiful trees adorned with plywood monkeys, then as the night before catches up with me I lie down in a meadow and fall asleep. By the time I wake up most of the visitors have left and it is down to the half-dozen devotees who live here fulltime. As night falls I hear the wind in the trees, waves lapping at the shore, bird-calls and the occasional shrieking peacock.
Breakfasting with the women the next morning and one lovely gentle devotee is fretting. Her work serving Krishna today involves touching up the altar with gold paint but there’s none left. I offer to drive her to Cavan to stock up, and she seems astonished. ‘See how Krishna fulfils all desires!’ cries another devotee delightedly, clapping her hands. During the trip to town the two women and I talk about their motivations for joining the religious community. The gold paint mission is accomplished easily, and we are all glad to return to the peace of the island.
Mid-afternoon on the solstice, I am ferried from the island to the mainland for the last time, counting nine swans on the lake. My van gleams like a silver chariot in the midsummer heat. The road undulates through the luscious glowing green countryside, soaked in the blood sacrifice of the Troubles. It happened once, and it happens all the time. The eternal is here, and everywhere, or nowhere. Road signs flash by, warning against blind summits and hidden dips. I take heed, slowing, and continue the journey home.