A tribute to the amazing Armagh Rhymers

[This is taken from A Note from the Next Door Neighbours, the monthly e-bulletin of Andy Pollak, Director of the Centre for Cross Border Studies in Armagh and Dublin]

If I ever became Mayor of Armagh, the first thing I would do is to give the freedom of the city to the Vallely family. John B. Vallely is the best known of them, an artist who despite his international reputation has continued to live and work in his home place, and to draw inspiration from the traditional musicians and sporting heroes of the area. Like all the Vallelys, he also has a huge civic and cultural commitment to Armagh: he was a leading figure in founding and running the highly regarded Armagh Pipers Club; and in organising the William Kennedy International Piping Festival every November (both of these with his wife Eithne), and the Armagh International Road Race every February.

However for the purposes of this column, I am going to focus on the extraordinary work of his brother Dara Vallely, also a painter but better known as the founder of the Armagh Rhymers, who are carrying on an ancient tradition of masked ‘mumming’ that is mentioned in the Táin Bó Cuailgne (The Cattle Raid of Cooley) and is even depicted in the prehistoric cave paintings of south-west France. This unique theatre in education group now consists of three men – Dara, Peter Shortall and Steve Lally from Kildare (who joined them recently after the death last year of Brendan Bailey) – who put on around 300 performances in schools, theatres and cultural centres (and even at weddings) every year all over Ireland, in Britain, Europe and North America.

The group was born 32 years ago, when Dara brought together six unemployed men from the Craigavon area – all of them involved in folk music – to train to be mummers as part of an ACE community employment scheme. The others who attended this course were Tony Lavery, Paul McKerr and Tass MacAtasney. They started to tour schools in the Armagh area with their first folk plays. Their repertoire has now grown to 13 or 14 plays for adults and children, with names like The Enormous Turnip, The Navan Dragon and The Giant’s Garden. Their ‘Mummers Play’ can be performed with up to 80 children in a workshop format, and is in the form of a traditional County Armagh mummers show, including music and poetry by Seamus Heaney, John Montague and John Hewitt.

This is pure folk theatre, done for the love of the mumming tradition which is particularly strong in Armagh (and also in Kerry, where it manifests itself particularly every St Stephen’s Day with the ‘hunting of the wren’). It’s just as well, because throughout the 1980s the group received little or nothing in either official recognition or funding for their cross-community, cross-border performances.

In recent years they have received some of the recognition they richly deserve, with small but decent funding from the Arts Council of Northern Ireland, and from Foras na Gaeilge for their plays in Irish. They have also gained an international reputation, representing Europe in the World Childrens Festival in Seoul, Korea; and being seen on stages in France, Belgium, Germany, Canada and the US, where this year they will be a headline act at the Milwaukee Irish Festival for the 12th year. In Dublin they gave the first ever live theatre performance in the National Museum and performed in Croke Park and at the World Archaeological Congress in UCD. They have played at the Smithsonian Institute in Washington, the Hayward Gallery in London, the Palais des Beaux Arts in Brussels and Cité de la Musique in Paris.

Back in Belfast they have performed in schools from Ardoyne (where they used to be regularly stopped and searched by the British Army) to the Shankill Road, from Rathcoole to the Falls Road. Typically, they would go into a Protestant school on one day and invite the pupils from the local Catholic school to attend, and the following day would travel the short distance to the Catholic school and bring the Protestant children with them (in the last week of January, for example, they were doing this in two townlands west of Castlederg in County Tyrone). In the past five years they have performed with or in front of more than 100,000 people – the vast majority of them in Ireland – including 70,000 children. They get their young audiences and workshop groups involved in their plays with the words: “we’ll tell you a story but we can’t do it without your help.”

Their latest two-part initiative is a partnership with the Armagh Observatory. The first part, organized with astronomer Dr Miruna Popescu of the Observatory, brings together seven schools in the county to work on a play called ‘The Farmer of the Night’. The second, funded by the EU PEACE III programme, will link seven schools in the North and seven in the South, Protestant and Catholic, to work on a series of shows emphasizing the interconnectedness of science and art.

So where are all the newspaper features and radio and TV programmes about the Armagh Rhymers, the most widely seen folk theatre ensemble in Ireland? You will be hard pushed to find them. Our Belfast and Dublin-centred media are largely uninterested in the amazing creativity and child-centred theatrical output of three quiet men from County Armagh. But maybe it’s just as well: when Dara Vallely approached the Department of Education in Northern Ireland some years ago for support, the officials were full of praise for the group’s work. However they went on to advise them strongly not to draw attention to themselves, for fear that their daily routine of bringing schools together across the sectarian divide for mumming shows might lead to objections from the usual bigoted quarters and to the children being banned from seeing these extraordinarily life-affirming dramas!

