Article MT029

Irish Folk Drama



As a teenage musician in Fermoy, north County Cork, I participated in Wrenboy activities every Christmas.  In recent years I have attempted to assemble a Wrenboy troup to revive the tradition among the Irish community in London, and I hope that this may finally happen over the Christmas period in 1997 or '98.

The decision to research and write an article on Wrenboys and other related traditional Irish customs collectively known as folk drama was prompted by a lecture on The Irish Literary Theatre by Dr Lionel Pilkington which I attended at University College Galway on March 6th, 1997.  In reference to Brian Frielís statement that there was no Irish theatre prior to the first performance of the Irish Literary Theatre in May 1899, Dr Pilkington touched briefly on the folk drama traditions of Mummimg and Wrenboys.  He acknowledged that this was an area of Irish culture deserving of much greater consideration, but that unfortunately very little research or analysis of Irish folk drama had been carried out, and that even less had been published.

Although I had read various histories of Irish theatre, this was the first occasion on which I had encountered academic recognition for this particular area of traditional Irish custom.  At the close of the lecture I approached Dr Pilkington and told him of my interest and experience of the Wrenboys tradition.  He provided me with a list of the works related to this subject which he considered worth reading.  Over the following weeks we met several times and discussed the subject further, culminating in a formal interview from which I quote in the course of this article.

Irish theatre history generally does not recognise that there was any form of theatre functioning in Ireland before 1899 which was anything other than a mongrel colonial tradition.  The subsequent history is dominated by the National theatre, under its various titles, which was founded, developed and controlled by an Ascendancy elite.  Like the Anglo-Irish writers of the previous century, this elite had the maintenance of the status quo as its dominant ideology.  One of the many lamentable results of this has been the writing out of Irish theatrical history of alternative forms, particularly folk drama - the oldest surviving theatrical tradition in Ireland.

I hope to show that one form of folk drama, the Wrenboys, dates at least as far back as pre-Christian Ireland and possibly even to the pre-Celtic early Bronze Age (four thousand years ago), making it one of the oldest and most important theatrical traditions in the world.  A section will be devoted to each of the most common forms of folk drama, Wrenboys, Mummers and Strawboys, and will include an historical context with particular emphasis on origins, and a description and discussion of the rituals involved in each.

I will also examine the possibility that the carnivalesque aspect of folk drama - the inversion of sense, mutual mockery, acceptable use of profanity etc.  - is the original basis for what is commonly regarded as one of the most recognizable traits of Irishness: the craic.

Folk Drama

Folk drama is the oldest surviving form of theatrical tradition found in Ireland.  The most common forms are Wrenboys, which is the most ancient; Mumming (also sometimes known as Christmas Rhyming, although there can be slight differences between the two), which is the most textually complex; and Strawboys, an interesting variation but, unfortunately, not very widespread these days, although a form of it adapted to modern requirements is relatively common in some parts of County Clare.  The rituals of the Wrenboys and the Mummers are similar in many ways - both are performed on specific feast days (particularly December 26th) and are meant to bring good fortune to all concerned, are processional in nature, involve vegetation and animal disguise and blacking of faces, have dramatic content centred on the life-cycle, death and revival, comic crowning, parody, singing and dancing, and, finally but essentially, eating and drinking.

Ancient pagan rituals seeking good luck and fertility from the gods included feasting, singing, dancing, and vegetation and animal disguises.  These elements form the basis of folk drama all over the world.  Many theatrical historians and analysts from Mikhail Bakhtin to Augusto Boal, believe that such festivities, often referred to as 'Carnival', are the origin of all theatre, to the extent of declaring that institutional theatre, as we know it today, is but a corruption of this purer form of social interaction and expression:

In the beginning of theatre was the dithyrambic song: free people singing in the open air.  The carnival.  The feast.  Later, the ruling classes took possession of the theatre and built their dividing walls.  First they divided the people, seperating actors from spectators: people who act and people who watch - the party is over!  Secondly, among the actors, they seperated the protagonists from the mass.  The coercive indoctrination began! (Boal, p.119).
Likewise, Huizinga describes the danger of a culture losing contact with the elements of play which originally formed it (Huizinga, pp.221-240).  Bakhtin, like Boal, claims that such separation of people into those who act and those who watch is artificial and counter-productive to social interaction - 'Carnival does not know footlights, in the sense that it does not acknowledge any distinction between actors and spectators' (Bakhtin, p.7).  He goes on to describe what he regards as the essential elements of carnival -'The feast (every feast) is an important primary form of human culture' (Ibid, p.8), and 'through all the stages of historic development feasts were linked to moments of crisis, of breaking points in the cycle of nature or in the life of society and man.  Moments of death and revival, of change and renewal always led to a festive perception of the world'(Ibid, p.9).

