Sunday 16 June 2019

Tradition of the men with straw masks

Founder of the Fingal mummers, Sean McPhilibin talks to John Manning about the mumming tradition in Fingal and why he and his fellow mummers dress up in straw hoods

Fingal Mummers
Fingal Mummers

From Halloween to the Carnival festivals before Lent is traditionally a time of 'masquerade' and a time when a group of men in strange straw hoods begin to get active in Fingal as they lead up to their big annual outing around the public houses and halls of the region on St Stephen's Day.

The straw costumes belong to the Fingal Mummers, a group that has been in existence for just 30-odd years but who maintain a tradition that goes back so far, nobody can really put their finger on where and when it all started.

A man who knows more than most about the tradition is one Sean McPhilibin from who was a co-founder of the Ballyboughal group and is determined to keep a tradition, which was once very strong in this part of the world, alive and thriving.

So what is mumming all about? Sean told the Fingal Independent: 'Mumming means to 'go masked' basically. A mummer is typically someone who is masked in a traditional fashion.

'In North County Dublin the masking would be traditionally made from straw and would have been big straw hats that cover the face and come down to the shoulders. There are some good references to these - Patrick Archer whose collected writings were called 'Fair Fingal' has some nice accounts from the very early 20th Century, of a group of mummers and he describes them as wearing tall conical masks of plaited straw so from that description we know precisely what he is talking about.

'These kinds of masks were also used by the 'Wren Boys' and 'Biddy Boys' and sometimes by Halloween 'Guisers' and 'Straw Boys' at weddings. We know from Archer's description that straw was an integral part of the disguise. That kind of got lost in Fingal and by the late 30s and early 40s, it seems to have almost disappeared although the tradition of mumming itself survived but they stopped using straw, it seems.'

As to where the tradition began, nobody really knows. Sean explains: 'It is kind of a fruitless quest and it has been pursued by folklorists since the 18th Century. There was a huge amount of speculative work done on trying to see where it comes from and there were some fairly fanciful ideas proposed. It is probably fair to say that researchers now believe that this is not a useful question anymore because you just can't pin it down.

'What you can say about it, is that it's a mid-winter custom that in Ireland and North County Dublin and in parts of England as well, the masking element is accompanied by a play. So there's a play in it with set characters. It's a play where the principal action takes place between two protagonists - a hero and a villain. The hero slays the villain and the villain is revived by a doctor who has a magical cure and after that happens there's a succession of other characters called in, each of whom has a rhyme. So every character has a rhyme, written in rhyming couplets.

'The characters don't vary from year to year and some people would say the characters represent various archetypes. So you have several fool-type characters, a couple of devil-like characters like 'The Little Divil' and 'Beelzebub' - they sound frightening, but really they are not. The other thing to say about it is that you find these same type of characters all across Spain, Portugal, France, Germany, Austria, Switzerland, over into Slovenia and elsewhere.

'Internationally what is even more bizarre, because it is impossible to give an explanation for it, you can find internationally examples of people going out in similar straw questions in and around mid-winter. There are examples from northern Japan through to the north of Portugal in and around the same time of year. That's fascinating and suggests there is some kind of very fundamental, old and significant in it.'

The mummers' play is often seen as clash of cultures and has been adopted locally to reflect local cultures and politics. Sean explained: 'Historically, the play was seen as a fight between a Christian and a Muslim but I suggest that might be have very controversial overtones currently which would never have been considered before. But the tradition was transformed to some degree here by a festival in Swords in the 1950s.

'The hero was an Irish hero and the villain became an English villain. So it came to represent in come way, the conflict between Ireland and England so that is an interesting transformation. You find that in the rhymes that come from the 1950s which it seems to me, were deliberately manipulated for this new presentation or re-presentation of the tradition to maybe make it more acceptable or to fit the semantics of 1950s Ireland.' But Sean believes that first and foremost, the play should be seen as comedy and as an entertainment: 'The first thing to say is that the slain antagonist, is always revived and always gets a cheer on revival so it's seen as humorous and scatological rather than anything serious.'

Many associate these kind of traditions with Halloween but Fingal Mummers are much more active around Christmas, but Sean says the Halloween association is understandable. He said: 'It's not really a mistake. Looking at these customs, what I would say, and I know exceptions can be found to this, but in effect, they happen in a season of 'masquerade' that starts with Halloween and ends with Carnival.'

The Fingal Mummers began life in the early 1980s in Ballyboughal, set up by Sean McPhilibin, Ger Griffin and the Maxwell family.

The mummers built on a local tradition that stretches back so far that nobody can really say with any certainty when it all began.

The tradition is deep rooted in Fingal and a festival in Swords in the 1950s gave it a huge boost in the area.

Fingal Mummers continue that tradition.

MUMMING has a long and continuous tradition in Fingal but the use of straw all but disappeared from the annual ritual until the Fingal Mummers began to reintroduce it in the 1980s.

Co-founder of the Fingal Mummers, Sean McPhilibin explains: 'I think it's important to say that there appears to be a continuous tradition of this in North County Dublin and that, in itself is worthy of a mention. We have good accounts of mummers particularly from the rural parts of North Dublin in the villages like Naul, Ballyboughal, Oldtown, Garristown and Lusk.

'A massive impetus was given to the mummers by the creation of a festival in the 1950s in Swords called the Swords Mummers Festival which was started by Dr May, the local GP. He initiated this festival which really kicked off mumming in Swords and you had the Swords Mummers which are still in existence.

'In the 1950s and 1960s, the Swords Mummers would have been a really important part of Swords community life. The competition sparked the formation of other groups like in St Margaret's, in Balbriggan and Donabate and it brought competing teams in from Wexford, Louth and Meath.

'The tradition was kind of transformed by this competition and I suppose to a a degree it made it uniform and a new style of mumming emerged out of it in the 1950s where disguises were kind of absent and the use of straw became entirely absent.

'So when we started our own group out here in Ballyboughal in 1983/84, the more we learned about the tradition, over time we began to bring straw back into the costumes.'

Speaking about the origins of the group, Sean said: 'Myself and Ger Griffin and the Maxwells in Ballyboughal, put together the group which has become the Fingal Mummers. We drew people from further afield, with people from Oldtown, the Naul, Rolestown, Swords and further afield.' Remembering those early years, he said: 'I have to say, certainly in the early years, we knocked so much fun out of it that it was ridiculous.' A prominent member of the group from early on is Fingal's current Mayor, Cllr David O'Connor who was recently 'promoted' to the role of the Doctor in the play after what Sean jokingly refers to as 'a long apprenticeship'. If you want to find out more about the Fingal Mummers or join them, they are always happy to welcome new members. You can contact Sean at

Fingal Independent