THE SHAMROCK AND THE COLOUR GREEN – NATIVE OR FOREIGN IMPORTS INTO IRISH ICONOGRAPHY?

Diarmuid Breatnach

We are long accustomed to the association of these two symbols with Irish ethnicity and nationalism, the shamrock and the colour green, but historically can they be shown to be authentically Irish?

Shamrock closeup
(Photo sourced at Internet)

 

The shamrock symbol has been used by a number of products and services, including Aer Lingus, formerly the Irish national airline and now a subsidiary of the International Airways Group1. Both as a plant and a living symbol it is now being sold on the streets and in shops in preparation for the celebration of the male patron saint of Ireland, St. Patrick on March 17th. St. Patrick himself was a foreign import, albeit one seized unwillingly by Irish raiders. The son of a Romanised Celt it seems and probably from Wales, Patricius was kept as slave labour herding pigs until his escape but he returned as a Christian missionary and became one of the founders of the Celtic Christian Church in Ireland. 

We may view this as an amazing feat in itself – Ireland was one of the few European countries which went from the old multi-gods religion to the monotheism of Judeo-Christianity in a largely peaceful transition. However the Celtic Church at least tolerated and many would say condoned many of the laws and customs of the old culture, including marriage of priests, the right to divorce by men or women and a higher status for women than was common in an increasingly feudal Europe.

The word “shamrock” is an Anglic corruption of the Irish seamróg, itself a contraction of seamair óg, meaning a sprig of young clover. The Irish shamrock is usually the species Trifolium dubium (lesser clover; Irish: seamair bhuí), with yellow flowers or the white-flowered Trifolium repens (white clover; Irish: seamair bhán).

Children at schools influenced by the Catholic clergy in Ireland (which was and still is the vast majority of the schools within the Irish state) were taught that St. Patrick used the shamrock to illustrate the existence of the Christian Holy Trinity of the Father, Jesus Christ and the Holy Ghost, i.e. how there may be three different aspects in one entity, as in the three leaves on the one stem of the shamrock.

A charming story but clearly without any foundation whatsoever – not only is it not mentioned in what is believed by historians to be Patrick’s autobiography but the story only emerged much later. However, the crucial evidence against the veracity of the story is that neither the Gaels nor the Celts in general2 had any need to be convinced of trinities of gods: in Ireland we already had the Morrigan, a female trinity of Badhb, Macha and Anand and of course the Celts had the ubiquitous triskele symbol (surviving as the national symbol of Manx), to illustrate a trinity, religious or otherwise.

The first clear association of the shamrock with St. Patrick in Ireland comes in an account by an English traveller to Ireland, Thomas Dineley, who described in 1681 Irish people on St. Patrick’s Day wearing green on their clothes, including the shamrock. But the first account of St. Patrick’s use of the shamrock is not seen until 1726, when it appears in a work by Caleb Threlkeld, a botanist.

But what of the colour green? Surely that at least is authentically Irish? Well, it certainly has a longer pedigree. Dineley’s account in 1681 associates wearing green with the celebration of the feast day of St. Patrick’s, one of the three patron saints of Ireland3 (yet another trinity?). But the Catholic Confederacy of 1642-1652, an alliance of Gaelic chieftains with Norman-Irish aristocracy against the Reformation being imposed upon them, also flew a green flag, with a gold harp upon it.

The symbol of Ulster was the Red Hand from an ancient Irish myth of arrival but what was the backround? Both the O’Neills and O’Donnells, dominant clans of Ulster, have designs in red and blue against a white background. Only Leinster province has a design in green and yellow.

BLUE?

The colour of an old design for Meath is blue. There is an old heraldic design for Ireland of three crowns on a blue background and although this was the arms granted by Richard II of England to Robert de Vere as Lord of Ireland in 13864, over two centuries after the Norman invasion, it may have drawn on the colour of an existing Irish flag or design.

The Wikipedia page on the Coat of arms of Ireland, although commenting that heraldry is a feudal practice suggests an older inspiration:

The colour of the field is sometimes called ‘St. Patrick’s blue’, a name applied to shades of blue associated with Ireland. In current designs, used by the UK and Irish states (sic), the field is invariably a deep blue. The use of blue in the arms has been associated with Gormfhlaith, a Gaelic mythological personification of Ireland. The word Gormfhlaith is a compound of the Irish words gorm (“blue”) and flaith (“sovereign”); it is noted in early Irish texts as the name of several queens closely connected with dynastic politics in the 10th and 11th century Ireland. The National Library of Ireland, in describing the blue background of the arms, notes that in early Irish mythology the sovereignty of Ireland (Irish: Flaitheas Éireann) was represented by a woman often dressed in a blue robe.”

The designers of the Cumann na mBan flag may have been aware of the ancient claim of the colour blue when they made that the background colour of their own flag; Markievicz and Hobson would even more likely have been aware of it as well as the alleged flag of the legendary band of warriors, blue with an orange, golden or silver sunburst, when they made that the flag of the Republican Youth organisation they founded, Na Fianna Éireann.

THE GREEN FLAG

But what about the United Irishmen’s flag of green, with a golden harp? When talking about the United Irishmen we need to remember from where they received their ideological influences. These were mostly from radical and republican thinkers and agitators in Britain, the USA and France. The United Irishmen organisation was founded by Anglicans and Presbyterians, mostly colonists and settlers or their descendants and most of their leadership in the uprisings of 1798 and 18035 came from from among that section of Irish society. That goes a long way to explaining why most of the revolutionary texts of the time are in the English language, in a country where the majority even then still spoke Irish and with a rich literary and oral tradition in the Irish language.

United Irishmen harp motif with motto.
(Photo sourced at Internet)

There is a historical trend among colonists to feel disadvantaged with regard to their compatriots back in “the mother country”, to resent levels of taxation, to complain of inadequate representation and of corrupt or inefficient government. This occurred in English-speaking America and led to the American Revolution and the creation of the United States. It also occurred in the other America, where the Spanish-speaking colones developed conflicts with the Spanish Kingdom and eventually rose in rebellion against it across South and Central America, eventually gaining independence for a number of states.

A similar process was taking place in Ireland, where the disaffected who belonged to the established church, the Anglican or Church of Ireland, understood that to create a strong autonomous nation, even as part of the English-ruled unity of nations, they would need to bring into government the greater majority, the Presbyterians6 and even the overwhelming majority, the Catholics (i.e the native Irish).

Henry Grattan attempted this by trying to get the excluded denominations admitted to the Irish Parliament but Crown bribery, sectarianism or fear of having to return lands grabbed by their grandparents or others, combined to have a majority vote the proposals down. That ensured that the organisers of the United Irishmen realised that no progress to their objectives was possible without revolution.