What Bakhtin is describing as carnival sounds virtually identical to the festive community spirit of the various Irish folk drama rituals, i.e.  a public celebration involving all the people of a local community irrespective of hierarchical differences and social barriers:

All were considered equal during carnival.  Here, in the town square, a special form of free and familiar contact reigned among people who were usually divided by the barriers of caste, property, profession, and age.  The hierarchical background and the extreme corporative and caste divisions of the medieval social order were exceptionally strong.  Therefore such free, familiar contacts were deeply felt and formed an essential element of the carnival spirit' (Ibid. p.10).
Folk drama activities or, for want of a better word, 'performances' most commonly occur at Christmas or midwinter.  Whitlock's Calendar of Country Customs explains the continued popularity of these Christmas/midwinter celebrations throughout the centuries with the pragmatic, if somewhat oversimplified, theory - 'At this season of the year a rural community has plenty of spare time and needs some sort of festival to cheer it up' (Whitlock, p.156).  In modern times, performances are not as common or widespread at other times of the year, but traditionally took place on the four quarterdays, i.e.  commencing days of the four seasons of the Celtic calendar - 'The Celtic year was divided into four parts according to the seasons, and the passage from one part to another was marked by a great festival' (O'Brien, p.63).  The quarterdays were Samhain (Nov 1st), Imbolc (Feb 1st), Bealtaine (May 1st) and Lughnasa (Aug 1st).  These festivals and their attendent folk rituals, which commenced on the eve of the quarterday and continued for days, sometimes weeks, represent an important aspect of rural community life through the ages - the desire to be at one with the elements of nature - and seem to date back to ancient Celtic, pre-Christian Ireland:
So there can be little surprise that there were preserved at those seasons amongst our folk customs either the theme or some of the attendent details of the life-cycle drama.  The quarterly festivals can be traced back at least to early Christian times, and probably further into the prehistoric period.  It is therefore reasonable to assume that the life-cycle drama itself must go as far back as the occasions upon which it was performed.  (Gailey 1969, p.90).
The mischievous nature of the folk festivities celebrated on the eves of these quarterdays, and on St. Stephen's Day, caused them to become known as Mischief Nights.  As the influence of Christianity grew, another festive night was added to the calendar - the night before Lent's period of forty days' fasting.  This festival is known variously as Shrove Tuesday, Pancake Night, Fastnacht, Careme-Prenant and today, universally, as Mardi Gras (Bakhtin, p.8).  Throughout the world on this night ancient folk customs of carnival procession and feasting are celebrated.  So we see that there is a total of at least six festive days in the Irish calendar when traditional folk rituals are 'performed' and that these festivities are concerned with the reproduction of social and political values.  This tradition lingers residually right on into the twentieth century.  It should be mentioned that Glassie claims St. Patrick's day - March 17th, Bonfire Night on June 20th, and the Commemoration of the Battle of the Boyne on the 12th of July should also be included, but I have failed to find any supporting evidence specifically linking these dates with the tradition.

Up to the so-called birth of Irish theatre in 1899, mainstream institutional theatre in Ireland had not only been controlled by the Protestant Ascendancy, but neither involved nor considered the natives outside its enclaves: 'Theatres were built in Dublin, the most celebrated, the Smock Alley, in 1622: and eventually in the provincial, mainly garrison, towns.  It was essentially a coloniser's theatre.  English companies toured English plays'(Maxwell, p.181).  This is one possible explanation of why Irish theatre historians in general, and even revisionists such as D.E.S. Maxwell and Brian Friel, claim that indigenous Irish theatre begins with the birth of the Irish Literary Theatre movement in the closing years of the 19th century, thereby dismissing as insignificant the entire tradition of folk drama which existed for hundreds, perhaps thousands, of years prior to the Revival.

The people who have written about folk drama and acknowledged its importance in the history of Irish culture tend to be anthropologists rather than theatre historians.  Such historians tend to not recognise it as 'proper' theatre - 'arts and peoples contemptuously termed folk or primitive, have been dismissed as simple and banished from serious consideration to ethnology' (Glassie, p.70).  Irish theatre historians generally see theatre as being restricted to the institutional theatre, the building-centred theatre, a theatre which is metropolitan in its assumptions.  When folk drama or the folk-play is mentioned at all it is usually in reference to the 'quaint fireside dramas' of mainstream playwrights such as Padraic Colum (Broken Soil, and The Land) and George Fitzmaurice (The Pie-Dish, and The Magic Glasses) and not in reference to ancient folk rituals (Fitz-Simon, p.159).  It is worth mentioning at this stage that there have also been, in recent years, some mainstream plays which, while referred to as folk-plays because of their rural setting and use of speech, also contain references to some of the ritual customs of folk drama.  Bodhran (Irish hand drum) playing as rhythmic accompaniment to speech, a traditional element of the Wrenboys' performance, is featured in both Sive and The Bodhran Makers by John B Keane, and At the Black Pig's Dyke by Vincent Woods (to which we will return later) features a Mumming troup at the centre of the play's narrative.

Alternative forms of theatre variously known as Mumming, Christmas Rhymers, Wrenboys, Strawboys, etc., and collectively known as folk drama are still practiced today, albeit sometimes by revivalists, but in many cases as part of an unbroken oral tradition - 'entirely oral until about 1800, and dominantly so thereafter' (Gailey, p.67) - which stretches back hundreds, possibly thousands of years, to a date which cannot be fixed precisely by historical evidence as there is no surviving documentation or other source material from those distant times.  However, the fact that we cannot pinpoint an exact date for the origin of folk drama does not, in any way, undermine its importance as the oldest surviving form of theatre in Ireland and its implications for a revision of the role of theatre in Irish culture.


In his book Folklore of Birds A.E. Armstrong tells us that in the ancient folklore of many European countries, the wren was a sacred totem bird, slain and brought to life again as an analogy of the triumph of light over darkness.  He concluded that Wrenboy activities were derived from a very ancient Wren Cult which was brought to Ireland by megalithic builders during the Bronze Age.  In The Golden Bough, Sir James Frazer explores the possibility that Wrenboy rituals constitute a survival of ancient pagan rites - dances of probitation to fertlity gods.  When Christian missionaries first came to Ireland they did not eradicate the indigenous pagan culture but adapted some of its forms and usages to fit within the new Christian framework (Ó Croinin, p.35).  'The straw dressed dancers of some pre-christian ritual to a now unknown god, were weaned away from their original allegiance and function: instead they were turned to Christian purposes, to honouring St. Stephen' (De Fuireastail, p. 4).

