We’re continuing the Homegrown Plus Premiere series with The Armagh Rhymers, one of the most celebrated traditional music and theatre ensembles on the island of Ireland. As is usual for the series, this blog post includes an embedded concert video, an interview video, and a set of related links to explore!
Since a group of talented actors and musicians founded the Armagh Rhymers in the 1970s, they have delighted audiences at festivals, arts centers, theatres, and schools, throughout Ireland and around the world. Through music, storytelling and drama, they provide an experience that is entertaining, educational and cultural. Their colorful costumes evoke a sense of tradition and history and encapsulate the spirit of the “wren boys,” young people who donned traditional disguises and went from house to house, entertaining their neighbors. In these ancient house-visiting traditions of Ireland, the kitchen floor became the stage. The Rhyming tradition is a form of folk drama, often called “the theatre of the people.” The Armagh Rhymers draw on the rich history of this traditional Irish culture, which has inspired generations of poets such as Seamus Heaney, Brendan Kennelly, John Montague, John Hewitt, Michael Longley, and Patrick Kavanagh.
In 2011 the Armagh Rhymers’ arts and science project ‘OASES’ received an international UNAWE award. Their projects on the Irish Famine and the Viking period in Ireland have also received critical acclaim. The Rhymers’ philosophy is that every person has a right to experience live music, drama, and the arts. A major focus of their work is to promote tolerance, inclusivity, and understanding through the arts, for as poet and rhymer John Hewitt noted, “Over us all is the self-same sky.”
By now, I’ll bet you’re ready to see their presentation of music, drama and rhyme. Watch it in the player below!
Our road to presenting the Armagh Rhymers began many years ago, in October 1996. At that time, I helped present the Rhymers as an assistant producer at the Folklife Center at International House, a now-disbanded folklife organization in Philadelphia. They inspired me at the time, and continued inspiring me over the years.
Our paths crossed again at the January 2020 Folk Alliance International meeting in New Orleans, when they burst into the exhibit hall with an impromptu performance that was the talk of the conference all weekend. This time my colleagues Thea Austen, Jennifer Cutting, and John Fenn were all able to experience their artistry, and the idea quickly arose of presenting the Armagh Rhymers in our series. The global pandemic interrupted those plans, but only temporarily.
Because of this long history with the Rhymers, I was very happy to interview them about their unique approach to traditional arts. See our wide-ranging conversation in the player below!
After the premiere, you’ll be able to find both these videos with more bibliographic information at this link on the Library of Congress website. You’ll also find them on the Library of Congress YouTube Channel.
If you enjoyed the concert and interview, check out the Collection Connections below. You’ll find links to archival collections, guides, and other materials related to Irish folklife, especially materials from Northern Ireland.
Extensive Field Collections Online
AFC’s Alan Lomax collection contains music collected from many traditional performers in Ireland in 1951 and 1953 by Alan Lomax, Robin Roberts, and Seamus Ennis. The first anthology of Irish traditional music to be assembled on an LP record was drawn largely from these field recordings. Included were a range of Irish-language song and story, including keens, baby-bouncing songs, and fiddle tunes. The collection includes performances by playwright and poet Brendan Behan, the peerless banjo player and singer Margaret Barry, and Seamus Ennis himself, among many others. Lomax continued to record Irish music in Britain, America, and elsewhere throughout his career. Over at the association for Cultural Equity, you can explore the collection in a number of ways. Start with this link, which will return a list of all materials in the Lomax Digital Archive labeled as Irish culture.
AFC’s James Madison Carpenter collection has a lot of folk drama from England and Scotland, which is related to the Irish Rhyming tradition. Carpenter only recorded a few mummers plays on wax cylinders, but he collected many play texts in manuscript and typescript form, made notes on the mumming plays, recorded some of the mummers’ songs on wax cylinders, photographed mummers, and collected drawings of the mummers by George Baker. All of the materials are online at the Vaughan Williams Memorial Library in England. Find James Madison Carpenter’s mummers play materials at this link!
Other Field Collections
A number of online field collections from the American Folklife Center have substantial Irish American content. Look for these in particular:
- Alan Lomax Collection of Michigan and Wisconsin Recordings (Contains Irish songs and tunes recorded in 1938)
- Chicago Ethnic Arts Project Collection (Includes Irish music from such notable figures as Liz Carroll and Michael Flatley; recorded in 1977 by Mick Moloney.)
- Lowell Folklife Project Collection (Includes interviews with Irish community leaders in 1987.)
- Montana Folklife Survey Collection (Includes music, songs, and interviews of the Irish ethnic community in 1979.)
- Rhode Island Folklife Project Collection (Includes recordings of interviews and music with Irish Americans in 1979, including notable piper Patrick Sky.)
Rediscover Northern Ireland 2007
In 2007, the American Folklife Center teamed up with organizations in Northern Ireland to produce the Rediscover Northern Ireland series. Programs included:
- a talk with pianist Barry Douglas of Camerata Ireland
- a lecture by John Moulden on the history and influence of the Sam Henry song collection
- a concert with traditional singer Rosie Stewart
- a concert with the Francis McPeake Family and past pupils from their renowned school in Belfast
- a symposium on Northern Ireland’s Place Names with Henry Glassie and Kay Muhr
- a concert with singer and guitarist Dáithí Sproule and Highland bagpiper Robert Watt
- a concert and lecture with flute player Gary Hastings and singer Brian Mullen
Rediscover Northern Ireland 2008
In 2008, we continued the series with more Northern Ireland programs. These included:
- a concert with Tommy Sands and his children Moya and Fionán Sands
- a lecture and concert with traditional singer Len Graham
- a lecture by Maurice Leyden on Weaving and Singing in Northern Ireland
Other Event Videos
AFC has presented scores of events over the years relevant to the Armagh Rhymers’ tradition, including lectures, interviews, and concerts with Mick Moloney, Billy McComiskey, Kevin Doyle, The Murphy Beds, Gearóid Ó hAllmhuráin, John Killen, and many others. Find a list of our online videos with Irish content at this link.
As I mentioned above, the Armagh Rhymers have been inspiring me for many years. In the mid 1990s, around the same time I saw the Rhymers for the first time, I myself joined a band of performers enacting a Christmas mummers play, one of the traditions at the root of the Armagh Rhymers’ tradition. After arriving here at the American Folklife Center, I joined forces with other staff members to organize our own mummers troupe, which has performed at the Library of Congress (or online during the pandemic) every year since 2009. We initially adapted the texts of our plays from our James Madison Carpenter collection of archival play scripts, and gradually adapted the plays to refer to contemporary events and library and archive concerns. We publish audio, video, and/or text of our plays right here on this blog.
Until Next Time…
Thanks for watching, listening, and reading! The American Folklife Center’s Homegrown Concert Series brings music, dance, and spoken arts from across the country, and some from further afield, to the Library of Congress. For several years, we’ve been presenting the concerts here on the blog with related interviews and links, in the series Homegrown Plus. (Find the whole series here!) For information on current concerts, visit the Folklife Concerts page at Concerts from the Library of Congress. For past concerts, including links to webcasts and other information, visit the Homegrown Concerts Online Archive.