Irish nationalists among the descendants of colonists often adopted Irish symbols and some other Irish identifiers as a sign of difference from the English. There was some interest in the Irish language but it does not appear to have been widely studied by most Irish Republicans of the time as witnessed by the incorrect appellation of “Erin” for Ireland – any Irish-speaker would know that Éire is the nominative form for the country and ‘Éireann’ is employed in the genitive and dative cases. United Irishmen were involved in organising the Belfast Harp Festival of 1792, while folk-song collectors and antiquarians dug among the people and archives for survivals of an older Irish culture.

The Harp, an ancient Irish musical instrument employed also to accompany poetry recitation was employed as a symbol by the Unitedmen — often with the motto “ ‘Tis new-strung and shall be heard”. In addition, the English had long recognised the instrument as a symbol for Ireland, albeit under the Crown.

THE COLOUR GREEN

But where did the colour green come from to be associated with Irish nationalism? This question could do with more research than I have the time or other facilities to devote to it but one may comment what green is not: it is neither the Red of Royal England nor the Blue of Royal France. Nor is it the red with a white salterre of the Order of St. Patrick, another colonial creation and clearly of Royal and colonial origin and patronage, created at the time of a bubbling of the nationalist pot in Ireland and only sixteen years before the 1798 Uprising.

Interestingly, the Irish Brigade (1688–1791) of the French Army did include the colour green in its flag design, four quarters alternately green and red, with a crown in each. And the standard of Napoleon’s La Légion Irlandaise in 1841is described as of “emerald green”.

Regimental colours of one of the irish Regiments of the French Royal Amy, De Berwick, until 1791. (Photo sourced at Flags of Ireland — see Further Reading for link)

 

William Drennan (1754–5 February 1820), United Irishman, is credited with first use of the description “Emerald Isle” in his poem When Erin First Rose and it was much later re-used in the ballad Bold Robert Emmet. John Sheils, a Drogheda Presbyterian and United Irishman, employed the harp, the colour green, St. Patrick, Erin (sic) and the shamrock all in his song The Rights of Man, which he composed some years prior to the 1798 Rising. The “three-leaved plant” which is “three in one” is used in Sheils’ song

to prove its unity in that community

that holds with impunity to the Rights of Man”

The trinity there is clearly the political one desired by the Unitedmen of Protestant (Anglican), Catholic and Dissenter (Presbyterian and other sects).

Green was widely worn by people with United Irish sympathies and particularly during repression by Orange militia, people wearing green were targeted. However, if one wanted to wear a suspect nationalist colour, how safer than to do so than on the feast day of the alleged founder of Christianity in Ireland and acknowledged by Protestant, Sects and Catholics alike?

From the United Irishmen onwards, green has been unarguably associated with Irish nationalism and Irish Republicanism, in the flags of the Fenians, the Irish Volunteers and even of the Irish Citizen Army, also part of the tricolour flag awarded to the Young Irelanders which is now the national flag of the Irish state. Green was also the colourof the St. Patrick’s Battallion that fought for Mexico against the invasion by the USA (1846-’48) and of ceremonial uniforms of some Irish formations during the American Civil War and the main colour of some of their regimental flags, also of the flags of the Fenian veterans of that war invading Canada in 1866.

Flag of the Irish Brigade (later the Fighting 69th) in the Union Army, American Civil War.
(Photo sourced at Internet)

Does it matter whether green is authentically an ancient Irish colour or not? Would Irish Republicanism or nationalism be de-legitimised if it could be proven the colour they are using was of dubious origin or of comparatively recent political significance for Ireland? I don’t think so. But it is good to be aware of the different origins of symbols and to question and even challenge what is handed to us as unquestionably authentic.

However, enough people have now fought under the green in eight uprisings in Ireland and struggles abroad; enough people have laid down their lives under the colour and indeed, once it became a symbol of Irishness, enough Irish have been persecuted, prosecuted and even executed for wearing it, to ensure that “wherever green is worn” can be Irish. And in that representation, the shamrock too, which of course happens to be green, and could be passed off as a devotional symbol to suspicious authorities and murderously insecure and sectarian minorities of colonial origin, has its place.

Painting depicting the Battle of Ridgeway, Fenian invasion of Canada, 1866. (Photo sourced at Wikipedia)

The Wearing o’ the Green

(by John Keegan “Leo” Casey (1846 – March 17, 1870). Keegan, known as the Poet of the Fenians, was an Irish poet, orator and republican who was famous for authorship of this song, apparently written when he was 15 and also as the writer of the song “The Rising of the Moon” (to the same air), also as one of the central figures in the Fenian Rising of 1867. He was imprisoned by the English and by a huge irony died on St. Patrick’s Day in 1870 at the age of 24).

O Paddy dear, and did ye hear the news that’s goin’ round?

The shamrock is by law forbid to grow on Irish ground!

No more Saint Patrick’s Day we’ll keep, his colour can’t be seen

For there’s a cruel law ag’in the Wearin’ o’ the Green.”

I met with Napper Tandy7, and he took me by the hand

And he said, “How’s poor old Ireland, and how does she stand?”

“She’s the most distressful country that ever yet was seen

For they’re hanging men and women there for the Wearin’ o’ the Green.”

So if the colour we must wear be England’s cruel red

Let it remind us of the blood that Irishmen have shed

And pull the shamrock from your hat, and throw it on the sod

But never fear, ’twill take root there, though underfoot ’tis trod.

When laws can stop the blades of grass from growin’ as they grow

And when the leaves in summer-time their colour dare not show

Then I will change the colour too I wear in my caubeen

But till that day, please God, I’ll stick to the Wearin’ o’ the Green.

But if, at last, her colours should be torn from Ireland’s heart

Her sons, with shame and sorrow, from the dear old soil will part;

I’ve heard whispers of a Country that lies far beyond the sea,

Where rich and poor stand equal, in the light of Freedom’s day!

O Erin! must we leave you driven by the tyrant’s hand!

Must we ask a Mother’s blessing, in a strange but happy land,

Where the cruel Cross of England’s thralldom’s never to be seen:

But where, thank God! we’ll live and die, still Wearing of the Green!

End.