Wrenboy activities are still practised in many parts of Ireland, particularly in the Munster counties of Cork, Kerry and Limerick.  On the festive day (most commonly December 26th) a group of singers, musicians and dancers (traditionally almost always exclusively men, but recently women have also participated) dress in disguise, usually involving straw hats, masks, skirts etc.  and travel through their locality carrying an effigy of a dead wren (these days usually a small box symbolising the wren's coffin, or a holly-bush on top of a pole symbolising the tree or bush in which the wren is trapped and captured).  A short dramatic text telling of the death of the wren and promising good fortune in return for donations for a suitable burial and wake is sung or chanted.  Donations in the form of drink and food (these days almost invariably money) are collected - in some versions the generosity of the hospitality is such that the wren is miraculously revived - and a wake party or ceili follows.

"They were titled as the wrenboys, and they'd have this little bird up, you know, in front on a board, one on the box, and Miss Funny would go then, when the whole rhymes would be gone through, the whole performance would be completed.  She'd go forward then to you.  If you were the occupant of the house, you gave your subscription to her then, your donation.  That was that.  And they'd leave peacefully." (Glassie, p.73).
The proceeds from collections were traditionally used for the Wren's Ball, a danceparty to which all who contributed to the collections were invited.  Any who hadn't contributed but wished to attend were required to make a contribution on the night.  The practice of donating at least part of the money collected to charity has become common in recent times.  In Cork city in recent years William Hammond, director of the renowned Cork Folk Festival, has organised a hardworking Wren troup who donate their proceeds to paying off any debts incurred by the festival.  In this way this group's activities are not only preserving an ancient tradition but ensuring continued provision for the cultural needs of the local community, a vital task to which the Irish government has repeatedly failed to respond.  This is a clear example of the performance of this folk tradition having both a social and political role.

There are many variations on the basic Wrenboys performance.  The number of participants may vary from a solo performer to as many as fifty or more.  The Wren's Ballad which is sung or chanted in jig time, usually to bodhran accompaniment is a basic essential of all performances:

The Wran, the Wran the king of all birds,
St. Stephen's Day was caught in the furze,
Although he is little, his honour is great,
Put your hand in your pocket and give us a trate.

Dreoilin, dreoilin where is your nest?
Its in the bush that I love best,
Behind the holly and ivy tree,
Where all the birds shall follow me.

As I was goin' down to Youghal,
I saw a wran upon a wall,
I up with my stick and I knocked him down,
Then brought him back to Mitchelstown.

Mister_______ is a very fine man,
It was to him we brought the Wran,
You'll have luck throughout the year
If ya give us the price of a gallon o' beer.

Raise up your glasses, your bottles and cans
We toast your subscription to bury the Wran,
Up with the kettle and down with the pot,
Give us your money and let us be off!

The dramatic content of some performances are limited to this song, while others may include a dramatisation of the chasing and killing of the wren, and even, on some occasions, the wren's miraculous recovery.  A local variation on the Wrenboys' ceremony performed annually in Dingle, County Kerry, includes 'combat' between two large groups of men (as opposed to between individuals in Mummers' plays).  'Ceremonial group combats, like this Dingle example, are believed by scholars to be very ancient, possibly dating back to the second millenium B.C.  Sham fights between the two halves of a town were known in classical antiquity, remaining alive until a recent period in certain parts of the ancient Roman empire' (Gailey 1969, p.84).

An essential part of the Wrenboys' performance is what has come to be known as the craic: mutual mockery in a manner which, in other circumstances, might be considered ill-mannered profanity, inversion of sense - i.e. treating otherwise serious matters as nonsense, pretence of insult etc.  All of this reminds one again of Bakhtin's description of carnival when he says that an ideal and at the same time real type of communication, impossible in ordinary life, is established:

All the symbols of the carnival idiom are filled with this pathos of change and renewal, with the sense of the the gay relativity of prevailing truths and authorities.  We find here a characteristic logic, the peculiar 'inside out' (a l'envers), of the 'turnabout', of a continual shifting from top to bottom, from front to rear, of numerous parodies and travesties, humiliations, profanations, comic crownings and uncrownings' (Bakhtin, p.11).
He continues to say that a new type of communication always creates new forms of speech or a new meaning given to old forms - 'When two persons establish friendly relations, the form of their verbal intercourse also changes abruptly; they address each other informally, abusive words are used affectionately, and mutual mockery is permitted' (Ibid, p.16).

So we see that the craic, the notion of which is so strongly associated with Irishness and an Irish national identity - the feeling that one belongs to what Benedict Anderson refers to as an 'imagined political community' - can be closely linked to this ancient Irish theatrical tradition.

Interestingly, this carnivalesque craic - the inversion of sense, mutual mockery etc. - is encountered in many of Ireland's most acclaimed mainstream theatrical works, the most obvious example of which is Synge's The Playboy of the Western World.  Concerning the character Christy Mahon, Synge inverts a tragically serious event (the murder of his father) with such ironic humour that, when Christy finds that there is an increasing amount of admiration resulting from each recounting of his story, he declares "I'm thinking this night wasn't I a foolish fellow not to kill my father in the years gone by" (Synge, p.93).

