Friday 23 February 2018

A bunch of ribbons and a little Wren Boy

Wren Boys: Cuala Press imprint of Dalkey's Ballad Sheet (No 4) with a drawing by hand-coloured Jack B Yeats
Wren Boys: Cuala Press imprint of Dalkey's Ballad Sheet (No 4) with a drawing by hand-coloured Jack B Yeats

Joe Kennedy

Wren Boys are not usually seen until St Stephen's Day and intermittently afterwards into the New Year.

But it seems there can be some quite early birds out there seeking the festive worms. In 1979, the Cuala Press imprint of Dalkey produced a delightful Ballad Sheet (No 4) with a hand-coloured drawing by Jack B Yeats, showing four youths tramping through the snow, mouths agape in song, the first boy bearing aloft a large holly bush.

One of the seven verses on the sheet goes: "I have a little box under me arm/A shilling or two will do it no harm/A shilling or two is a great relief/To the poor Wren Boys on a Christmas Eve." This is an earnest plea and an early one, and a hefty mark-up on the usual "penny or twopence to bury the wran" plea.

A note on the sheet (from Anne and Michael Yeats) informs that the words and music (two lines of staff notation) were "taken down from groups of boys singing this traditional rhyme from house to house on St Stephen's Day."

The note also adds, reassuringly, that "for many years a bunch of coloured rags or feathers hangs on the bush instead of the wren." Just a feather of difference between Christmas Eve and St Stephen's Day then. (The framed ballad sheet is displayed in the window of Ulysses Books, Duke Street, Dublin)

Fifty years ago, the Clancy Brothers and Tommy Makem included a Wren Boys segment in their act at Carnegie Hall in New York. Americans had never heard anything like it. This verse from the late Tom Clancy went : "As I was going to Killenaul I met a wran upon the wall/I up with me wattle and knocked him down/And brought him into Carrick town." The Clancys were from Carrick-on-Suir.

The Yeats ballad sheet goes: "I up with a stick and hot him a lick/And I knocked him into a brandy shop." This was as good an excuse as any to collect a bob or two. The sheet has another delightful verse: "The wren, the wren as you may see/Is up for height on a holly tree/A bunch of ribbons by his side/And a little wren boy will be his guide."

Another little wren boy, who became a famous poet, was profoundly affected by a wren encounter when once he peeped into a nest jammed with hungry fledglings.

The tiny creatures will seek heat and when Michael Hartnett found the nest of chirruping youngsters "they rose and re-alighted around my neck/Made in the wet meadow/A feather necklet…." This little event, he wrote, marked his beginnings as a poet. "Their talons left on me scars not healed yet."

The tradition of 'going out with the wren' was once raw in and claw. It eventually became sanitised but each year the birds had been killed and carried about by youths described by the 19th Century Wexford writer Patrick Kennedy as "riff-raff below buttermilk and many degrees under Mayboys and mummers."

Amhlaidh O Suilleabhain, a teacher and writer of Callan, Co Kilkenny, in 1829 called wren boys 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."

The killing of the bird and the parading about of its corpse was a pre-Christian ritual signifying the end of the old year. It continues to fascinate poets.

Carol Ann Duffy, the English Poet Laureate, at Christmas published The Wren Boys (Pan-Macmillan), illustrated by Dermot Flynn, a long poem described as a sprinkling of Christmas magic. The lore of the 'wran' is a long way from being buried.

Sunday Independent

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