John ‘Leo’ Keegan Casey monument, Glasnevin Cemetery, Dublin (Photo sourced at Wikipedia)

FURTHER READING

An undated interesting article about the origins of Irish national symbols (also giving a list of additional reading) http://www.gov.ie/en/essays/symbols.html

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_flags_of_Ireland

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Coat_of_arms_of_Ireland

Reference to colour green in the standard of Napoleon’s Irish unit La Légion Irlandaise http://www.irishtimes.com/culture/heritage/enlisting-for-my-enemy-s-enemy-1.1779145

and in some uniforms and flags of Irish formations in the Union Army in the American Civil War https://www.abebooks.com/book-search/title/new-yorks-fighting-sixty-ninth-regimental/author/john-mahon/ and

https://www.amazon.com/Rising-Moon-Peter-Berresford-Ellis/dp/0312006764

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Shamrock

About Leo Casey http://www.irishidentity.com/extras/gaels/stories/leocasey.htm

FOOTNOTES

1A consortium of Iberia, Vueling and ironically, British Airways.

2Nor indeed other cultures such as the Hindi or the classical Greeks

3Sts. Patrick, Bridget and Columcille

4It continued in use until 1541

5 And even many of the leaders, journalists and poets of the Young Irelanders and of the Fenians.

6And other “Dissenters” such as Unitarians, Methodists, Society of Friends (Quakers) etc.

7Napper Tandy was a United Irishman who lived in Dublin; his home is mentioned in the most common versions of the well-known Dublin song, The Spanish Lady.

A VERBAL HANGING IN DUBLIN’S THOMAS STREET

Clive Sulish

While eastbound drivers in Thomas Street on Friday 3rd March gawped, traffic slowed in the westbound lane to allow az small procession pushing a gallows, trundling along on wheels. There were surprisingly few witty comments, even the notoriously quick Dubliners too surprised to come up with a witty bon mot (or even a focal maith).

Diarmuid Breatnach outside St. Catherine’s Church, Thomas Street.
(Photo: /////)

The procession stopped at the Robert Emmet plaque, in the railing wall of the former Protestant St. Catherine’s Church, approximate place of execution of Robert Emmet on 20th December 1803.

Elayne Harrington, aka Temperamental MiscElaynous performing her piece outside St. Catherine’s Church, Thomas Street.
(Photo: D.Breatnach)

Despite continuous rain a small crowd had gathered on the pavement in front of the monument and the gallows, with a small platform less than a foot high, was placed facing them. Dublin artist Elayne Harrington, also known as the well-established street poet/ rapper artist from Finglas, Temperamental MiscElayneous, stood on the platform to announce that the event was to honour Robert Emmet and was a project as part of the Liberties Street Project, a continuation of the IPIP (In Public In Particular) program at the National College of Art and Design, Thomas Street, Dublin 8.

Harrington thanked people for attending despite the weather and, after outlining the program for the event, announced Diarmuid Breatnach, who took up position with the gallows and hanging noose just behind him.

Breatnach is best known as a co-founder of the Save Moore Street From Demolition campaign, maintaining a campaign table with a petition and leaflets on the market street for a few hours every Saturday but is also known as an acapella singer, particularly in Dublin traditional-folk circles.

Section of the crowd at the event outside St. Catherine’s Church, Thomas Street.
(Photo: D.Breatnach)

After thanking MiscElayneous for the invitation and the crowd for attendance, Breatnach proceeded to reiterate that the event was taking place very near the spot where, at the age of 25, Robert Emmet had been hung and then decapitated by the British colonial administration in 1803.

Harrington reminded him to stand on the low platform which Breatnach did, drawing a laugh from the crowd when he indicated the hanging noose and commented: “Me Ma always said I’d end up like this.”

Breatnach asked the audience to imagine the scene of the execution in 1803 and referred them to a painting of the scene available on the Internet, showing a huge crowd, with people looking out of windows in nearby buildings and mounted redcoats keeping the crowd back from the gallows. Many of in the crowd would have been supporters but the better-known would not have been there – they were in jail or in hiding.

The execution was carried out there, Breatnach said, because the whole Thomas Street and Liberties was known as a revolutionary area, which Breatnach went on to describe (see video below).

Elayne Harrington, aka Temperamental MiscElaynous performing her piece outside Stl Catherine’s Church, Thomas Street.
(Photo: D.Breatnach)

Executions, said Breatnach, have been carried out down through the ages on Irish people resisting invasion, colonialism and imperialism and fighting for social justice. The gallows have become an enduring image in Irish history and a number of songs (Breatnach mentioned ten from the 19th century up to the present) refer to it.

The state we have now, said Breatnach, set up in 1922, preferred shooting, which was the method by which it eliminated its opponents at the time, 81 of them in official executions. Hanging remained however in this state but the last execution was in 1954.

Breatnach stated that we are often taught history as a dead subject, something in the past to which we are largely unrelated but he believed history to be a living thing, in the stones of walls and streets, in the air and in the words people have left us. And in our songs.

Breatnach selected three songs that mentioned Robert Emmet: The Three Flowers, written early last Century by Norman G. Reddin (two verses); Bold Robert Emmet perhaps by Tom Maguire around 1916 but certainly published in 1934; and Anne Devlin in recent decades by Pete St. John. Breatnach sang the three songs one after the other with MiscElayneous accompanying on her bodhrán.

Diarmuid Breatnach outside St. Catherine’s Church, Thomas Street, talking about the radical revolutionary history of the area.
(Photo: ////)

During the applause which greeted the end of Breatnach’s performance, Elayne Harrington replaced him on the stage, thanked him and introduced herself as Temperamental Miscellaneous and spoke about her contribution, which was to be an extract of Emmet’s famous speech from the dock in the Green Street Courthouse, but re-worked into more modern Dublin idiom. Harrington then launched into a spirited rendition of her piece (see video below for the full performance).

No matter what words I utter, it’ll fail to change your mind and I wouldn’t have it any other way. You’ve made me a bed and I’ll lie in it. ………….

There’s plenty I could tell why my reputation should be kept clean from the utter lies and slander which’ve been lashed upon it. ……………

I wouldn’t dream that I could impress upon a court as trapped in its own self and corrupted, a fair impression of my character. …………………….

If merely dying was the case, after being deemed in the wrong and you in the right I’d take it on the chin and I wouldn’t breathe a word but that same law that not only wants to get rid of me also aims at filthying my name and sullying the memory of me. ……………..

In the hope that my memory won’t fade and that it might retain its honour among my brothers and sisters, I’ll stand up for myself and my integrity and weaken those charges against me. ……………

…. our cloths are entwined, mine and the martyred heroes of the gallows and battlefield, consecrated by sacrifice … for protection and guardianship of their homestead and their righteousness. ………..

This is what I hope: for my memory and name to serve those who live on by it being a source of empowerment …. witness the malignant malicious government that gains its false riches through sin alone, that treats a people as wolves to be domesticated and blooded to the taste of their fellows, to dance to their tune and to the death knell ……………..

Concluding the event, Harrington thanked the attendance and invited them to place small pots of growing flowers she had provided in front of the monument, which they did.

