Traditional Drama Forum - No.3 January 2002

Book Review

"The Mummers of Wexford" by James (Jim) Parle, Ed. Hilary Murphy.
2001, JJP Publications, Drinagh, Wexford, ISBN 0- 9540927-0-8
B5. 527pp. £12 Sterling: IR£15: 19 Euros.

The term ‘monumental work’ is often used loosely - but is well merited. The price must have benefited from heavy subsidy and in no way reflects the quality of this excellently-produced and profusely illustrated, hard-cased book. Only an obsessed amateur could justify the time spent in research, and Jim Parle’s dedication to his subject is apparent on every page. The book is not about the theory or meaning of mumming. It is a meticulous history of the custom within the county between 1907 and 2000.

Co. Wexford has two forms of mumming if which the first is the Mummers’ Play. The second form is unique to the County and can be broadly described as follows-

Up to twelve participants are called-on by the Captain and each has a long rhyming introduction describing the circumstances and deeds of the character which he represents. Each has a ‘sword’ like a flat wooden ruler about two feet long. In two lines they go into an intricate step-dance accompanied by fast clashing of the swords. Teams dress alike in sashes like baldrics, and special hats. The origin of this custom is obscure and Parle offers little further light. Traditionally it started with survivors from a wreck celebrating their deliverance dancing on the beach.

Originally many of the characters were those found in the play - St George, Cromwell, etc., but circa 1907, the influence of the nationalistic Gaelic League led to these ‘foreigners’ being replaced by heroic figures from Irish history. An early chapter ‘Tracing the Origins’, is divided into ‘Britain and Elsewhere’ and ‘Origins in Ireland’. This comprises quotes from many other writers.

The core of the book (240 pages) is Jim Parle’s identification of over a hundred teams and extensive quotations from his interviews with over 240 involved individuals, who are all widely featured in the many, many photographs. I suppose that few people will read this at one go, but it wonderful to dip into, and gives a unique insight into the part played by mumming in the lives of both the participants and their communities.

One important aspect is the influence of numerous Competitions, which engendered a striving for excellence and great rivalry between the teams. Personally, I should have liked some speculation as to whether these contributed to the exclusion of the play element. If a performance comprises a song, a play and a final dance, it is easier to judge the song and the dance than to judge the play, which may get dropped. I suspect this might also apply to the Longsword play.

The second-largest section (165 pages) is a full diary of events involving mumming between the stated dates. If all this sounds a bit dry, the whole is leavened by texts of plays and the eulogising songs, also ballads about specific mumming teams and events. There are also anecdotes about disgruntled competitors, &c. It is tempting to quote facts and passages, but I will not spoil it for you - buy it and enjoy it for yourself.

The Mummers of Wexford takes an entirely new approach to the subject, in that it reveals, in great depth, the experiences and social attitudes &c. of a defined area. It would be fascinating to see other locations dealt with in the same way, but most people would be put off by the time and mileage which has so obviously been lavished on this project. I can only try to assess its contribution to mumming scholarship, but sociologists &c. might also find it a significant work.

The book’s launch was attended by an unprecedented several hundred guests with wide press coverage, and 700+ were sold in the first fortnight. Time will tell how it will effect the custom’s popularity, but this excellent work could become an important cultural influence, and Parle could yet have his statue in Drinagh.

Ron Shuttleworth


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