Pagan rites in capital’s heart mark festival’s rebirth

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WICKER-MASKED, antler-headed, ribald but also faintly disquieting, the Armagh Rhymers inhabit whatever space they perform in – be it stage, school or city square – with an air of otherworldly authority and a lineage that reaches back to pre-Christian, perhaps even pre-Celtic times.

This band of masked and musical mummers, formed in Northern Ireland during the troubled days of the mid-1970s, have performed in village halls, pubs and schools, as well as festivals in the United States, Canada France and Korea, and this summer they’ll take the stage, along with some other outfit called the Rolling Stones, at Glastonbury, giving audiences who probably won’t ever have seen anything like them a little whiff of good crack laced with a kind of commonsensical shamanism that has helped heal communities riven by sectarianism.

Before that, however, the award-winning folk theatre ensemble comes to Edinburgh on 4 May as part of the city’s newest traditional arts festival, TradFest. In the capital, they will perform and conduct a workshop, as well as joining with some more recently formed Scottish counterparts for a “Mummers’ Walk”.

Founder member Dara Vallely, the group’s concertina player, artistic director and general lord of misrule, traces the ancestry of mask-wearing performers as far back as the kind of antler-sporting shaman portrayed in French cave paintings. Ask him about the place of mummers in the 21st century and he says: “I think a tradition that has survived 30,000 years isn’t going to stop now.”

The tradition crops up, he adds, in such great Celtic legends as the Táin Bó Cúailnge – “the Cattle Raid of Cooley”. “Then you’ve things like dressing up for Halloween and carnivals, and over in Scotland you have the Galoshins play, and guisers and the Shetland skelkers. It’s very important to keep these things going because they’re part of everybody’s soul and everybody’s imagination.”

Moreover, he sees the Rhymers’ role as a healing one, using traditional arts of rhyming and music and a multicultural approach to help mend sectarian or other conflicts and traumas, a skill which has seen them invited to countries where there is community conflict.

This isn’t the Rhymers’ first visit to Edinburgh, but their presence underpins the broad approach of TradFest, bringing together traditional music, dance, storytelling and other areas for this new festival which replaces the city’s previous Ceilidh Culture. The TradFest programme ranges from such notable folk names as Alasdair Roberts, Karine Polwart and Nordic Fiddlers’ Bloc to storytelling sessions, walks, workshops and conferences at numerous venues including the Scottish Storytelling Centre, Queen’s Hall, Greyfriars Kirk and the Pleasance.

Meanwhile Stan Reeves, who was involved in reviving the folk drama Galoshins, once performed throughout Central Scotland and the Border country, is mustering a Scottish contingent to join the Rhymers for a Mummers’ Walk across the Meadows to an outdoor performance at Bristo Square. Reeves, who has been working with the Prestonpans-based storyteller Tim Porteus in presenting Galoshins there, describes it as “a mutation of the hero/combat folk plays which were and still are performed throughout Europe”. It is, he adds, related to the Robin Hood plays once performed throughout Scotland. The Mummers Walk, which will be led by its own “Abbot of Unreason”, is planned as a re-enactment of the kind of medieval parade which was once an integral part of burgh life.

Reeves also plans a Mummers Ball for the evening of 4 May, in the Counting House in West Nicolson Street, at which the Rhymers and the Mons Meg Rappers dance troupe will perform.

He and his fellow Mummers have performed Galoshins in pubs and schools, and as they re-enact the ancient, elemental tale, he says there are times, such as when the slain hero is brought back to life, when “you can hear a pin drop”.

• TradFest runs from 24 April until 6 May. For details, see www.scottishstorytellingcentre.co.uk/tradfest/tradfest.asp. Also see www.armaghrhymers.com and www.facebook.com/prestonpansmummers