Stablising the scaffold outside St. Catherine’s Church, Thomas Street.
(Photo: D.Breatnach)

WHY THE EVENT?

What had led Elayne Harrington to choose this act as part of her course?

“I was interested in Robert Emmet and his uprising ever since I heard a Dublin tour guide dismiss Robert Emmet while briefly mentioning his uprising”, explained the rapper from Finglas.

“I came to think that although Emmet failed in his objective, he had attempted a brave and good thing and his speech was really impressive. His uprising attempt took place in the area where my college is and he was executed just down the road, so that’s how I came to think of this event.

“I’m thankful to my course tutor and fellow students for supporting me in this act and to another tutor who helped me with the construction of the gallows. I am grateful to Diarmuid Breatnach also, who has been very supportive and contributed to the performance and I was really glad that my Da was able to be here and help today too.”

Why did Harrington call this “the first of the verbal execution series”?

“I see this as an event that can be brought to other places – like the gallows I built, it is transportable” she says with a grin but then turns serious. “The performances can be adapted also to other occasions of which Irish history is full.”

We’ll be watching this space!

Elayne Harrington and section of audience outside St. Catherine’s Church, Thomas Street, looking eastward (in the direction of Dublin Castle, ten minute’s walk away).
(Photo: D.Breatnach)

VIDEO OF EVENT

(complete event outside St. Catherine’s)

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wJmb553yKf8

 

THE DESIGN OF THE NEW €2 COIN — AN INAPPROPRIATE IMAGE REVEALING A NOSTALGIA FOR THE EMPIRE?

Diarmuid Breatnach

The new €2 coin design is now published and the coins will themselves be put into circulation in the New Year. Designs were submitted and the winning design for the ordinary currency coin is by Emmet Mullin, while the design for the gold and silver special editions is by Michael Guilfoyle. Both designs incorporate the statue of “Hibernia” and that name is prominently displayed on one of side of the coin and although Guilfoyle’s design incorporates some words from the 1916 Proclamation, they are in the background to the representation of “Hibernia”. The image is taken from a the centre one of a trio of statues erected on the GPO in 1814, while still under British occupation.

Hibernia €2 coin 2016

One side of the new Irish coin

“Hibernia” was regularly used as an image to represent Ireland by “Punch”, a satirical racist British publication and she was always

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British penny showing the image of “Britannia” — a martial female wearing a crested war helmet, carrying a shield and holding a trident (perhaps to indicate domination of the seas).

shown as a pretty younger sister of “Britannia”, in need of her older sister’s protection (usually from the rebellious Irish, the despair of poor “Hibernia”). She was never in martial garb, unlike Britannia herself who was usually represented as a majestic and martial figure, with a crested war-helmet and shield and sometimes carrying a trident (perhaps to indicate domination of the seas).

That representation of Britannia appeared not only in the cartoons of “Punch” and other publications but also in sculpture — for example at the top of Somerset House, in the Strand, London – and also on many mints of British penny coins.

Of course, in British history the most likely model for the representation of a female fighter was Boudicca (“Boudicea”) who, after her humiliation and the rape of her daughters by Roman Legionnaires, raised her formerly pacified tribe of the Icenii against the Roman occupation and came close to driving them out of Britain. The irony is that the whole of Britain at that time was Celtic, as were Boudicca and the Icenii. But the English ruling class appropriated Boudicca into their English iconography as they did also with King Arthur and the Round Table knights.

Romanised and civilised

Ireland had many names among the Gael but “Hibernia” was not one of them. “Hibernia” was a late Latin name for Ireland, which the Romans had previously called “Scotia” (yes, “Scotland” originally meant something like “the land the Gael have invaded and settled and defend”).

The Roman linguistic connection is interesting – Irish Anglophiles and some English lovers of Ireland have been wont to bemoan the fact that Ireland was never conquered by the Romans. These commentators have tended to see Romanisation as civilising, forgetting perhaps the words of Rome’s own greatest historian, Publius Tacitus (or Gaius Cornelius Tacitus; c. 56–after 117 AD) who said that “they have created a desert and call it peace.” Calling Ireland “Hibernia” might be a way to bring that Roman conquest belatedly to the unquiet isle, to make her more “civilized” — in fact more like her neighbour and therefore more accepting of her neighbour’s domination and of her ways.

When John Smyth designed the statues to go on top of the General Post Office building in Dublin’s main street, then Sackville (but now O’Connell) Street, Dublin was widely considered the second city of the British Empire, next to London. The building opened to the public in 1818 but Dublin’s slow decline in status had already begun. Since the abolition of the Irish Parliament by the Act of Union in 1801, following the suppression of the United Irish uprising three years earlier, the Irish Members of Parliament had to go to London to take their seats, taking a great deal of political, commercial and social life with them. Irish landlords deserted their Irish estates in greater numbers, leaving them in the hands of their often rack-renting agents as the owners demanded more and more rents to keep them in their homes in Britain and their lifestyle there and in Europe. Throughout the 19th Century the social focus slowly followed the political to England – except where a militant nationalist one arose.

Hibernia only GPO

Statue representing “Hibernia” on top of the GPO, a martial female wearing a crested helmet, holding a spear and a harp.

Britannia Statue, Somerset House, Strand

Sculpture representing Britannia on top of Somerset House, The Strand, London city centre. She is a martial female wearing a crested war helmet, carrying a shield and holding a trident.

Submission or subversion?

Perhaps the representation of Hibernia by John Smyth, reflecting that of Britannia, was meant to show Ireland as equal in grandeur to her dominant neighbour. The Society of the United Irish had been part of a wider cultural movement that sought to explore and appropriate an older Gaelic culture for the colonists, many of them settled for generations on Irish land. Assertions of autonomy and complaints about English political and commercial restrictions had been part of that movement too and had found sharpest expression in the republican and separatist ideas of the United Irish. Some aspirations remained, severely modified. Perhaps it was John Smyth’s intention to show Hibernia as grand but there was no mistake about who was really in charge in Ireland, Hibernia or Britannia.

As if to underline the relationship, Smyth placed a statue representing “Fidelity” on Hibernia’s left on top of the GPO. What could that fidelity be, except to the Empire? Some suggest that because Fidelity holds the Key and is with the Dog, that she really represents Hecate. I know nothing about Smyth nor have I the time to research him at the moment but it is possible he was being somewhat subversive in that representation. Hecate had a number of earlier and later interpretations and the key seems to have appeared later – the key to the household perhaps but also to Hades, the Underworld.