In describing the violent reactions to the first production of The Playboy of the Western World, Fitz-Simon asserts that 'the difficulty ... was that the 'country people' had not been laughed at to any great extent in their own comedies, because in Ireland a tradition of popular comedy like that of Moliere or Goldoni had not existed' (Fitz-Simon, p.154).  Now this somewhat patronising assertion may have seemed accurate in the context of members of the urban audiances of the time, but it was certainly not true for most country people who had been laughing at themselves without malice for centuries (at least), in the carnivalesque folk rituals of the Wrenboys and the Mummers.


During the Middle Ages the popularity of morality plays among the Anglo-Saxons spread from Britain to Ireland.  Mumming (from the German mummem - a mask), as practised in Ireland, appears to be a fusion of the basic elements of these medieval plays with the Wrenboy tradition, and is much closer in both format and presentation to mainstream theatre than other forms of folk drama:
Whatever its ultimate origins, it seems likely that when Englishmen and Scots colonized Ulster in the seventeenth century, they brought their mummings with them ... the play was given a home in Fermanagh because it bore similarities to Irish traditions like the wrenboys' procession, because it could be fitted into the contemporary culture.  Mumming was molded to become responsive in terms of the local semantic, to be useful in terms of local needs and wishes. (Glassie, p.135)
English Mummers' plays can be seen as what Boal means by the ruling class taking possession of the carnival theatre of the free people and dividing the people by separating the actors from the spectators.  The Encyclopedia of Living Traditions tells us that 'Christmas "disguisings", recorded at English and Scots royal courts throughout the later Middle Ages, were merely the aristocratic version of the ancient and widespread luck/fertility-bringing midwinter visits by supposedly unidentifiable beings' (Knightly, p.172).  The Standard Dictionary of Folklore, Mythology and Legend describes the Mummers of present day Britain as:
Maskers, in particular the English ritual maskers who enact an age-old play on Christmas Day.  The jumbled texts tell of St. George's victory over his infidel antagonist, of a doctor and a resurrection ...  The group of mummers springingly circle sunwise with sticks or wooden swords.  They now wear shredded newspaper overall coverings, probably at one time animal skins similar to the shaggy wild men of medieval Carnival' (Leach, p.761).
This description, with its similarities to Morris Dancing and the English and Scottish sword dances, has little in common with the activities of most Irish Mummers - except in County Wexford where the similarities to Morris of such competition troups as the renowned Banogue Mummers is strikingly Anglo-Saxon rather than Irish in origin.  However, the basic plotline of hero Vs. villain, death and resurrection, is virtually identical in both English and Irish Mummers' texts which are all, broadly speaking, the same, i.e. written to a formula.  The formula plotline is that a hero, in a Nationalist version St. Patrick, Daniel O' Connell , Parnell, Gerry Adams or some such iconic figure, engages in combat with a villain such as Strongbow, Cromwell, King Billy, Ian Paisley, or whoever is seen as the most easily recognised 'villain' of the day (a Loyalist version would simply have the roles reversed).  The villain kills or seriously wounds the hero.  A doctor is called who is an outrageous character performing the most incredible feats of 'surgery' with unorthodox 'medical' instruments such as hammers, saws, wrenches etc.  The hero then makes a miraculous recovery, a fool (a man in woman's clothes sometimes called Miss Funny or Biddy Funny) who has feigned outrage and bewilderment at the doctor's behaviour, now breaks into demented laughter and leads the collection of money.  As with the Wrenboys, the proceeds of the collections - food, beer and wine in olden days, money in modern times - is used for a Mummers' Ball involving the whole community.

The miraculous recovery or resurrection would be the end of the narrative of the play, so the narrative could not be said to amount to a great deal in terms of plot initiative and this could be interpreted as a possible explanation or excuse for its dismissal as 'proper' theatre by Irish theatre historians.  However, where elaboration does exist is in the nuances given to particular localities - a device which is not employed and thus not recognised by mainstream institutional theatre.  A mumming play written according to this formula might involve subtle changes from one locality to another, and often the nuance can change according to the very place of performance.  This is echoed in one of the lines which appears in most Mummers' plays - "The like of this was never acted on a stage" (Glassie, p.66), and Glassie's interviews with former Mummers show the extent to which the text of Mummers' plays were adapted from year to year, season to season, and even performance to performance:

A traditional play like the mumming though, is constantly adjusted, balanced, and made new to keep it fitting its times and places ...  The mummers' play was their own to perform, modify, or forget.  Their cultural identity lay partially in it.  It was amongst their geographical signs: it helped them locate themselves, eliminating anomie and giving precision to the idea of 'our district'.  Others in Ireland, in Britain, went out mumming, but no one else knew just their rhymes. (Glassie, p.75).
The performance itself is also radically different from institutional theatre where admission to a performance is allowed by purchase of a ticket.  The mummers would arrive at the door at night or at the end of the day, they would knock and their Captain (as the leader of a troup is called) would shout or sing out a request for permission to enter.  As soon as such permission was granted the troup entered the house and the performance commenced.  They might not always be invited into a house as there would be times when it might be inappropriate to have a performance in a house, e.g.  if children were asleep, or a sick person present, or if there had been a recent death in the family, or something else of such nature.  The important point here is that what instigated the performance was not the payment of money - the buying of a ticket - but rather the audience, the people in whose house the performance would be given, saying "Yes, come in and give your performance".  So the exchange of money was not the vital instigating moment for the performance - "The important moment is when the host gives permission to enter.  That response is crucial because people generally had no idea who these mummers were, they only knew that they belonged to the local community" (Pilkington, interview).

