All Silver and No Brass: An Irish Christmas Mumming

All Silver and No Brass: An Irish Christmas Mumming

All Silver and No Brass: An Irish Christmas Mumming

All Silver and No Brass: An Irish Christmas Mumming


For the general reader as for the folklorist, this is a fascinating, vivid, and sensitive account that, through its portraits of individuals and of a community, offers a unique insight into a folk custom of the Christmas season.


Winter nights in Ireland are black and long. A sharp wet wind often rises through them. Midwinter is a time to sit by the fire, safe in the family's circle, waiting for the days to lengthen and warm. It is no time for venturing out into cold darkness. The ground is hard, the winds bitter. But for two and a half centuries, and possibly for many years beyond them, young men braved the chilly lanes, rambling as mummers from house to house, brightening country kitchens at Christmas with a comical drama. Their play, compact, poetical, and musical, introduced an antic crew and carried one character through death and resurrection.

Mumming has long intrigued literary scholars who imagine the play, so common in nineteenth century England and Scotland as well as Ireland, to be a lost wanderer from the Middle Ages. Conceivably, they dream, it attended at the mysterious birth of the European dramatic arts.

I met the mummers first in a book that was recommended in a fine course on medieval drama I took as an undergraduate. In those days my spare time was spent badgering old people along the North Carolina Blue Ridge to sing ballads into my tape-recorder. My interest was immediate. The stark intensity of the mummers' rhymes reminded me of the ballads. Although my main interests drifted elsewhere, I kept up with the scholarship on mumming and was delighted with the publication of Alan Gailey Irish Folk Drama.

In 1972 the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation awarded me a generous fellowship so that I could take time . . .

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