'Just when you think the gang couldn't get any more raucous, Beelzebub pops out to borrow a bodhrán from the pub next door'


BACKSTAGE PASS:The Sidhe Gaoithe Mummers have fun with history. TARA BRADYsits in on a rehearsal for this winter’s repertoire

THE PARISH HALL in Grange, Co Sligo has something of Dr Who’s Tardis about it. How else might one account for the presence of William Butler Yeats, St Patrick, Brian Boru, Queen Maeve, the Children of Lir and the pirate queen Gráinne Mhaoil in what from the outside looks like a modestly proportioned structure?

This, of course, was mummer country long before Mr Yeats got here. Trace your finger across a map from here through Donegal and on to the Fermanagh villages of Derrylin and Kinawley, and it’s all mummer country.

Local practitioners have been known to keep themselves amused off-season by enlivening the occasional wedding party, but in this part of the world mummers mostly make merry at Christmas-time. Dressed in a spectacular jumble of defaced Halloween masks, old pyjamas and vandalised woollens, the faces of the Sidhe Gaoithe players are, today, mostly obscured as they attempt a dry run through this winter’s repertoire without corpsing.

Poor Gráinne Mhaoil is subsequently banished to the corner until she can make it through her verse recounting tea with Queen Bessie. It’s not easy being Wolfe Tone, one of the performers notes, when you were Dean Swift last year.

The aesthetic impact is eerie; for all their pantomime, the mummers’ faceless costumes remind the spectator that this is an ancient, pagan business. Across Ireland, mumming has been an integral part of the winter solstice for millennia. When the troop’s Dr Brown enters with a claim that “If there were nine devils within/I could drive 11 out” he’s actually reenacting a ritual from sympathetic magic that dates back some 4,000 years.

Unsurprisingly, Joe McGowan, the ringmaster at the centre of Sidhe Gaoithe’s festivities, cannot recall a time when locals were not thus employed.

“I’ve been going out since I was a kid,” he says. “No one here can remember a time without mummers. It’s a tradition that stretches way back into the distant past. It’s only in recent times that we’re starting to see it come under threat. Kids were made to feel foolish for going out when it wasn’t Halloween. It’s a great pity. But we’re still here for the moment.”

They most certainly are. Their rumbustious performance – a thrilling mash-up of codology, verse, set dances, fiddles, satire and sean-nós – offers a series of absurd comic delights. Beelzebub and St Patrick are making faces at one another in the back row. Fionn Mac Cumhaill is resurrected from the dead with the use of a stuffed animal syringe. Willie Yeats improvises a verse in tribute to this organ: “The Independent is sh**e/ But The Times is alright.” We can’t say we were previously acquainted with the alternate timeline wherein Brian Boru slays Fionn Mac Cumhaill with a wooden sword, but it definitely makes history come alive.

“It’s constantly evolving,” says McGowan. “On the way over I decided to add patches to Willie Yeats’s trousers just to make him a bit more raggedy. We’re doing some verse in Irish this year for the first time. It’s always this way. We add this and that as we go.”

In that spirit, Wolfe Tone will have to go home and fashion a tri-corner hat from cardboard and a few of the masks will need bigger mouth pieces in coming weeks. And just when you think the gang couldn’t get any more raucous, Beelzebub pops out to borrow a bodhrán from the pub next door. Welcome to mummer country.

The Sidhe Gaoithe Mummers are at the Museum of Country Life, Turlough Park, Castlebar, Co Mayo tomorrow