Country Matters: When wren boys were low-life
IN the window display of an antiquarian bookshop there was a framed set of verses, with a snatch of staff notation, set under a Jack Yeats woodcut of a snow street scene of four youths singing with a heading, The Wren Boys and, at the bottom, Ballad Sheet No 4.
This got more than cursory glance from me and I went into the shop and bought it immediately. I can't remember the cost.
These particular wren boys look idealised in a way. Perhaps when Yeats sketched them their poor social image which was evident in the 19th Century had improved and wren boys had become more or less acceptable. This had not always been their lot. They were once deemed as "below buttermilk", a low-life crowd who went around town pubs with blackened faces and clothing disguise, singing ballads accompanied by harmonica or button-key accordion and then, most importantly, collecting money "to bury the wran".
The activities of wren boys usually began on St Stephen's Day.
The 19th Century Wexford writer Patrick Kennedy considered them riff-raff and in his Banks of the Boro said they were "many degrees under Mayboys and mummers".
Amhlaidh O Suilleabhain, a teacher in Callan, Co Kilkenny, wrote in his diary of 1829: "The rabble of the town going from door to door with a wren in a holly bush asking for money in order to be drunk later that evening."
In Cork city, Lord Mayor Richard Dowden railed against "these idle fellows of the county" and banned hunting of the bird for reasons of cruelty. As well, the wren boys were "read off the altar" in a sermon "as an excuse for begging and its consequent debauchery".
In the middle of the 20th Century I can remember some mature wren-boy groups, suitably disguised, still going from pub to pub but gradually schoolchildren began to take over and 'going out with the wran' became more socially acceptable.
But this was not universal and in Munster areas especially there were still a few wild lads on the road and they gave great entertainment when they burst, unannounced, into a pub to sing and recite.
The wren-boy recitations lived on. Some, to a patient housewife on a doorstep, would go: "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 treat/Up with the kettle, down with the pan/A penny or twopence to bury the wran."
The Tipperary-based poet Michael Coady could remind me, I'm sure, of the following: "As 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." The Clancy Brothers, from Carrick-on-Suir, many years ago recorded wren-boy and other folkloric pieces. On the Jack Yeats ballad sheet a particular verse was a reminder of simple rhymes heard in Carnegie Hall: "I have a little box under me arm/A shilling or two would do it no harm/ A shilling or two would bring relief/To the poor wren boys on Christmas Eve."
And to my loyal readers may a more prosperous New Year bring an extra shilling or two in the times that are in it ...