Throughout the nineteenth century, Donegal had the largest number of groups of Christmas rhymers or mummers as they are called elsewhere in the country. The rhymers consisted of a group of about six local people who performed a short play lasting no more than ten minutes. The play was written in verse and featured stock figures representing good and evil and other virtues and vices. Their distinguishing feature was that they were disguised and they went to great lengths to hide their identity and disguise their voices. In houses where the the fire and candles provided the main source of light, it was difficult to unmask the actors generally, especially when some form of war paint was added to the cheek bones. They performed in rural areas and went from house to house using the kitchen as the theatre. Family members sat around watching, trying to guess who was who. At the end of the performance there was a collection, usually for charity, although in some cases the rhymers used the money for a “big night” at the end of the season.
When I attended Carrowmena school in the 1950s the children were always talking, around Christmas time, about the arrival of the rhymers. I recall only one visit by rhymers to my home. One of the characters was God, another the Devil wielding an axe. At some point a battle ensued and the victim fell to the floor whereupon another character, Dr Brown, was called in to carry out out some medical procedures. He knew his job and the patient made a quick recovery and joined the rest of the group in a dance around the house. This dance often engaged members of the family. Rhymers entered a house by invitation after the lead rhymer hammered on the door with a stick. The mode of dress was informal, usually worn-out clothing, flour bags, over sized hats and torn overcoats tied up with brown twine.
Active groups died out in Inishowen in the 1950s but there have been revivals in parts of Donegal in the 1990s especially in Glengad and Horn Head. The Glengad group disappeared but they came to the attention of the Folklore Commission in Dublin which sent up two officials to record their performance which is now archived. They were quite a colourful group and used Christmas decorations to great effect. Part of the act consisted of a demonstration of Irish dancing with traditional music as well. This was not a feature of the original plays.
In the historical context, the rhymers were part of a great tradition of rural drama which survived from medieval times. The strolling players of Shakespeare’s England belonged to a similar genre and indeed the great bard himself started out his career with such a group. Even Charles Macklin of Culdaff did his apprenticeship as a strolling player. Some diverse elements of the genre have origins in the Plantation and there were certainly influences from Scotland amid the early Donegal groups and this can be seen in the language and in the types of characters. Migrant workers also imported Scottish elements. One of the hate figures in the Irish plays was Oliver Cromwell but in the 1940s he lost his position to Adolf Hitler. The plays were always topical and the format permitted numerous variations. As parishes built halls in country areas, drama groups were set up and they slowly replaced the traditional rhymers. Almost every parish had its own drama group in the 1940s and in Culdaff, there were 2 rival groups at one time and they performed in the Clarendon hall off Clarendon St. in Derry.
Hundreds of plays have been written for rhymers and many have been preserved in chap-books in large libraries. Alan Gailey has written about a Donegal play in the Donegal Annual 2007. The play was collected by Downings historian, Dr. Leslie Lucas of Meevagh from John Logue of Liargain Riach near Rossapenna in the 1970s and is preserved in a chap book in the Ulster Folk and Transport Museum. The Linenhall library has a fine collection of chapbooks some dating from the 1700s when they were on sale in Belfast. Typical lines in the Meevagh play include:
Room: What can you cure , doctor?
Doctor: I can cure within a plague, without a plague, the scurvy and the gout.
If there are nine devils in, I can turn eleven out.
With versification, humour and audience participation, it is easy to see why the plays were so popular, another part of our unique heritage that has slowly died out. Happy New Year.