On Hibernia’s right, John Smyth erected the statue of Hermes, known to us as the messenger of the gods but also representing commerce. Commerce, then as now, was the backer of military and political initiatives, indeed often the driver. Of course, many of the Irish bourgeoisie, both native and colonist in origin, wanted a successful commercial Ireland. But after 1798 and 1801, they were not going to get it. From then on, most progress for Irish finance would be made through investing in the Empire rather than in Irish industry and trade.

Whether the representation of Hibernia was intended as some kind of subject of Britannia with pretensions to something grander or was in fact just aping her better, dressing in her mistresses’ clothes when the lady was away, is a moot point. What is certain is that neither the image nor the name itself is of native origin.

The names for Ireland

As noted earlier, among the many names of the Gael for Ireland, “Hibernia” does not appear. The clan-based resistance had used Irish names to describe the land and this continued in the wars against Cromwell and William, with “Ireland” being the most common name when speaking in English by both sides of the wars.

The United Irishmen, a late 18th Century republican movement for independence led mostly by descendants of colonists and largely English-speaking, called the land “Ireland”1 or “Erin” (a phonetic representation of the Irish-language “Éireann”, the dative case of “Éire”). These names, along with “Éireann” later, continued to be those most often used by nationalists of the 19th Century, the Young Irelanders, the Fenians, the Land League, as well as by the various advanced nationalist and revolutionary organisations in the early years of the 20th Century2.

"Ireland" is named in a banner of the Irish Transport & General Workers' Union in October 1914, with the Irish Citizen Army parading outside.

“Ireland” is named in a banner of the Irish Transport & General Workers’ Union in October 1914, with the Irish Citizen Army parading outside.

This continued to be the case during the War of Independence and by both sides in the Civil War and was the case with the setting up of the 26-County state and with the various national resistance movements to that state of affairs since then. One finds “Hibernia” in the Ancient Order of Hibernians, of course and in the Hibernian Bank but they are exceptions – it is “Éire”, “Erin” or “Ireland” over all – and has been so for many centuries.

“Hibernia” is a foreign colonial import, both in terminology and in concept. She is poor image of her big sister on “the mainland”, the real boss. The use of her image and of her name is inappropriate to commemorate the 1916 Rising but their use may signify much more than an error – they may reveal a subliminal desire to return to the Empire, or at least the Commonwealth, in the psyche of those who were never all that sure they should have left it.

End

Links for sources:

The design of the new €2 commemorative coin: http://www.joe.ie/news/pic-take-a-look-at-the-winning-designs-for-irelands-new-2016-coins/511479

The GPO building and the statues: http://archiseek.com/2010/1814-general-post-office-oconnell-street-dublin/ among other on-line sources

Hecate: https://archetypicalwitchcraft.wordpress.com/2014/01/24/understanding-hekate-part-5-the-meaning-of-her-ancient-symbols/

About origin and personification of Hibernia: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hibernia_(personification) http://victorianvisualculture.com/2010/10/13/hibernia-as-the-other-ireland/ and despite perhaps its name and appearance a good concise but short summary in http://www.proud2beirish.com/Irelands-Name-Origin.htm

1“From my earliest youth I have regarded the connection between Ireland and Great Britain as the curse of the Irish nation …” Theobald Wolfe Tone

2Inghinidhe na hÉireann, Na Fianna Éireann, The Irish Citizen Army, The Irish Transport & General Worker’s Union, The Irish Volunteers, Óglaigh na hÉireann. Also, when the Abbey Theatre was founded by W.B. Yeats and Lady Gregory in 1904, they declared it was “to bring upon the stage the deeper emotions of Ireland”.

MY BASQUE FAMILY AND MUSHROOMS

Diarmuid Breatnach

Maribel Eginoa Cisneros died on the 13th of this August in the Santutxu district of Bilbao. She was many things – a democratic Basque patriot, dancer, choir singer, herbalist, mycologist, carer, wife, mother ….

I and two of my siblings travelled to attend the funeral. For me it was a farewell to a warm, intelligent and cultured person who, along with her husband, two of her daughters and a son-in-law, had been very welcoming to me. More than that or because of that, I thought of them as “my Basque family”.

Somewhere I have a Basque family related through blood and marriage but I don’t know them. Different loyalties and some German blood during the Spanish Civil War took my mother out of the Basque Country; the ties were cut and left behind. My mother became a woman in Madrid, where she met my father soon after.

Although they never met, it was because of my mother that I had first met Maribel. My mother, Lucila Helmann Menchaca (the Basques spell it Mentxaka), was born in Algorta, in the Getxo district, not far from Bilbao and spent her early childhood there. How her parents met is another story but Luci grew up bilingual in Castillian (Spanish) and German, with a Basque mother who hardly knew any Euskera (Basque) and a German father. All of Luci’s children, the five boys and one girl, knew of their mother’s childhood in the Basque Country and as we grew older, a desire grew with it to see where she had been born; each of us individually making the pilgrimage.

ONGI ETORRI – BASQUE WELCOME

I was a total stranger and low on funds on my first visit to the Basque Country. I had one contact, a woman I had met only a couple of times when she worked as an au pair in Dublin; she promised to help me get based and I arranged to phone her when I arrived. But the flight was delayed and then could not land at Bilbao airport – too much cloud, the pilot said – and we would land instead at Zaragossa, over 154 miles (248 Km) away. There the passengers had to wait for a coach and eventually arrived in Bilbao in the early hours of the morning. Of course, I had not booked an hotel, so the driver of the last taxi available tried a few without success and then brought me to the Nervión, a four-star hotel over its namesake river, dark and unlovely with a nightly rate that hit me in the gut.

Maribel and Ziortza on a visit to the Cantabrian coast

Maribel and Ziortza on a visit to the Cantabrian coast (Photo from Maribel’s family)

Next morning I phoned my contact, Ziortza and she came to the Nervión and waited while I checked out. I expected to be brought to a cheap hotel or hostel but was instead brought to her family’s home and there, for the first time, I met Ziortza’s parents, Maribel Eginoa and Josemari Echeverria (women don’t change their surnames now when they marry there). I was welcomed, fed and shown to what was to be my room during my stay. It was Ziortza’s, who moved in with her parents – the other two sisters lived in their own apartments with their partners and children. I was fed wonderfully every day too.

I was stunned by the depth of the hospitality from people I did not know, a trait I have encountered again and again among many Basques I have met. Nor was that all. Ziortza took me on her days off on excursions to some different places and towns and her sister Gurrutze and husband Gorka took me on a tour along the Bay of Biscay before turning uphill to iconic Gernika (Spanish spelling “Guernica”). Ziortza also gave me instructions on how to get to Algorta by local train, where my hand-drawn map could take me to where my mother had lived, a trip I preferred to make alone.

