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Folk Play Distribution Map: Modern Times of Appearance

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yellow Christmas
lime January
red Easter
blue Halloween & All Souls
gray Other
   

This map is based on the 10km National Grid squares for which details of modern folk play performances are available. Each marker aggregates data for the grid square and may therefore represent one or several locations. Markers may have two or more colours if more than one season of performance is present in the grid square.

Introduction

This is a modern version of the map of traditional times of appearance, with which it should be compared. This map shows the geographical distribution of performances of folk plays in Great Britain and Ireland during the period 2001 to 2006, drawn from the events archive of the Traditional Drama Research Group's (TDRG) www.folkplay.info website. Because some groups perform at any time of the year, and most will occasionally perform out of season (e.g. on Saint George's Day), this map only shows their principal period of performance. January performances are problematic, especially those occurring early in the month. Are they early Plough Monday performances, or simply late Christmas or New Year events? Because this is difficult to ascertain, New Year and Plough Monday are simply grouped together here under January.

One needs to be aware that some subtle differences are at play wben comparing modern times of appearance with traditional times. Firstly, there are the time periods. The modern map covers a short time slice of six years (2001 to 2006) whereas the traditional map aggregates information from a period roughly from the late 18th century to the 1960s - around two hundred years. We therefore should expect the traditional distribution to be more comprehensive than the modern distribution. If we were able split the traditional map according to short periods, we would probably find distributions of similar extent to the modern map, or possibly smaller, because the plays have gone in and out of fashion over time in any given district.

The difference is that the traditional map represents towns and villages were the groups were based, whereas the modern map shows performance locations. Traditional groups typically performed in their home village, maybe visiting a few surrounding villages. As travel would originally have been on foot, the range of these tours was limited. Latterly, they may have used public transport to travel further afield. Modern groups commonly use motorised transport to get between venues, either cars or minibuses, and therefore may cover quite large distances. This means that individual groups have a larger footprint on the modern map, which could therefore be regarded as somewhat inflated. For instance, the patch of January performances visible in North Wales is all due to one group - Clerical Error. For more information on the geographical range of modern tours, see the report on the Winter 2008/2009 season, and the maps for Pace Egging 2009 and Souling 2009.

Observations

Most of the performers featured on the map folk revival groups, often associated with morris dance sides. The well known long-standing traditional groups such as Marshfield, Midgley, Uttoxeter etc., tend not to have submitted performance details themselves to the events list. Instead we have had to rely on submissions by interested third parties. Therefore the sparse modern distribution in areas that used traditionally to be well-populated with plays - such as Northern Ireland and southern Scotland - could be interpreted two ways. Either (a) the indigenous traditions are still strong there, but not reported, or (b) the custom has died down in those areas. The latter option seems more likely, although there is scope for further investigation.

Críostóir Mac Cárthaigh's report of his fieldwork for the "Room to Rhyme" project in the north of Ireland nicely illustrates both points (Mac Cárthaigh, 2008). In December 2001, he documented fifteen different groups active across his study area, none of which appear in the TDRG's list, with possible exception of The Armagh Rhymers. Including these groups (and the Mummers of Co. Wexford) would make the modern Irish distribution look healthier. On the other hand, his fieldwork shows that "The Troubles" of the 1980s and 1990s had contributed to a weakening of the tradition there, with groups needing to liaise with the police and cope with the paramilitaries in order to avoid tragic misunderstandings.

The apparent extinction of modern folk play performances in Scotland still requires an explanation, which I am not able to give here.

Looking at the distribution in England, the geographical extent of performances has both shrunk and grown. Plays were not performed in some areas where the tradition had been strong, notably Cornwall, Lincolnshire, and parts of Yorkshire and the North East. Conversely, plays are now performed in some areas where they have previously not been recorded, in particular East Anglia, parts of Kent, and north Wales.

In general, modern plays tend to be performed at the same seasons as their traditional forebears. This reflects a deliberate wish by many groups to perpetuate their local tradition. There is no such constraint (if such it be) in the virgin territories. Thus we have Clerical Error's January performances in north Wales, and some Plough Monday performances in Bedfordshire.

Conclusions

On the evidence of this map, folk plays are being successfully perpetuated in England at their traditional seasons of performance. The current situation seems fairly healthy even if there are fewer performing groups nowadays. This contrasts with Scotland, where it seems the tradition has effectively become extinct. In Ireland, the situation is more complicated, although early reports indicate that with the end of The Troubles folk drama is experiencing a renaissance.

Peter Millington

References

Críostóir Mac Cárthaigh (2008) Room to Rhyme: Irish Christmas mumming in transition
Border-Crossing: Mumming in Cross-Border and Cross-Community Contexts, ed. by A.D.Buckley et al
Dundalk: Dundalgan Press, 2008, ISBN 0-85221-147-7, pp.146-170

Master Mummers (2009a) Pace Egging Plays 2009
Internet URL: http://www.mastermummers.org/atlas/pace-egging-2009.htm, 2009, Accessed 14th Nov.2009

Master Mummers (2009b) Souling Plays 2009
Internet URL: http://www.mastermummers.org/atlas/Souling2009.htm, 2009, Accessed 14th Nov.2009

Peter Millington (2009) Folk Plays: Christmas, New Year & Plough Monday, 2008/2009
Internet URL: http://www.mastermummers.org/articles/Winter-2008-2009.htm, Feb.2009, Accessed 14th Nov.2009

Traditional Drama Research Group (2000-2009) Folk Play Research Home Page
Internet URL: http://www.folkplay.info/, 2000-2009, Accessed 14th Nov.2009

Traditional Drama Research Group (2006) Archive of Folk Play Performances - Index
Internet URL: http://www.folkplay.info/Performance/Archive.htm, 2000-2006, Accessed 14th Nov.2009

This map was generated using the Master Mummers Outline Distribution Mapper.
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© 2009, Peter Millington. (Webmaster: peter.millington@mastermummers.org). Last updated: 14-Nov-2009