The mummer in disguise could be a relative or friend of the potential host, or could just as easily be someone he/she didn't particularly like or care for.  The relationship between the performers and the community was a kind of metonymic one in which the performers stood for anybody in the community, and in that sense the host's answer as to whether the performance should begin or not was an answer to the local community as a whole.  The matter of one person's 'word' or answer to a particular person or group applying to others outside that group - the 'word' is always half someone else's - is addressed by Bakhtin (as Volosinov) in Marxism and the Philosophy of Language:

The actual reality of language-speech is not the abstract system of linguistic forms, not the isolated monologic utterance, and not the psychophysiological act of its implementation, but the social event of verbal interaction implemented in an utterance or utterances' (Volosinov, p.94).
This is utterly different to the kind of rapport established within the institutional theatre, which is much more a metaphoric intercourse: you can see the identity of the actor on stage, you know that the actor taking the part of, say Hamlet, is not in fact Hamlet, but you imagine, or pretend, or suspend your disbelief for the duration of the performance.  It is a metaphoric exchange, and the relationship of the performance in the institutional theatre to the community, the specific audience it is being performed for, is completely different.  In fact, it is a basic assumption of the institutional theatre that the play doesn't take into consideration the specificity of the audience.
"So a play, such as Hamlet, is performed one night in Dublin and the next night in Cork, or Galway, or Athlone or wherever, an assumption of the institutional theatre is that those performances, for all intents and purposes, will be identical, that when you move the show from Waterford to Wicklow you don't suddenly change nuances in the narrative or elements of the narrative, you don't adjust the play according to the specifics of the situation, whereas in the folk drama tradition you do: you may refer to a character who is there in the house you are visiting, or to a local personality who would be unknown outside that locality." (Pilkington, Interview).
So folk drama is about consolidating the values of the community, about reproducing the local community and allowing it to continue.  Therefore it has a political as well as social value.

The Mummers' plays found in Ireland are an excellent example of the results of combining elements of an implanted Anglo-Saxon folk culture with indigenous Irish traditions.  This is precisely the type of positive effect to which Sean O'Faolain is referring when he speaks in terms of 'the great gifts brought to Ireland' by our invaders (O'Faolain, p.9).  Various elements of the Wrenboys songs/chants and the Mummers' plays have been used in the text of the others, e.g.  Mummers' plays often contain verses of the Wrenboys' Ballad quoted above, and a Wrenboys' performance might include such characters as the Doctor, Biddy Funny, a hero and a villain.  While most folk drama activity was by the poor peasants of rural Ireland who were predominantly Catholic, it was never an exclusively Catholic affair, sectarianism was not encouraged and political references were so nonsensical as to be obviously tongue-in-cheek - 'Generally, all of the mummers were Catholics, though a few Protestants might travel along with them, but they went to Protestant homes as well as Catholic ones and acted with a particular politeness at houses where they had heard they were not welcome' (Glassie, p127).  Some troups were so versatile and flexible in their improvisation that the hero and villain reversed rolls either by simply exchanging costumes or by swapping their appointed sections of the script in order to suit particular households and not give offence on religious or political grounds: e.g. in a Catholic house the hero would be St. Patrick, in a Protestant house the hero would be King Billy:

At a Roman Catholic home St. Patrick was seen to defeat St. George, but in a Protestant kitchen, using the same words, King William always defeated King James.  This sort of come and go within the acceptable range of characterisations in the folk play was not uncommon.  It is also obvious that anyone who claims that mumming was restricted either to Catholic or to Protestant communities, knows little of the tradition.  Indeed in mid-County Down, one mummers' group included people of every shade of political and religious belief, and they visited all the homes known to all their members.  (Gailey 1969, p.10)
There have been attempts to establish that the most common themes of Wrenboy ceremonies have evolved from Mumming and/or Morality Plays (De Fuireastail, p.4), but this is most definitely not the case, these themes predate medieval Mummingas by hundreds, maybe thousands of years, as Alan Gailey points out:
Sufficient material has now been collected to show that the theme of the Mummers' plays, death and revival, has been an integral part of a whole range of folk ceremonies in Ireland attaching both to seasonal high-points and to critical junctions in the human life-cycle, and that this theme was almost certainly well established in the country before the play texts were ever introduced. (Gailey 1968, p.16).


Wrenboys and Mummers are sometimes referred to as Strawboys.  However, actual Strawboy activity is usually unrelated to the Wren mythology or the Mummers' plays.  Traditionally Strawboys were quite simply individuals or groups of revellers who attended wakes or wedding celebrations in disguise to bring good luck to the families involved.  They were usually uninvited and just as they were believed to bring good fortune, it was considered unlucky to turn them away.  Strawboy activity as it survives today has changed considerably.  During the course of researching this article only three instances of such activity at wakes within living memory were encountered, and each of those were accounts of events which occured more than fifty years ago.  In County Clare Strawboy activity in conjunction with weddings is still relatively common, but the Strawboys no longer perform on the day of the wedding but rather at a ceili held to welcome the newlyweds back from their honeymoon.  As it is only over the period of the last three or four decades that the financial status of rural Ireland has risen enough for honeymoons to become commonplace, we can see that this is a recent adaptation of the tradition.  However this is a fine example of the manner in which traditional customs are adapted to suit national lifestyle and thereby continue to be relevant: a living tradition rather than a fossilized ideal preserved in a glass case in a museum.

