Saturday 29 April 2017

A wren's feathered necklet for a poet

Country matters

WREN BOYS: Drawing by Jack B Yeats showing four youths singing in the snow
WREN BOYS: Drawing by Jack B Yeats showing four youths singing in the snow

Joe Kennedy

When the 'wran boys' burst through the door of the public bar in a surprise guerilla tactic it was obvious that the melodeon player was more than an enthusiastic amateur.

His fingers tripped to an outburst of cheering, shouts and foot-stamping in the wave of music that had begun outside. Fifteen minutes passed before there was any ease of tempo with calls for a verse of a song. Kelly from Killane gave way to The Boston Burglar and The Croppy Boy in a slipstream of patriotic sentiment.

And on it continued from the bewigged and blackened faces of the performers, singers, whistlers held together by the skill of the box-player.

Years before, in a place which drew jeers of derision when it was described as a village from a public stage, I was one of a group of burnt cork-smeared folk chanting to startled householders and propelled by fears of identity discovery. "The wran, the wran, the king of all birds, on St Stephen's Day he was caught in the furze; although he is little his family is great, rise up landlady and give us a 'trate. Up with the kettles and down with the pans, a penny or twopence to bury the wran..." And so it went.

Wren boys' entertainments from St Stephen's Day into the New Year belong to the heart of rural Ireland, especially, in some of my later memories, to Munster where even respectable businessmen would be actors and singers for the night's fun.

The melodeon player, who was from an established trad band, and his pals in the pub were from Leinster and the publican (who preferred listening to the playing of Fritz Kriesler) was a patient man although he once encouraged a street singer to move and entertain outside another bar!

'Going out with the wran' travelled the world via the Clancy Brothers as one conduit after a concert at Carnegie Hall in New York to the delight of an audience who had never heard anything like it.

"When I was going to Killenaule I met a wran upon the wall/I up with me wattle and knocked him down/ And brought him into Carrick town. Drolin, drolin, where's your nest/It's in the tree I love the best/The holly tree... where all the birds do follow me" (Tom Clancy).

There is a Cuala Press imprint with a hand-coloured drawing by Jack B Yeats of a ballad sheet showing boys tramping through the snow, mouths agape in song, bearing a holly bush. There are seven verses beneath, complete with some music staff notation. A motive for the activity is blunt: "I have a little box under me arm/A shilling or two will do it now harm." As Liam Clancy had once explained: "We were collecting for the funeral."

The barbarous practice of killing a small bird disappeared to be replaced by coloured rags or feathers on the bush. One Irish story had the bird tapping on a drum and alerting sleeping soldiers in the Williamite wars, considered a traitorous act. Poor bird! One boy was profoundly affected by a wren encounter when he peeped into a nest and the fledglings "rose and alighted round my neck and made, in the wet meadow, a feather necklet". This marked Michael Hartnett's beginnings as a poet: "Their talons left on me scars that have not healed yet," he wrote.

Sunday Independent

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