THE MUMMERS' TONGUE GOES WHORING AMONGST THE PEOPLE
The Mummers' Tongue Goes Whoring among the People is a project that I have been working on for some time. It currently exists as a group of six small figures that were modelled in wax, sacking and straw, then cast into bronze. The title is inspired by a verse from a poem entitled The Last Mummer by Seamus Heaney.
He came trammelled
in the taboos of the country
picking a nice way through
the long toils of blood
His tongue went whoring
among the civil tongues,
he had an eye for weather-eyes
at cross-roads and lane-ends
and could don manners
at a flutter of curtains.
His straw mask and hunch were fabulous
disappearing beyond the lamplit
slabs of a yard.
The origins of this project date back to the early '90s when I was working on Middle World, a sculpture that I continue to work on today. Whilst out buying the newspaper one Saturday afternoon, my eyes were drawn to this extraordinary image as I looked along the newsagent's shelf ‐ there, on The Times front-page cover was a powerful image of three people clad in masks which had slits for eyes and mouth. I assumed that the photograph was taken in Africa. Then I read the caption and realised that these 'straw people' came from Northern Ireland. I was astonished as I do not remember any mention of mumming when I was growing up in Belfast. Then again, everything at that time was segregated, and the city was very much the city and the countryside was 'the country' with its own customs.
I first saw The Armagh Rhymers perform ten years ago on Stephen's Day deep within rural Armagh. It was a remarkable winter scene: heavy snow had fallen upon a frozen grey landscape and the Mummers rhymed and sang their way from door to door, dressed in masks and skirts made from straw. They appeared primitive and other- worldly.
I have watched The Armagh Rhymers perform several times since. Through conversations with the mumming community and through my own creative journey, I have been trying to find the essence and the meaning of these customs.
For one member of the County Fermanagh mumming community, the act of mumming is very much about performing, through rhyme, rituals that 'put things right for future surety and mark the passing of time: the dying back of winter and the rebirth of spring.' Universal themes of death and resurrection come to mind.
These customs originated from an age when communities were at the mercy of the seasons, but what is their relevance in a modern digital world where much of what is demanded is met almost instantaneously by the touch of a button? If there is anything that the current pandemic has taught us, it is that we very much remain at the mercy of nature. Perhaps the mummers' tongue provides a space for us to reflect upon what is important in life, and what counts beyond the endless pursuit of wealth and acquisition of stuff that does not matter.
Along with my brother and friends, I watched The Armagh Rhymers perform two years ago in Andersonstown, Belfast, an area where Protestants may not have felt so welcome during The Troubles. As we stood in front of a terrace of houses, The Rhymers processed along the pavement and formed a ring on the grass. I looked across to residents that had gathered. As our eyes met, there was a split-second flicker of mutual recognition and understanding that we were once on different sides of a sectarian divide. Then someone came forward with an offering of mulled wine and biscuits. That moment of reconciliation is what gives depth and meaning to the rhyme and song of the mummers' tongue.
*Based on these small figures, I'd like to honour the 'Straw people' by shaping them large scale into permanent form and placing them on a hill in Ireland.