I was fortunate enough to attend such a newlyweds' ceili recently in the historically renowned village of Kilfenora in County Clare.  At first it seemed no different to any public ceili one would find in any area of Ireland where traditional music and dance are still performed regularly, until the Strawboys 'invaded' the hall for a period of approximately twenty minutes during which normal dancing ceased while the Strawboys performed their ritual dance to honour the bride and groom.  Following the departure of the Strawboys the regular ceili recommenced.  Conversation the following day with the troup's leader John Vaughan (owner of Vaughan's world-famous traditional music pub and dancehall), revealed that his troup were kept very busy with weddings around Clare and that for larger 'dos' they would increase the size of their troup by bringing in reinforcements from the nearby towns and villages such as Ennis and Doolin.  Vaughan, who is regarded as one of the leading authorities and key figures involved in Strawboys' activities, stated that he knew of no Strawboy troup which performed at wakes any longer, nor could he remember the time when they performed on the day of the wedding itself.  When asked about Wake Games he admitted that he had heard of them but never actually witnessed any.

Fortunately there are numerous recorded accounts of Strawboys' rituals in books and journals which, though mostly out of print, are still to be found in public libraries throughout Ireland.  From these we find that Strawboys were generally made most welcome at rural weddings and wakes because of the entertainment contribution they made to the party.  This took the form of singing, dancing, games and buffoonary, often of an explicit sexual nature, as in The Bull and The Cow which Prim describes as 'too indelicate to particularize' (Prim, p.34).  W.G.Wood-Martin's description of the game Making The Ship quotes an observor who 'had the opportunity of collecting accounts of many wanton orgies which disgraced wakes, particularly in the province of Munster' (Wood-Martin, p.321).  Wake games such as Wrestling With the Connachtman and Cleas An Stoilin (in which shy or reluctant young women are pressurised to kiss disguised 'strange' men) are described by O'Suilleabhain in Irish Wake Amusements as being the final occasion when the living and the dead may enjoy each other's company, and an opportunity for the active participation of the community in many aspects of folk culture.  In The Irish Comic Tradition , Vivian Mercier describes wakes as the possible source of 'the Irish propensity for macabre humour' (Mercier, p.49), and wonders 'if Joyce fully realised how much of the grotesque obscenity of Finnegan's Wake ... was in keeping with the traditions of the Irish wake' (Ibid, p.52).  De Fuireastail describes a wedding party where a solitary Strawboy or Cailleach 'came uninvited ... but he was welcomed for his contribution to the merry-making: this took the form of general acting the buffoon and this he was able to do in a completely uninhibited manner because of the mask and the outlandish garb that so effectively concealed his identity' (De Fuireastail, p.4).  A reference to Strawboys in J.C.Walker's essay on Irish drama in Historical Memoirs of the Irish Bards, published in 1786, notes that 'the vulgar Irish of the present day exhibit, in many parts of the Kingdom, several awkward attempts at comedy at their wakes and weddings' (Walker, p.4).  Henry Morris believed that wake games 'came down in unbroken descent through all the centuries from the Cluichte Caointe, or 'Games of Lamentation', mentioned so frequently in our pagan Irish literature' (Morris, p.140).

The peculiar fusion of macabre and sexually grotesque found in many wake games is also to be found in the ancient Irish stone carvings known as Síle-na-Gig.  These are female figures with mask-like faces and grossly exaggerated genitalia which are thought to have originated as pagan goddesses of creation-and-destruction: once again the recurring theme of life-cycle.

Thus we see that Strawboy activity, like Wrenboys and Mumming, has been practised in Ireland for hundreds, possibly thousands of years.  As we have seen from the writings of Boal and Bakhtin, such ancient forms of folk drama are readily acknowledged for their importance in the cultures of other countries.  Why then does folk drama not receive such recognition in Ireland's theatre histories?  Is it because it is sometimes mistakenly believed to evolve from English morality plays rather than have ancient, possibly even pre-Celtic origins?  Such mistaken belief seems improbable, if not totally impossible, considering the extensive research into ancient Celtic mythology carried out by the guiding light of the Irish theatre Revival, William Butler Yeats, as detailed by Frank Kinahan in Yeats, Folklore and Occultism.  One can but wonder at the absence of any reference to folk drama in the accounts of Yeats and Lady Gregory's research into ancient rural Irish folklore: that a tradition of folk drama so ancient and so widespread should merit no reference whatsoever from people who were both folklorists and founders of the National theatre seems remarkable to the point of incredulity.

The Whiteboy Connection

However, there is one possible explanation for the non-recognition of the important role of folk drama in Ireland's cultural history: for a brief period at the close of the 18th century, Wrenboy rituals were linked with the activities of the Whiteboy movements.  Now if folk drama was seen as a possible 'weapon' of insurgency then one can understand how this might be a source of anxiety for the likes of Yeats and Lady Gregory whose aspirations for Ireland's future were not always quite as nationalistic as they might have us believe, and, whether we regard them as opportunistic manipulators propping up the Ascendancy or as Nationalist stalwarts, or any shade of political colour between or beyond these parameters, the non-political claim of their manifesto is self-contradictory - because a National Theatre must, by its nature, be political.

Michael Beame's book Peasants and Power: the Whiteboy Movements and their Control in Pre-Famine Ireland, which deals with insurgency at the close of the 18th / beginning of the 19th centuries, points out that, as well as folk drama playing a part in the cultural survival of rural communities, that there is an interesting overlap between the guerilla activity of the Whiteboys and the performance activity of folk drama.  They shared similar terminology: the head Mummer or Wrenboy would be called the Captain as was the leader of a group of Whiteboys; the Whiteboys also disguised their identity by wearing women's long white petticoats (hence the name), and would often cover their heads with straw bonnets or masks in a manner similar to the various forms of folk drama.  We know from surviving crime reports in the Linen Hall museum in Belfast that Whiteboy activity predominated at the same time as folk drama, i.e. at the seasonal festivals, and that it involved groups of disguised men visiting houses in the community attempting to elicit support and allegiance in the same way as the disguised Mummers and Wrenboys visited such houses to perform.  When you opened your door and there was somebody there asking you to swear allegiance, you didn't know their identity.  Just as your answer to the Mummers and Wrenboys was an answer to the community as a whole, so was your answer to the Whiteboys.

