The Mummers, Samhain, and an old pair of tights.

The Mummers (Image Source: Pinterest)

The Mummers (Image Source: Pinterest)

It seems that globalization has reduced the world to McDonald’s, Burger King, Starbucks, and Dunkin Donuts, and in the transition we may have lost traditions that made each country unique in its customs. One such custom is The Mummers, a very Celtic custom and ancient one too.

Although we associated it with Halloween, other parts of the country went on the mummers on New Years Day. It is a day that has become mixed with older traditions such as Wren Day and Straw Boys, both of which I will write about in a future post. For us in south east Galway, Halloween was the night we went on the mummers.

The first time I heard the phrase “trick or treat” was while watching Halloween with Jamie Lee Curtis. We did not “trick-or-treat” on Halloween in Ireland, not back in the 70’s or early 80’s. It wouldn’t make sense to say “trick-or-treat” anyway as no one gave sweets/candy to the children standing in the dark at the threshold of the front door.

We didn’t wear “costumes” that reflected major social events of the year almost past, and we didn’t buy masks either until the 80’s. That must have been when things started to transition.

Papier-mache masks being made (Image Source:

Papier-mache masks being made (Image Source:

We, at least those of us who grew up in the west of Ireland, did not go trick or treating, we went on the mummers. Our masks were usually an old pair of tights pulled over our heads, make-up applied grotesquely on top of it, we looked more like cross dressing bank robbers, come to think of it!  We wore old ragged clothes for costumes. If we did wear masks they were more than likely made with newspaper shaped over a balloon and molded and formed into facial features with a mixture of papier-mâché. They were then painted and eyes cut in, these were the masks we wore.

A Mummers Festival Parade in Newfoundland (Image Source: CBC News Online)

A Mummers Festival Parade in Newfoundland (Image Source: CBC News Online)

The Mummers is a very Celtic tradition and is still practiced with Mummers Festivals throughout the world in regions that profess Celtic origins. Areas such as Newfoundland have such a festival and it is growing in popularity.

Seeing as Halloween, Samhain, is a tradition that was born of Ireland, wouldn’t it be wonderful to see a resurgence in the traditional custom of Halloween, The Mummers. Instead of candy, sweets, traditionally we received money, mostly coins, and we went from door to door singing and playing musical instruments, reciting poetry or even telling stories. Then we went home, bobbed for apples, ate Barmbrack, played games with saucers of water, clay and a ring. Tell me if I missed one!

The custom of celebrating Samhain marked the end of the harvest season and the beginning of the winter. Cattle were slaughtered for the winter in order to prepare for the darker days ahead. Samhain is referenced in Irish myth as the day Cú Chulainn rode his chariot into battle.

Statue of Cu Chulainn dying with Macha in her crow-like form sitting on his shoulder GPO, Dublin (Image Source: Wikipedia)

Statue of Cú Chulainn dying with Macha in her crow-like form sitting on his shoulder GPO, Dublin (Image Source: Wikipedia)

In the picture to the left is the image of a crow, also associated with Samhain, an image of foreboding through out literature, Edgar Allen Poe’s The Raven, in film, The Virgin Spring. There is also the film The Crow with Brandon Lee. If you can think of other examples, please let me know.The crow or raven is a symbol of death in both examples given. And isn’t it amazing that we call a large gathering of crows a murder of crows?

In Irish Mythology Macha, an Irish goddess of war and horses, appeared to Cú Chulainn in the shape of a crow and told him he would die in  battle. That is why the statue of Cú Chulainn at the General Post Office in Dublin shows him falling, with a crow on his shoulder.

Wouldn’t it be great to see a return to the tradition of the mummers in Ireland, like the growing Mummers Festival in Newfoundland? It is traditions like the mummers that make a culture unique. Yes we can hold onto McDonald’s, Burger King, Star Bucks and you can still enjoy your Dunkin Donuts, but why should globalization alter unique holidays and customs? Don’t buy the mask, make it! Don’t go trick or treating, go on the mummers!


6 thoughts on “The Mummers, Samhain, and an old pair of tights.

  1. Hey Loretto! I always enjoy so much reading about other countries traditions. As a Mexican, I can very much relate to your plight. We have a very rich and beautiful tradition surrounding the Day of the Dead. For decades now, people in Mexico are fighting against the Halloween tide. It is a difficult fight, but one that so far we are winning… or at least not loosing. Like Don Porfirio Dias (a Mexican President) said, “Poor Mexico. So far from heaven, and so close to the United States.” 😉

  2. Hi Loretto, I so miss the old traditional Halloween where we used turnips and not pumpkins, where we just wore a self-made mask, the simple games we played to tell your future, dunking for apples and going to our neighbours playing an instrument or singing a song in return for a few coppers. “Trick or treat” is so alien to Ireland but that is all the kids know now…so amazing to observe how the Halloween of my youth has become the US version of horror and gore!!

    • I really dislike that we are losing the old traditions too Dolores. You have to admire the Newfoundlanders for holding onto these traditions with tenacity! The Mummers, maybe I need to write more about the mummers? Thanks for reading and commenting. Also, feel free to ask for pics of Portumna for the blog you are working on. I’d love to be a guest blogger too! Let me know when it is up and running!

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