The next occasion I returned to Bilbao, this time to begin to know the southern Basque Country, I stayed in their apartment again, in the same room, but this time without discommoding them, since Ziortza had moved out to her own place.

 

THE UNEXPECTED ONE

Maribel and Josémaria were fairly comfortable and retired when I met them but they had some hard times behind them. Josémari’s father had been a Basque nationalist and fought against Franco, a fact that did not escape the victorious Franco authorities. When it came to time for the Spanish military service obligatory for males (much resisted in the Basque Country and now

Only a few months before her death (hard to believe) -- Maribel Eginoa

Only a few months before her death (hard to believe) — Maribel Eginoa (photo Maribel’s family)

abolished throughout the State), they sent Josémari to one of the worst places to which they could send the son of a Basque nationalist – Madrid. His superior officers took pleasure in reminding him of his father and of what they thought of Basque nationalists (or even Basques in general). For the couple, it was a difficult separation but they married as soon as he was finished with the Spanish Army. Maribel was 21 years of age.

Pyrenean landscape in Iparralde ("the northern country"), the part of the Basque Country ruled by France.

Pyrenean landscape in Iparralde (“the northern country”, the part of the Basque Country ruled by France). (photo from Internet)

In their early years together they often travelled to Iparralde (“the northern country”), the Basque part under French rule, with a Basque dance group called Dindirri. The French state has no tolerance for notions of Basque independence but does not harry the movement as does the Spanish state in Hegoalde (“the southern country”). Maribel was fluent in French as well as in Castillian.

Born ten years after the most recent of another four siblings, Maribel was the result of an unexpected pregnancy. “It was destiny,” commented one of her daughters. “The unexpected one would be the one to take care of everyone in the future.” One of Maribel’s siblings had died after a few days, another at the age of 19 due to surgical negligence, another had cerebral palsy. Maribel’s sister herself had an intellectually challenged boy and, when she emigrated with her husband and daughter, left him in Maribel’s care. As Maribel’s mother grew old and infirm, she took care of her too. Her brother with cerebral palsy, although in a home for his specialist care, spent weeks at a time in the family home. And another relative came to stay with them too, for awhile. Maribel looked after everyone.

Of course, her husband Josémari helped, as did her daughters. And they all accepted that this was how things were. And to add to that, the couple visited friends and neighbours in hospital.

LANGUAGE AND POLITICS

When I met Maribel and Josémari, I heard them speak to their daughters in Euskera — the Basque native language. But they themselves had not been raised speaking it – they went to classes to learn the language and raised their children with it. Speaking or learning Euskera was illegal under Franco except for some dispensation to Basque Catholic clergy. It was the latter who founded the first illicit “ikastolak”1 to teach Euskera and later these were set up by lay people too. The ikastola, teaching all subjects except language through Euskera, is now the school type attended by the majority in the southern Basque Country and is mainstream in the Euskadi or CAV administrative area, encompassing the provinces of Bizkaia, Alava and Guipuzkoa.

Most of "my Basque family: Front R-L: Aimar and Markel, Gurrutze's sons; Back R-L: Gurrutze, Maider, Josemari, Maddi & Ziortza.

Most of “my Basque family: Front R-L: Aimar and Markel, Gurrutze’s sons; Back R-L: Gurrutze, Maider, Josemari, Maddi & Ziortza. (Photo from Maribel’s family)

Under Spanish state repression the old Basque Nationalist Party was decimated and although still in existence, its youth wing became impatient with what they perceived as the timidity of their elders.  The PNV youth found a similar impatience among leftish Basque youth who had picked up on the vibrations of the youth and student movement of the 1960s. These youth brought to the table the narratives of anti-colonial and anti-imperialist struggles, mixed with socialist ideas of the Cuban and Algerian revolutions. Thus was Euskadi Ta Askatasuna (Homeland and Freedom) born — doubly illegal, as they espoused Basque self-determination and socialism. And so they were spied upon by the Guardia Civil, harassed, arrested, tortured, jailed … after nine years of which ETA took up arms.

Of the Spanish state’s main political parties today, the ultra-right Partido Popular and the social democratic PSOE, the first receives very little electoral support in the CAV administrative area and the second always less than the total of Basque parties. Maribel and Josémari, like most of patriotic Basque society, were presented with the choice of supporting the PNV (Basque Nationalist Party) or the Abertzale Left, the broad political movement of which ETA was a part. The PNV was known for jobbery and corruption and collusion with the Spanish state so of course Maribel and Josemari raised their family in loose allegiance to the Abertzale Left, attending many marches of the movement, public meetings, pickets and now and then hearing gunshots and explosions, hearing of people they knew going into clandestinity and others arrested, tortured and jailed. Everyone knew someone who became a political prisoner (and that is still largely the case) — a neighbour, work colleague, a past pupil. One of Maribel’s daughters saw most of her quadrilla – a small circle of Basque school friends who typically stay close throughout life – go to jail; part of her life is now organised around making visits to jails throughout the Spanish and French states, thanks to the cruel dispersal policy.

At the funeral service in the packed Iglesia del Karmelo in the Bilbao district of Santutxu, I remembered Maribel’s warm personality and hospitality. In fact it was around that hospitality that I unwittingly caused a rift between us. By the last time I returned to stay with them, I had become active in Basque solidarity work in Ireland. Beset with communication difficulties with the organisations in Euskal Herria (the Basque Country) and desperate for regular sources of accurate information, I was essentially based at their home while seeking out and establishing contacts every day. Maribel, as a considerate Basque hostess, wanted to know in advance whether I was going to be available for meals and I sometimes forgot to tell her when I was not. I also didn’t get into the Basque rhythm of lunch, supper and main meal. In my focus on finding needed contacts I just didn’t appreciate the distress I was causing and that it might have appeared, as one daughter told me, that I was treating her parent’s apartment as an hotel. In subsequent annual visits to Bilbao, staying with others, I tried to make amends but though we remained friendly, it was never as before. Some rips you can darn but the fabric is never what it was.

Iglesia del Karmelo, in Santutxu, Bilbao (photo from Internet)

Iglesia del Karmelo, in Santutxu, Bilbao

In Maribel’s funeral service, the daughters led the singing of the “Agur Jaunak”2; I had the words printed out but didn’t recognise the air at first so by the time I caught on, was unable to find the place to join in. The first time I heard it, sung in performance by Maribel and Josemaria in their choir in another church, the song brought tears to my eyes. The couple belonged to two choirs and had even performed abroad; for many years choirs had been a big thing in the Basque Country but are not so popular now. The Agur Jaunak is a moving piece of music and the final words of farewell, now laden with additional meaning, brought forth my tears at the funeral too (and in fact bring some to my eyes now even recalling it).

