“Shut up, you idiot! The day’s not over yet!”
Meanwhile, not far away ….
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.