Andy Pollak

  • buile suibhne

    Andy is so right, the Rhymers are Gems. I remember years ago sitting with them as they watched the Druid Theatre play: on the Black Pig’s Dyke. The play used mummers, masked men, as a metaphor for the other masked men that have threatened our society over the years. Seamus Tansey the flute player was a member then. seamus grew steadily apoplectic as the play and had to be calmed and restrained from this ‘attack on the integrity of the great mumming tradition’. I hope the mummers will not be a casualty of the £1m arts council cuts announced this week. They should be celebrated by all.

  • heamaisbharney

    many thanks for that, Andy, very interesting.
    Down in Kerry the ‘wren boys’ still perform in the old style.

  • Munsterview

    On a dismal night that so far seems devoid of any tolerance or vision, Andy’s article is a timely reminder that right through the Troubles there were a precious few like Dara that kept cross community, cross cultural linkages opened, often at considerable risk to their own personal safety. His courage and determination to share his vision, or rather the richness of a common past culture of Planter and Gale alike with an upcoming young generation cannot be overvalued in the seeds appreciation that it set for future cultural harmony. The insights and positive views of this culture that he brought to the Slumbering South at a time when our images of the North were that of Barricades and burning busses cannot be overstated

    This tribute to Dara in particular, to his brother, John Brian and to all that extended clan of mad, talented,generous musical Valley women and men is long over due. Long may their artistic and musical ways prevail !. I well recall that night in Belfast Castle celebrating John B, it was back in 91, not even the glimmer of a dawn to come yet on that heady night, differences set aside, all shades of religious and political opinions and believes mingled in an atmosphere of laughter and musical richness. Oh what even ten percent of the goodwill of that nigh could contribute, if present, in the current Stormount negotiations!

    These two poems were published in collections by a Southern Poet, in the early nineties as a tribute to Dara and to John B. I include them here for all the reasons given.

    Cave Hill Vision
    (for John B. Vallely, to mark his Belfast
    Castle exhibition, October 1991)

    In Cavehill gathered
    That small group of men,
    Had exalted vision
    Long before their climb,
    And could see far beyond
    Their quarrelling city
    To a bright future time,
    When Papist, Presbyterian,
    Proud Dissenter, Quaker,
    Walked the same road
    Of peace and love together.

    In a year of crops
    Left standing the
    Dream fell. But not
    Before the brotherhood
    Had forged forever
    A separate identity,
    Bought with their
    Own bright, red blood.
    Their dream sometimes
    Close as Easter day,
    Sometimes broken,
    Scattered as white stones
    That marked the resting
    Place of gentle Betsy Gray.

    And since, ebb, flow,
    But ever always a
    warm steady glow, their
    dream lives on still.
    And seldom closer in
    Sight than that magic
    Night, when Vallely
    Brought canvas and
    Music to fill, and set
    Their ghosts a-dancing,
    In the Castle of Cavehill.

    Armagh Visit
    (for Dara)

    Like an Arab house
    Turned inwards against
    The hot desert sands,
    The house stands inverted.
    Each open door a wonderland
    Of pottery and greenery,
    Of shelves that spill
    Their owner’s personality
    In disjointed fragments.

    On the table a book
    Opens to hand, Montague’s
    The Rough Field, and well
    I understand his preoccupation
    With past and future – the
    Present to be endured, but
    Not without questioning.

    Elsewhere in this town
    Comrades, and now
    Too, sons of comrades
    Patrol the long night,
    The nightmare without end.
    Always death, waiting
    Lurking, snatching, taking
    Soldier, foe, friend, with
    Same detached indifference.

    When all talk is done
    And said, here in the
    Open bleeding wound
    History is slowly made.
    Yet from oases such
    As this, of tranquillity,
    Births another kind of
    Victory and a people’s
    Certain future too.

  • cezza

    I Love the armagh rymers r.i.p to brendan Bailey (my granddad) dara is so funny they all are i love them so much “and if you dont believe what i say then enter in…. and he will clear the wayy”

  • Duncaolog

    Seamus Tansey has his faults but in this case he was right. The Armagh Rhymers are a kind of Irish burlesque. Their costumes or playacting has nothing to to with customs such as Wrenboys, Mummers or Strawboys.