As a child growing up in Carrowmena, Inishowen, I recall the visits of the rhymers as they went from house to house in the village. They were a noisy, scary lot if you met them on the road in total darkness. To gain entry to each house, they hammered on the door with a walking stick and performed their play in the kitchen. The play ended with a collection. At the end of Christmas, they had a Rhymers’ Ball. I have no idea where they came from.
The Christmas rhymers in the pictures appeared in the Strand Hotel, Ballyliffin, Co Donegal in December 2002. If I recall correctly, they were touring hotels as part of a fund-raising project and I happened to be in the hotel on a staff Christmas outing. I was in touch earlier with the Folklore Commission who were doing a project on rhymers and some of the folklorists called to Glengad to record the rhymers at work. In the past, Donegal had the largest number of rhymers in the country.
In some parts, they are called “mummers” from the French word “mommerie”. Their history goes back to pagan times in Rome, especially the mid-winter feast of Saturnalia. In Shakespeare’s England, they performed “morality” plays. In England, it was St George v. the Dragon but in Ireland it was St. Patrick v. St George. St Patrick always won! In each version, a combatant is wounded and a doctor is called. He is usually a comedian, carrying a brown bag with a bunch of cures. (a kind of Now-Doc!). In medieval versions, Cromwell was the baddie. (Who would it be today?). Rhymers arrived in Ireland following the Plantation but with the advent of television, they disappeared almost overnight.
On the carndonaghheritage.com website, Maura Harkin includes a diary entry by John Norris Thompson in which he recalls the arrival of the Rhymers to Bridge Cottage. A Drumfries Rhymer’s script is also reproduced, transcribed by Kevin Graham. A draft of a Rhymers’ play is also available in a recent issue of the Donegal Annual, which I edit.
Thanks to the Glengad group for the revival of the rhymers in 2002. (All photos by Sean Beattie).