It is interesting then to see folk drama alligned with a particular kind of politics associated with rural insurgency, concerned with protecting a dispossessed group (at least in the early 19th century), and to look at that in contrast to the metropolitan theatre which was, by the early 20th century, becoming ever more popular, appealing to a more nationalist audience, albeit one torn between bourgeois nationalism and nationalist insurgency (Fanon, pp.119-165), and which is based absolutely on a metropolitan notion of politics, on a mainstream idea of political organisation.  In this context, folk drama is a valid theatrical tradition in Ireland which suffers occlusion and de-legitimization by Irish theatre historians who do not regard it as theatre as such because, for them, theatre is taken for granted as being the metropolitan institutional theatre, based in a building (which folk drama is not), and there is a political dimension to this as well - the metropolitan building-based theatre, is connected in its aesthetics, in its structure, in fact in every possible manner with a certain way of thinking about political organisation and that is the development of a bourgeois state ideology.

Protest and Alternative Theatre

Following the establishment of the Irish National Literary Theatre, between 1904 and 1907, the period of the strongest dissension and controversy associated with the Abbey Theatre, there were attempts to establish alternative forms of national theatres, e.g.  the Theatre of Ireland and Cumman na Gael.  In many standard Irish theatre histories if these groups are mentioned at all they are mentioned only peripherally as if they were only of marginal cultural significance.  In The Irish Theatre Fitz-Simon gives them no mention.  His summary of this period is typical of Irish theatre histories: 'From the death of Synge in 1909 until the destruction by fire of the Abbey premises in 1951 the outstanding Irish achievements in the theatre are the plays of Sean O'Casey (the more enduring of which were first produced at the Abbey), and the emergence of the Dublin Gate Theatre' (Fitz-Simon, p.160).  Yet these groups were actually challenging the ideas behind the Abbey Theatre and "were written out of Irish theatre history because they were incompatible with the central ideas of the literary theatre and with the maintenance of a social and political status quo which was one of, if not the primary interest of the Abbey" (Pilkington, interview).

It is interesting, at this point, to turn to to the contemporary moment, and examine how theatre is used for example by Republican communities in the North of Ireland.  In the early 80s, after the Republican H-Block protests, theatre was performed within the prisons as a way of developing a political critique of Irish Nationalism, which, on the one hand expressed solidarity with Irish Nationalist ideals, while, on the other hand, it allowed the possibility of dissent and discussion in a tradition which is notoriously suspicious of such discussion and dissent, fearing them as potential betrayal of the cause.  Theatre was used in West Belfast (Belfast People's Theatre and later the Belfast Community Theatre) and in the Bogside of Derry (Derry Frontline Theatre) as a forum of critique of Republican orthodoxies, and as a way of developing a political link between the prisons and the communities outside the prisons.  These various forms of protest theatre were also the community's response to the bourgeois ideology of the institutional theatre in the shape of Belfast's Lyric Theatre and Dublin's Abbey, and both the Irish and British governments' homology between state repression and the policing of aesthetic representation.  This latter point is well summarised by David Lloyd in Anomalous States: Irish Writing and the Post-Colonial Movement - 'To the monopoly of violence claimed by the state, corresponds the monopoly of representation claimed by dominant culture (Lloyd, p.6).

One of the essential considerations of theatre history is to analyse the relationship between the theatre and the community it serves.  The mainstream institutional theatre tends to make abstract its notion of the audience.  It deals with a sort of ideal audience.  In the early part of this century the idealisation of an Irish audience, can be seen as a primary motive for establishing the Irish Literary Theatre in the first place.  As Lady Gregory said "We hope to find in Ireland an uncorrupted and imaginative audience trained to listen by its passion for oratory, and believe that our desire to bring upon the stage the deeper thoughts and emotions of Ireland will ensure for us a tolerant welcome, and that freedom to experiment which is not found in theatres in England" (Gregory, p.63).  There is immediate conflict between that imagined uncorrupted audience and the experience of the audience itself which vociferates its objections between 1899 (Yeats's The Countess Cathleen), 1903 (In the Shadow of the Glen) and 1907 (Playboy of the Western World).  When people protested in the theatre at what they saw as misrepresentations of themselves, their objections were characterised as 'riots', i.e. as illlegitimate forms of expression.  In response Yeats called in the police.  So you had the D.M.P. (Dublin Metropolitan Police, known in the rest of Ireland as the Royal Irish Constabulary) literally monitoring the audience for illegitimate forms of expression!  Thus we see that mainstream Irish theatre of that time took for granted a certain mode of behaviour, and people acting outside of that mode are described not just as illegitimate, but as participating in riotous and violent behaviour.

If we then look at contemporary Irish theatre we see much the same thing happening, i.e. an imagined, idealised audiance is taken for granted.  Since the 1980s there has been a tendency to bring plays to the communities they are ostensibly written about, at least partly to gain kudos of legitimacy and authenticity for that production.  Examples of this theatrical strategy were the Druid Theatre which brought a production of Synge's Playboy of the Western World to the Aran Islands, and Frank McGuinness's elegy for the dead of Bloody Sunday, Carthaginians, which was daringly performed in the Bogside with relative success in 1992.  Both of these productions were seen as authenticating the legitimacy of their analysis.

