The Broader Picture: Straw men of the border wars

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The Independent Culture
Since it opened in the autumn of 1992 in the tiny Druid Theatre in Galway, Vincent Woods' play, At the black pig's Dyke, has been on almost constant tour around Ireland, Britain and, moste recently, Canada. Next week it opens at the Old Athanaeum theatre as part of the Glasgow Mayfest.

Its success in Ireland may be as strange sign of hope. The black pig's dyke was the ancient ditch which marked the divide between Ulster and the rest of the Island, and the play's story of sectarian fury and brutal death is hardly optimistic. The hope, though, lies in its form, which revives the dying art of the mummers, the folk actors of the Irish countryside. Mumming slid in under the door of trbal animosity; the mummers' plays, with their bawdy pagan rituals of death and resurrection, were neither Catholic or Protestant, neither English nor Irish. One Ulster mumming company, for instance, when playing Catholic houses, enacted the defeat of St. George by St Patrick. In Protestant homes, however, they played the defeat of King James by King William.

During the troubles in County Fermanagh in the 1900s and 1920s, mumming stopped. In times when people retreat into fixed identities, its hidden faces and archetypal personalities have no place. When peace returned, however, the mumming plays were re-invented. As Peter Flanagan, one of the old Fermanagh mummers, explained to the American anthropologist Henry Glassie, mumming was revived 'to bring unity among them, and to show the opposite number that there was no harm in there. . .It broke down a lot of barriers. It changed public opinion altogether. If the mummin' had spread it - if more people had become mixed - it really wouldn't have develpoped as it has at the present time'.

At the Black Pig's Dyke is an eloquent statement about tribal war in the border counties this century. It presents itself as a mumming play, but it alos tells the story of Lizzie Flyn and Jack Boles, Catholic and Protestant, wife and husband, trying to annihilate the categories into which they are born and ending up being annhilated by them.

The costumes are thearical elaborations of the traditional mummer's garb, mad ef twisted straw, heather and sometimes tinsel. As in the original folk plays, all the mummers wear straw hats covering their heads and faces, except for the two who collect the money. Miss Funny (always a man in drag) and the Doctor (usually a woman). These straw men represent crops and fertility, just a s the muumming enact a death and resurrection that mimics the sowing and reaping of corn. At the same time, each plays a stock character such as St Patrick, Prince George, Beelzebub and Captain Mummer. At the Black Pig's Dyke retains the these costumes and characters, but adds a more sinister touch to the straw masks, suggesting the hooded faces of sectarian assassins.

The play ha played to full houses around the country, suggesting that audiences see in it something more potent than a mere reiteration of the horrors of sectarian conflicts. Somehow, audiences have been ready for the crossing of cultural and psychological borders that mumming entails. Even as it enacts the defeat of its spirits, At the Black Pig's Dyke honours the old Fermanagh mummers' efforts to 'bring unity among them'.

(Photograph omitted)

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