The Tradition of Christmas Rhyming

John Hagan on the dying of an ancient art form, and where we can learn more about it

For centuries past, during the festive season, Christmas rhyming remained a steadfast, popular tradition eagerly anticipated in many parts of Northern Ireland.

During early December, and sometimes as late as Christmas Eve, parties of eight to ten young men, generally labourers or farmhands, would visit local homes, and pubs, to present ‘an entertainment’.

These groups of Christmas Rhymers could sometimes be a trifle boisterous, and their coming was occasionally 'regarded with trepidation by some elderly ladies or timid maid-servants'. But where did the tradition come from, who were these rhymers, and what kind of ‘entertainment’ did they present?

As with many Irish rituals, the real naissance of Christmas rhyming is something of a moot point, although anthropologists and folklorists have, over the years, furnished theories as to the source. It is now generally accepted – with dramatis personae such as Oliver Cromwell and Saint George, who appear in some versions – that rhyming plays, and their characters, were introduced in the 17th century by English settlers.

However, the plays may also exhibit a tinge of indigenous influence. The ancient practice of mumming, (communication merely by gesture and facial expression) from which rhyming is derived, can be traced back to King Conor (Conchobar mac Nessa), who lived at the royal fort of Emain Macha near Armagh around the time of Christ.

Our Scottish neighbours may also have had a hand in molding the tradition, as the extensive use of straw in the costumes of some rhyming characters may be reflective of the former straw-clad guizards (masked dancers) of the Shetland Isles.

Sadly, no matter the origins and influences, the proud tradition of rhyming in Northern Ireland has markedly declined, particularly during the last half century, to the point where the practice is now virtually extinct.

While rhyming performances always provided good, uproarious fun, their principal aim was to gather funds to assist local elderly or handicapped people. The donations collected would be spent on bags of coal, or hampers of groceries, to assist the neighbourhood’s less fortunate enjoy a happier and more comfortable Christmas. Any money left over was used to stage a community dance or social.

Rhyming troupes usually took great care with their dressing and make-up, although some were not so particular. Irrespective of which part of Ireland the play was being staged, costumes were generally fairly standardised. The doctor generally wore an old frock coat, with either a bowler or top hat. The character of Oliver Cromwell usually sported a cardboard false nose; Saint George, as befits his status, was attired in something regal and carried a wooden sword.

Jack Straw, as the name suggests, used plenty of straw in his costume (especially in west Ulster), and Beelzebub, who was often armed with an old brush, could wear anything – the more fearsome, the better. Saint Patrick, if he appeared, was normally attired in green, while Johnny Funny, habitually the smallest member of the party, was charged with the precious collection box, which was vigorously rattled to elicit funds from the captive audience.

The theme of rhyming plays is that of hero-combat, death and revival. In structure, each play consists of three phases, each usually lasting less than four minutes. Phase one features boasting and altercation between two champions, leading to physical combat and the slaying of one. A wonder-working doctor then appears to bring the fallen champion back to life. This resurrection is followed (phase three) by the appearance of a succession of characters, who deliver lines to encourage donations.

While Christmas rhymer presentations from various districts, such as east Derry, Forkhill (County Armagh), and west Tyrone, had much in common, they also displayed marked differences. In west Ulster, the plays were longer and more involved than those favoured in east Ulster. Notwithstanding the widespread nature of rhyming in Ireland, the practice was arguably strongest and most popular in Ulster.

Around south Down, performances were generally presented in farmhouse kitchens with each of the cast entering in turn, so that only at the end of the play was the entire troupe assembled in the room. However, in parts of Antrim, performers entered as a group, forming up in a line or semi-circle from which each player stepped forward to deliver his lines.

On completion of his discourse, each rhymer retreated to their original position. Almost without exception, performers were men or youths, but younger boys, or even girls, could became involved. Such was the case at Newtownhamilton Secondary School, County Armagh, where, in order to keep the tradition alive, I used to stage a play each year prior to the Christmas vacation.

More than 75 different play texts are known to exist in Ulster and Leinster, some longer and more involved than others. The version reproduced below, performed at Newtownhamilton, is relatively brief, and was sourced from Lawrencetown in County Down.

First rhymer:

Room, room, brave gallant boys,
Come give us room to rhyme,
For we come here to show you fun
Upon a Christmas time.
Act of young and act of grace
If you don’t believe what I say

Enter in St George.

St George:

Here comes I, St George,
From England I have sprung,
One of those noble deeds
In value to begin.
I fought them all courageously
Still I gain my victory.
Show the bloody man
Who dare you stand.
I’ll face him. I’ll cut him down
With my courageous hand.

Turkey Champion:

Here am I, the man who dare you stand,
And his courage is so great,
And with this sword,
I’ll make you snarl and quake.

St George:

What are you but a poor silly lad?

Turkey Champion:

I am a turkey champion,
From Turkey land I came
To fight you
The Great St George by name.

St George:

I’ll cut you and I’ll slice you
And I’ll send you back to Turkey land.
They fight with swords, during which the Turkey Champion is slain.

Spectators:

Oh doctor! Oh doctor!
Ten pounds for a doctor,
Is there not a doctor to be got?

Doctor:

Here am I, a doctor most pure and good, And with this medicine,
I’ll bring you back to life.

The Turkey Champion arises, and the doctor packs up.

St George:

If you don’t believe what I say
Enter in Oliver Cromwell.

Oliver Cromwell:

I am Oliver Cromwell
With my long copper nose.
I have conquered many nations,
As you may all suppose.
If you don’t believe what I say,

Enter in Beelzebub.

Beelzebub:

Here comes I wee Beelzebub,
And over my shoulder I carry a club,
And in my hand an oul’ saucepan.
I count myself a jolly old man.
If you don’t believe what I say,

Enter in Dibbly Dout.

Dibbly Dout:

Here comes I, wee Dibbly Dout.
If you don’t give me money,
I’ll sweep yous all out.
Money I want and money I crave.
If you don’t give me any money,
I’ll sweep you all to your grave.
If you don’t believe what I say,

Enter in Johnny Funny.

Johnny Funny:

Here comes I, wee Johnny Funny,
I’m the man who collects the money.
All silver, no brass.
Send your farthings to Belfast,
Get old weemin. Shake your feathers,
And do not think that we are blethers,
For we are here to show you fun,
Upon a Christmas time.

Johnny Funny shakes his box and offers it to the audience to collect small money donations. The entire cast then ends the performance in song.

The decline of Christmas rhyming in Ireland is undoubtly due, in no small part, to the advent of more sophisticated forms of entertainment, although some pockets of rhyming still exist, for example in south Armagh.

The Ulster Folk & Transport Museum near Belfast and the National Museum of Ireland in Dublin collect and exhibit rhymers costumes in an effort to preserve some remnants and reminders of a once proud tradition – worthy ports of call for those interested in learning more about it.

Image copywright of National Museum Northern Ireland.

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