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

Andy Pollak retired as founding director of the Centre for Cross Border Studies in July 2013 after 14 years. He is a former religious affairs correspondent, education correspondent, assistant news editor and Belfast reporter with the Irish Times.

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