When I got back to Dublin I decided to write an article dedicated to Maribel. And to the Basque love of mushrooms. Maribel and her husband were both mycologists (students of fungi) and she was a great cook too. At the time the urge to write struck me, it was autumn, the optimum time for fungi, when the weather is still fairly warm in much of Europe, but also damp.

 

MOUNTAIN PEOPLE AND MUSHROOMS

The Basques imagine themselves in many forms but the most enduring is probably as a mountain people. Not all the country is mountainy, of course – it has lowlands along most of its coastline (yes, they sometimes see themselves as mariners too) and even some highlands are plateau rather than mountain. But. Mountain people, nevertheless. My mother told us that Basque patriots when they died were often cremated and their ashes carried up the mountains inside the ikurrina, the Basque national flag. On reaching the top, the flag would be shook out, consigning the ashes to the winds. The Basque irrintzi cry, like yodelling, is typical of methods that use the voice to communicate from mountain to mountain. Climbing is a popular sport and so is hill walking, often also done as a form of youth political and social activity.

Mundaka coastline in Bizkaia province on south-eastern coast -- with mountains visible behind

Mundaka coastline in Bizkaia province on south-eastern coast — with mountains visible behind (photo Wikipedia)

Even among Basques living on the coast or other lowlands, it is hard to meet a native who has not been to the mountains and high valleys and many go there regularly, sometimes in organised groups. One of the reasons they go, apart from reinforcing their cultural affinity, is to pick edible fungi. I am told that there are 100 edible species known in the Basque Country and that “between 40 and 50 varieties are eaten regularly”.3

As opposed to other regional administrations, a fee does not have to be paid in the CAV administration (three of the southern Basque provinces) to collect these mushrooms, although breaching rules can cost between 30 and 250 euros in fines. The regulations specify a collection limit of two kilograms per person per day and one is obliged to use a knife to remove and a wicker basket to store.

Sadly, illegal commercial operations have cashed in on the love of mushrooms in the Spanish state and gangs have been discovered recruiting poorly-paid migrants or unemployed natives to collect without a licence in administrations where such is a requirement, breaching conservation rules and running the risk of arrest. These gangs are less likely to succeed in the southern Basque Country, a society highly organised on a voluntary and local basis and in general quite conscious of the importance of conservation.

Display of edible fungi from the New Forest, England, showing the conservation-friendly collecting basked and knife

Display of edible fungi from the New Forest, England, showing the conservation-friendly collecting basked and knife (photo from Internet)

Further northwards, 25 km. from Iruňa (Pamplona), is the Harana (valley) Ultzama, a natural reserve, over half of it thick woodland. It is in Nafarroa (Navarre), the fourth southern Basque province.

A mycological park over 6,000 hectares has been marked out, a great luxury for mushroom-lovers. …. The park’s information point, in the municipality of Alkotz, indicates the routes where these mushroom can be found as well as information about the species and how to identify those that have been collected throughout the day.” The collection permit costs €5 per day and is available from the information office or on their website.4

The Basques go in family groups or groups of friends, knowing the edible types (or accompanied by at least one who knows) and they bring baskets, not plastic bags. The idea is that the spores of picked mushrooms will drop through the weave as they walk and so seed growths of new mushrooms further away from where the parent fungi were picked. It is actually illegal to go picking with plastic bags and though there are not many of them, the forest police will arrest people who break that law. In a nation overburdened with police forces, that force is the only one that seems free from popular resentment.

The best mushroom sites are kept secret by those who know and the location of those sites is sometimes handed down through generations. In a peninsula renowned for its types of food and preparation styles, Basque cuisine lays claim to the highest accolade. Yet it uses hardly any spices or herbs. Sea food is high on the cuisine list of course but so is the ongo, the mushroom.

On a Sunday in October 2010, I was present in Bilbao when Maribel and Josemari’s mycological group had an exhibition in a local square, where they also cooked and sold fungi. Josemari and Mirabel worked all day in the hot sun and then had their own feast with their group afterwards, though by then I imagine many would not have had a great appetite.

I was staggered by the number of different species of fungi native to Euskal Herria and their variety of shapes and colours — I was told by the couple, and can well believe it, that their association had exhibited just over 300 species in that exhibition, between edible, inedible and poisonous. This figure was down on the previous year, when they had exhibited 500! Apparently there are over 700 species known to the country.

I tried to imagine how many Irish people would attend such an exhibition in Dublin, even on a sunny day such as we had there — perhaps 20, if the organisers were lucky. The square in that Santutxu district of Bilbao was full, as were the surrounding bar/cafés. There were all ages present, from babies at their mothers’ breasts to elderly people making their way slowly through the crowds. The food was all centred around cooked edible fungi: shish kebabs of mushroom, peppers, onions; burgers made of minced mushrooms and a little flour; little mushrooms with ali-oli on top, served on small pieces cut off long bread rolls; big pieces of brown mushroom almost the size of the palm of one’s hand.

Street in the Casco Viejo medieval part of Bilbao, showing decorations for the Bilbo festival in August

Street in the Casco Viejo medieval part of Bilbao, showing decorations for the Bilbo festival in August (photo D.Breatnach)

The people queued for the food and those selling it couldn’t keep up with demand. And the people also, including children, queued to see the fungi being exhibited. Unlike the Irish, who doubtless also have varieties of edible native fungi in their land but have largely shown an interest in only the common white cultivated kind and, among certain groups of mostly young people, the ‘magic’ variety, the Basques love their fungi.

I ate some there in that square and again, with other food also, down in the Casco Viejo (the medieval part of Bilbo city), where some new friends took me de poteo (from bar to bar) and wouldn´t let me buy even one round. Many bars serve pintxos, small cold snacks, some plain enough and others more involved – normally one eats and drinks and pays the total before leaving. But some of those bars have a room upstairs or to the side where meals are served and one had an excellent restaurant where we ate well and, of course, my friends wouldn’t let me pay my share of that either. True, I had organised some solidarity work for one of their family in prison but all the same ….. When it comes to hospitality, in my opinion the Basques deserve the fame even better than the Irish, who have been justly known for that quality too.

Some of the company had been the previous day in the town of Hernani, where a rally convened to call for Basque Country independence had been banned by the Spanish state. Despite the judicial order, thousands of young people had participated in the rally and had been planning to attend the rock concert afterwards. The Basque Region Police had attacked the peaceful demonstration with plastic bullets and then baton-charged the young people. Many were injured by the plastic bullets, by batons, and by being trampled in the narrow streets when people tried to flee the charging police. It was an object lesson in the drawbacks to regional autonomy or “home rule”. However, the resistance had been so strong that the police eventually had to retreat and allow the rock concert to proceed without further interference. But that too is another story.