However, a Druid production of the Vincent Woods play At the Black Pig's Dyke is very interesting both in the broader context of this article - as it is an institutionally orthodox mainstream play about Mumming - and as an example of a production of a play brought to the locality it was written about and rejected by members of the local community.  It was a most celebrated play in its first production, receiving the Stewart Parker Memorial Trust Award and the Belfast Telegraph EMA Award, but when it was brought from Galway to Derry it caused great offence to many people within the Nationalist and Republican traditions in Northern Ireland.  They felt that the play depicted IRA resistance to British rule and Nationalist communities as being tainted by a kind of endemic pathology which was very much linked in with atavistic rural traditions expressed most obviously through mumming.  There was a sense in which this play was regarded by Northern Irish Republicans as undermining and delegitimizing the validity of their whole struggle.

When the play was performed in Derry a group of people associated loosely, not formally, with the Derry Frontline Theatre company, decided to employ the methods of Augusto Boal's Forum Theatre (Boal, p.139), by which an alternative ending to a play could be legitimately added, and scripted a scene to add to the end of the play.  They concealed themselves in the audience at one of the performances of At the Black Pig's Dyke in Derry.  At the end of the play (and it is important to note that they did not interrupt the performance), but at the very moment the play ended they jumped on stage and attempted to perform the short scenario they had written to satirise the political intent of Woods' play.  The protesting, alternative actors wore Union Jacks under straw and looked like mummers, so they were in fact engaging in the mode of the play in order to best reply to this critique of their political intent.

Their act caused havoc, the Druid actors took fright thinking that it was a Loyalist attack.  One actor ran out of the theatre and hid in a building down the street.  The audience objected vociferously, slow handclapping and booing throughout the attempted alternative ending.  Other than the Druid actor's over reaction through misinterpretation of the intent of the protestors, it was a fairly well behaved and (arguably) well executed protest.  However, by the following morning the protest was condemned by Derry City Council and described by the various newspaper reports as a 'riot'.

So here we have an instance (like the early Abbey protests) where the mainstream theatre is attempting to abstract an idea of the community, brings that idea to the community to gain some sort of patina of legitimacy, and some of the community objects to its self portrayal and is immediately and wrongly condemned for its objection.  So in that respect we can see the theatre as a laboratory of consensus where one is expected to behave in a certain way as an audience member, i.e. passive, reverential, taking for granted the legitimacy of the meanings presented in the production, with no mode of objection to the performance other than witholding one's applause -

"The relationship between theatre and political protest in Ireland reveals the reactionary limits of the theatre as an institution, and indicates moreover that the development of a theatre of resistance depends ... on a repudiation of some of the social and cultural practices with which the theatre as a whole tends, at least in the West, to be identified.  Principal among such practices is ... the belief that theatre consists of a fundamental distinction between a repeated charismatic stage action, performed by professional (paid) actors, and an anonymous (paying) spectator whose role is to delegate power to the actors on stage who - in that moment of delegation - is simultaneously homogonised and isolated from her or his social and political context". (Pilkington, p129).
Thus we see that an examination of alternative theatre requires us to look at theatre protest and in the context of Irish theatre that has happened most significantly in Adrian Frazier's outstanding book Behind the Scenes, which is essential reading for anyone wishing to investigate an alternative view of Irish theatre at the beginning of the 20th century.  Unfortunately that book is now almost a hundred years out of date, and no one since has presented much reason to re-examine the Irish theatre and its place in the cultural history of Ireland.  Which, of course, was one of the main reasons for researching and writing this piece.


In the course of this article we have seen that folk drama and other alternative forms of theatre such as agit-prop (political protest theatre) have been unfairly dismissed by Irish theatre historians who seem to focus solely on the metropolitan model of mainstream institutional theatre.  Thus we can see the need, at the very least, to compile an archive of alternative forms of cultural expression both to compliment the existing archive and as a critique of the official canon.  Such an alternative archive would be in accordance with the famous theory developed by Walter Benjamin in his masterpiece Illuminations where he says that the great cultural artifacts of our time are those of the victorious, and that the cultural materialist, the marxist critic, will be someone who will need to look underneath these, look at what these cultural artifacts supress, read them against the grain, and look for the alternative forms of cultural expression which are occluded or overshadowed by the dominant forms (Benjamin, pp.245 - 248).

It has been shown that the community social intercourse element of folk drama and alternative theatre companies such as The Theatre of Ireland and Derry Frontline Theatre, attempt to get beneath the surface of matters of Irish interest, to provide an alternative view to the dominant one and thereby to subvert the mainstream institutional forms of theatre which are seen as the metropolitan model.

It has also been shown that the various possible explanations for the omission of folk drama from Irish theatre history are not valid: although folk drama does not conform to the expectations of the metropolitan/institutional theatre, it has both a valid social and political role as a form of alternative theatre; that in its oldest form - the Wrenboys - it predates colonisation of Ireland and thus cannot be degraded to the status of a mongrel colonial tradition; that the fact of its existence and importance as an alternative form of theatre may possibly have been suppressed by the Ascendancy elite who led the Revival who may have viewed it as threatening their vested interests; that although it may have been connected with secret societies such as the Whiteboys, it did not encourage sectarianism nor have a particularly Catholic or Nationalist agenda; and that the carnivalesque aspect of Folk Drama is a probable source for the craic, which is firmly established as a recognisable trait of the Irish character, even if some may view this as negatively stereotypical.

Ruarí Ó Caomhanach - 16.12.98

Article MT029

A Bibliography is also provided for those who will find it interesting.

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