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Fermanagh Mummer’s Ball

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The Mummers Ball is an integral part of Fermanagh’s cultural heritage around the Christmas period. Below is a summary of the variety of mummers dances held throughout Fermanagh and hinterlands, penned by Jim Ledwith from the Mummers Foundation. Also below are images of the mummers in Ederney area late December.

“We haven’t died a winter yet”

For many localities that had mummers going out and about performing the mumming play around neighbours houses leading up to and during the twelve days of Christmas, the highlight of course was the holding of the mummers ball. In Fermanagh the ball was called by many names such as a join, a spree ( after the Irish word spraoi- meaning a blow out) and also a lug. The term join was reflective of the ethos of all the mummers acting as one, collecting and counting the gathered monies together and collectively deciding on how the proceeds was to be spent. The term lug used in the Killesher area refers to the inordinate amounts of drink, mainly porter being drunk from night until morning.

Ederney mummers out and about  in North Fermanagh 2022

Mummers balls varied from area to area many of which were frowned upon by clergy. In fact, one priest from Blacklion took it upon himself on learning where the venue of the ball was to be held , destroyed the drink at the empty house that was set aside for the event. In Mullyneeny outside Derrylin, one local employer during the war years strictly forbid two local women in his employment to attend the ball but luckily for the record , they did and had a whale of a time according to an interview held with one elderly lady by Jim Ledwith, researcher with the Mummers Foundation.

In the vast number of cases the venue was the an empty house where, upon permission with the owner a fire would be struck up in good time, and a room set aside for a barrel or a half barrel of porter. A man who knew how to tap open the barrel was appointed to oversee the handing out of drink . Another room was set aside for the making of tea and ham sandwiches, usually the job of women married to the mummers. Depending on the amount of monies gathered the mummers ball which lasted all night may even have gone on straight to a second night. It was custom to invite members from houses who had given mummers money on the night of the house visit as the event was seen as one involving the whole community celebrating the end of the mumming season.

In Derrygonnelly, the night of the mummers ball was perceived as one where the mummers would burn the hats at the nearest crossroads on the way to the event as it was their night off after weeks of trudging the roads. In Florencecourt, the Old Gate rhymers as the mummers were known locally staged their mummers dance in the Old Gate hall on the 6th of January (close of Christmas) where they went onto the stage and revealed themselves on removing their masks. In Ederney , the mummers managed to secure an upstairs barn loft from a farmer who repeatedly told his wife that he had to regularly check that things were going well during the night whereas the reality was that he was being willingly plied with free drink each time he had checked on proceedings.

One of the most infamous mummers dances was Beatties Ball at the Blacksmith’s forge near Montiagh cross near Macken where the annual event was hosted by Sandy Beattie and brothers who were blacksmiths by trade. Earlier, they had used their horse and cart to go into Enniskillen in order to bring out the barrels of porter. A priceless poem on Beatties ball has been collected from the late Jimmy Magee that gives a real insight to the goings on and who danced who and who played what instruments.

Not all mummers balls however went according to plan and up at Marlbank the mummers were tracked by the customs in the snows smuggling barrels of porter for their mummers house join event .Neither did all sprees go peacefully and, on one mummers spree in a barn up on the mountain face of Aghayoule Mountain, Derrylin all war broke out over the opening up of a second barrel of porter. A resulting broken leg led to court proceedings in Newtownbutler Quarter sessions and damages were awarded against the offending party.

Mummers historian, Jim Ledwith believes mummers joins were a celebration of community together having got over the back of winter and neighbours simply enjoying the music and dancing and freedom before the clergy embarked on controlling dances being held in newly constructed parish halls. Having brought luck to households by performing the mummers play and being given money, the mummers returned this luck by organizing a mummers ball for everyone who had given. Good luck was therefore being encircled. In 2023 research will be undertaken to finally unearth the infamous song of Alfie Burn’s mummers ball in the Boho area.

LELP would like to thank Jim Ledwith and the Mummers Foundation for all the work they do in reviving the tradition of mumming within the younger generation in the Lower and Upper Lough Erne communities. We would also like to thank the National Lottery Heritage Fund for their support with the Mummers project in Fermanagh.