AGUR — SLÁN

But five years later, outside the church after Maribel’s funeral, I waited with my two brothers on the margins of the crowd. I saw some youth among the mourners, including Goth and punk types, presumably friends of Maribel and Josemari’s daughters. Most in attendance were of older generations, however. It was noticeable how prominent the women were – garrulous and assertive. There were of course representatives of various branches of the movement, who knew the couple personally.

Small section of the funeral crowd outside the church (photo D. Breatnach)

Small section of the funeral crowd outside the church with Gorka in the foreground in white shirt (photo D. Breatnach)

Inside the church I had already conveyed my condolences to Josemari, who had seemed amazed, amidst his grief, that I had travelled from Ireland for the funeral. I was surprised, in turn, that he would have expected any less; for me, there was no question – I’d have borrowed the money to go if necessary. His son-in-law burst into tears when I hugged him and that was it for me, my composure crumbled and we cried in one another’s arms. Now I waited for the crowd to thin so I could hug the daughters, the two who live in Bilbao and Maider, who lives in Gastheiz (Vitoria).
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I stayed in a friend’s house a couple more days, renewing contacts and making a few new ones, meeting some old friends and then it was back to Dublin once more. Agur to Euskal Herria and agur to Maribel Eginoa – a loss to her family, to her nation, to me and to humanity.

End.

Footnotes

1  “ikastola” = school or college; plural “ikastolak”

2  Agur translates as “goodbye” but can also be a greeting. The Agur Jaunak’s lyrics are short and simple; the song is performed usually a capella, in giving honour to a person or persons and traditionally everyone stands when it is sung. The provenance of the air is a matter under discussion but it is only the Basques who are known to have lyrics to it. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xNMaMNMpYEk is one of the best versions I could find on the Internet although there is a somewhat cheesy bit by one of the performers in it. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=d7Z8E-xhYTU is vocally another lovely interpretation sung unusually high although I dislike the crescendo at the end which is not the traditional way of singing it, which is to end on a low note.

3  http://www.micologica-barakaldo.org/Micologica_Barakaldo/index.html

THE MAROON TIDE

Diarmuid Breatnach

On 6th September 2015, the Galway GAA team played the Kilkenny team in the Croke Park national stadium.  I wrote this at the time but never posted it for some reason then and came across it to my surprise today.

Parnell s

Fans making their way along Cavendish Row and along Parnell Street on their way to Croke Park. (Photo D.Breatnach)

Fans making their way along Cavendish Row and along Parnell Street on their way to Croke Park. (Photo D.Breatnach)

Fans making their way up  O’Connell Street and along Cavendish Row on their way to Croke Park. (Photo D.Breatnach)

 

 

THE MAROON TIDE

A maroon tide swept through the city,

in numbers alone they would overawe

the wasp-coloured Kilkenny few.

“It’s on the field we’ll win the fight,

although outnumbered in the stands”

was the response of the Cats

to the mass of Galway fans.

And give them their due,

the final score proved them right.

The maroon tide swept out again

to coach and train and car

or hotel and bar.

A Galway fan wiped away a tear

and told me they’d be back next year.

End.

LÁ FHÉILE STIOFÁIN/ ST. STEPHENS’ DAY

Singing Wren 46 (Michael Finn)  ” We made it!  We made it!  Safe for another year!”

Wren on rock

“Shut up, you idiot!  The day’s not over yet!”

Meanwhile, not far away ….

Wren Boys SligoMummers Sligo maybe

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

THE WREN-BOY TRADITION IN IRELAND

In England it is called “Boxing Day” but in Ireland the 26th of December is “St. Stephen’s Day”.  Despite the Christian designation it has long been the occasion in Ireland for customs much closer to paganism.

It was common for a group of boys (usually) to gather and hunt down a wren.  The wren can fly but tends to do so in short bursts from bush to bush and so can be hunted down by determined boys.  The bird might be killed or kept alive, tied to a staff or in a miniature bower constructed for the occasion.

The Wren Boys would then parade it from house to house while they themselves appeared dressed in costume and/or with painted faces.  In some areas they might only carry staff or wands decorated with colourful ribbons and metallic paper while they might in other areas dress in elaborate costumes, some of them made of straw (Straw Boys) and these were sometimes also known as Mummers although a distinction should be drawn between these two groups.  The Mummers in particular would have involved acting repertoires with traditional character roles and costumes, music and dance routines while the simpler Wren Boys might each just contribute a short dance, piece of music or song.  In all cases traditional phrases were used upon arrival, the Mummers having the largest repertoire for in fact they were producing a kind of mini-play.

The origins of the customs are the subject of debate but a number of Irish folk tales surround the wren.  The bird is said in one story to have betrayed the Gaels to the Vikings, leading to the defeat of the former.  There is a Traveller tradition that accuses the wren of betraying Jesus Christ to soldiers while another tradition has the bird supplying the nails (its claws) for the crucifixion of Jesus Christ.  Yet another tradition has the wren as King of the Birds, having used its cunning in a competition to determine who would be the avian King, hiding itself under the Eagle’s wind and flying out above the exhausted bird when it seemed to have won, having left all others behind and could fly no higher.

By the 1960s the Wren Boy custom was beginning to die out even in areas where it had held fast but it slowly began to be revived by some enthusiasts.  Nowadays fake wrens are used.  Christmas Day in Ireland was traditionally a day to go to religious service and to spend at home with family or to go visiting neighbours.  It was not a day of presents or of lights or Christmas Trees, customs brought in by the English colonizers in particular from Prince Albert, the British Queen Victoria’s royal consort, who was German.  St. Stephen’s Day may have celebrated the Winter Solstice (the wren being a bird that on occasion sings even in winter) but moved to a Christian feast day; in any case it produced colour and excitement at a time which did not have the religious and commercial Christmas season to which, in decades, we have become accustomed.

The lovely song The Boys of Barr na Sráide from a poem by Sigerson Clifford takes as its binding thread the boys in his childhood with whom Sigurson went “hunting the wren”.  It is sung here by Muhammed Al-Hussaini (currently resident in London and part of the singing circle of Comhaltas Ceoltóirí na hÉireann, meeting in the Camden Irish Centre).  There are recordings of others performing this song well but the unusual origin of this one as well as its quality persuaded me to choose this one.  In addition, I had the pleasure of participating in a singing circle with this lovely and modest singer in London in October this year (see The London Visit on the blog), who greeted me in Irish.  Muhammed also plays the violin on this, accompanied by Mark Patterson on mandolin and Paul Sims on guitar.

 

ends.