These masked singers carry on an Irish Christmas tradition


For at least 400 years during the Christmas season, Irish mummers have dressed in straw outfits while door-to-door captivating residents with their plays, nursery rhymes, songs, dances and music . In the mid-1900s, this custom almost died out, in part because of the fractures in Irish society. Now, however, the mumming is resurfacing.

This is all thanks to several mumming clubs in Ireland which have shows in the run up to Christmas. A huge project was started seven years ago in County Leitrim by local artist Edwina Guckian. The straw is harvested from local farms, hand woven into masks and dresses, and strung by more than 300 young mummers who perform in groups outside homes throughout December. The Leitrim event culminates with the costumes burnt in a festive bonfire.

But don’t call them “Men of Straw,” unless you want to bore the academics, who say that while it is widely believed that mumming dates back to pagan times, the evidence points to this history of origin is more a tradition than a fact.

Either way, mumming is helping a new generation bond with ancient traditions, Guckian says. And while mom groups were historically made up of young men, they now represent the full spectrum of Irish society.

Tourists keen to catch a spectacle can head to Leitrim, an idyllic county in the northwest of Ireland known for its verdant forests, crystal-clear lakes and tight-knit rural communities.

Mom is the word

The word mummer, said to be of Germanic origin, is used to refer to a masked actor in countries where this tradition flourished, notably Ireland, England, Scotland and Canada. The custom came to Ireland from England in the 1600s, says Anne O’Dowd, retired curator at the National Museum of Ireland and author of Straw, hay and rushes in Irish folk tradition.

For centuries thereafter, mumming was common in the northern half of Ireland and along parts of its eastern coast. He was given an Irish touch through his characters and themes. Historically, each all-male troupe has portrayed Irish heroes like Saint Patrick, controversial political figures like Britons Oliver Cromwell and King George, folk figures like Jack Straw, and mythological creatures like Beelzebub.


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