The Words We Use


Patrick Hennessy, writing from Clontarf, asks about the word mummering. This is what his mother called mumming. She was a Fingal woman and was a great follower of the Christmas mummers for which Swords was and is famous. Mummering is found in many of the dialects of England and is commonly used in Newfoundland, which got its mumming tradition from Wexford. My friend, Jim Parle of Drinagh, near Wexford town, who has compiled a great archive on the doings of the mummers in his county, recently showed me part of the text of a sermon given by the parish priest of Bannow in the late 1920s, in which mummering was condemned.

"It has come to my notice," wrote this saintly man, "that a blackguard mummering set has risen in our midst, contrary to the laws of our Church, with a variety of foolish tricks and silly manoeuvrings, in order to obtain food, drink and money by false purposes . . ."

The canon was ignored and mummering went on. A few years later, however, his church, bolstered by the passing of a Dance Halls Act, got its hands on the running of all dances in Ireland's rural parishes - and the might of the law was four-square behind the clergy in prosecuting those who engaged in the sinful and unIrish mumming, which didn't contribute a penny piece to the coffers of the church either.

The Carne Mummers were arrested for dancing on the street in 1935. As late as 1947, the local paper reported, "Patrick Fanning of Raheen, Taghmon, was fined £1 for a breach of the Dance Halls Act. Of the seventy people found watching mummers in a loft, fifty three had paid two shillings to play cards for chickens. Sergeant McEvoy prosecuted. For the defence it was stated that Mr Fanning's grandfather allowed mumming in the loft in days gone by . . ."

Oh, happy days! Mummer, according to Oxford, is from Old French momeur, early Modern French mommeur, from momer, a word of Teutonic origin, one who murmurs.

Another Christmassy word, Carleton's chirping, was sent by T. O'Neill from Dungannon. It means foaming, frothing, bubbling, used of drink. Used of birdsong, too, of course, this newish onomatopoeic word is first found in print in The Devil's Banquet by Master T. Adams in 1614.

No more than did the Canon of Bannow, Mr Adams would not have approved of mummering, this man who was troubled by "the unclean Sparrows chirping the voice of Lust on the housetops".

A Happy, chirping New Year to you all.

The Words We Use 3, a new collection of this column, has just been published by Four Courts Press at £6.95