Monday 23 September 2019

John Daly: When Wren Boys take flight... that's the kind of karma I'll look forward to

Wren boys in Dingle last year. Photo: Domnick Walsh
Wren boys in Dingle last year. Photo: Domnick Walsh

John Daly

Truth be told, I've gotten mighty cautious around the whole hoo-hah of Christmas. Expectation on steroids and swaggering materialism have now become the season's way markers, a world where the wallet rather than the soul has become the modern monarch of misrule.

Put another way, it's all about the money, honey. And while he may be wearing a different stripe this time, there's definitely footprints of a new tiger in town - a reality underlined with 'Les Mis' tickets offered for €20,000 last week. Yet, despite our surrender to the rapacious allure of the high street, the best of Christmas is still be found in those ancient traditions still gamely clinging on even in the blitz of a modern e-world.

For those of us with rural roots, the Wren Boys of St Stephen's Day is one of those ancient rites destined to forever evoke the sentiments of a Christmas past even better than Dickens himself could manage. Men dressed as women paying homage to a tiny bird who's king for a day? After you for a hit of that funny cigarette, sir.

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Glorying as an inversion of the ordinary into the extraordinary, it conjures a weirdly wonderful world where man becomes woman, the king is a pauper and the humble wren reigns briefly as sovereign of the skies. Centuries before Boy George or Jean-Paul Gaultier concocted their psychedelic wardrobes, the Wren Boys arrived with conical straw hats dripping ribbons, cloth masks with ominously burned eye holes, inside-out jackets plugged with women's underwear and lusty male flesh accessorised with provocatively dangling earrings.

And completing the production values even Disney Studios might envy, these cross-dressers announced their arrival brandishing pitchforks topped with flaming turf sods and led by a captain holding aloft an enormous holly bush within whose red berries the tiny wren was tied.

"Although he was little his honour was great, jump up me lads and give him a treat/Up with the kettle and down with the pan, and give us a penny to bury the wren." The whole thing was nothing less than karma chameleon on the old bog road for your granny's generation.

Bad enough that authority saw the Wren as a dangerous counter-culture phenomenon, the event flirted with controversy in prodding the mores and morals of the times it passed through - chiefly in the form of notorious Wren Balls, conjured as a Celtic vision of Burning Man-meets-Glastonbury. With the money collected from the December 26 singing and storytelling, alcohol in barrels and bottles was stockpiled for all-nighters in remote barns, begun at dusk and never over until cock crow.

As expected, polite society denounced the "base and depraved behaviour by all the idle fellows of the country" - a moralistic imperative that surely made many a rebellious granny slip out her bedroom windows to mingle with those bad boys of the county. Regardless of its bacchanalian excess, though, the Wren Boy tradition stands as a reminder of an indomitable Irish celebratory spirit forged in an era when optimism was a commodity thin on the ground. In his ballad, 'The Boys Of Barr na Sráide', Sigerson Clifford put it neatly in perspective: "I'll take my sleep in those green fields when my life began/Where the boys of Barr na Sráide went hunting for the wren."

Good luck if you're in the front row of 'Les Mis' this Wednesday - I'll be taking my pleasure at a very different kind of theatre, and all for cost not measured in coin.

Irish Independent

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