Saturday 18 January 2020

Country Matters: King of the birds

Musicians led by Pat McEvoy from Rathcoffey, Co Kildare at the annual Wren Boys Festival in 2005. Picture: Steve Humphreys
Musicians led by Pat McEvoy from Rathcoffey, Co Kildare at the annual Wren Boys Festival in 2005. Picture: Steve Humphreys

Joe Kennedy

Bob Ryan was a painter who worked for a bank, much like the poet TS Eliot did before he went into a publishing firm. But Bob continued in his job, painting in his free time.

However, although he socialised with writers and newspapermen, he seemed an unlikely person who would "go out with the wran" on St Stephen's Day.

But this he did with his friend Con Howard, a public servant and diplomat, and others, banging bodhrans and traipsing from one port of call to another in Dublin 4 accompanied by an eclectic group of TV and radio worthies and the odd politician - all to raise some cash for deserving causes.

Both men have now passed on, as perhaps have others of those carol singers of yesteryear who paid homage to wren-boy memories of their rural youth.

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Many years ago in a Meath pub I remember an accordion drumming up a reel at the door before a ragged group burst in singing Kelly from Killane, The Turfman from Ardee and The Boston Burglar with mouth-organ and whistle accompaniment before a snap coin collection "to bury the wran" before disappearing into the night.

Wren-boy activities traditionally began on St Stephen's Day. There is a set of appropriate stanzas under a Jack Yeats woodcut of a snowy street scene of youths tramping along, singing their lungs out that I remember from an antiquarian bookshop. These lads look respectable but wren boys never got a good press in bygone days.

Patrick Kennedy, 19th Century Wexford writer, in his Banks of the Boro, described them as being "many degrees under Mayboys and mummers". Amhlaidh O Suilleabhain, a teacher from Callan, in 1829 wrote: "The rabble of the town going from door to door with a wren in a holly bush asking for money to be drunk later that evening." In Cork city the Lord Mayor spoke out about "idle fellows" and, ahead of his time, banned hunting of the little bird because of cruelty. The local clergy rowed in, describing such activities as "an excuse for begging and debauchery".

This became gradually effective and soon, rag balls and ribbons began to replace the dead bird-in-the-bush. The wren-boys still kept up their entertainment, however, and gradually schoolchildren began visiting neighbours' houses, much as at Halloween.

The seasonal recitations continued, in the folk tradition: "The wren, the wren, 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 wren."

On the Yeats ballad-sheet there are further simple rhymes: "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."

In the year past, readers have written to the Letters Page with kind messages about 'Country Matters'. I thank them sincerely as I do those regular contacts for sending information and phone images of sightings of interesting birds and animals. I wish a healthy and happy New Year to you all.

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